will recall that we have long known of a strange legend which told of
human remains and a woman’s shoe found by the island's first Gilbertese
settlers. Our 1991 discovery of a shoe matching the style and size Earhart
was wearing led us to suspect that at least part of the legend might
be true and that we had identified the spot where the bones had been
found. This past March, a meticulous archaeological examination of the
site produced a few more artifacts and the remains of a very old campfire.
Was the legend true? Was this where something tragic happened? Or were
we constructing a fantasy around unremarkable objects?
Then in June, World
War II historian and author Peter McQuarrie (TIGHAR #1987) was doing
research in the national archives of Kiribati in Tarawa when he stumbled
upon a file labeled “Discovery of Human Remains on Gardner Island.”
The file contained a series of 16 official communications between Gerald B. Gallagher, the resident British administrator on Nikumaroro
in 1940 and ’41, and various senior British officials. These previously undiscovered
documents confirm that a partial human skeleton, badly damaged by coconut
crabs, was found on the island in 1940 lying under a tree, with the
remains of dead birds, a turtle and a campfire nearby. With the bones
were part of the sole of a woman’s shoe, a Benedictine liqueur bottle,
a box with numbers on it which had once contained a sextant, and a sextant
component thought to be an “inverting eyepiece.”
the remains of being those of Amelia Earhart and reported the discovery
by radio to his superiors at the British Western Pacific High Commission
in Fiji. He was ordered to ship the remains and artifacts to Fiji for
analysis and to keep the entire matter “strictly secret.”
However, on the way to Fiji, the ship carrying the bones stopped at
the colonial headquarters in Tarawa where the senior medical officer,
with no information about their possible significance and feeling slighted
that he had not been asked to evaluate what he described as “wretched
relics,” confiscated the bones and pronounced them to be those
of an elderly Polynesian male who had been dead at least 20 years.
anthropologists have expressed the opinion that the accuracy of such
an identification by a colonial doctor in the early 1940s with access
to only a partial and badly damaged skeleton is highly suspect. Nonetheless,
based upon this casual dismissal, British officials dropped the matter
and the Americans authorities were apparently never notified. The file
contains no attempt to explain away the woman’s shoe, the Benedictine
bottle, or the sextant box. Gallagher died a few months later and the
mystery of the castaway of Gardner Island died with him, living on only
as a murky island legend.
From the documents
in the file, which will be published in their entirety in the new TIGHAR
Tracks, it is apparent that the place where the castaway was found
is, indeed, the very place identified by TIGHAR. The shoe we found in
1991 is almost certainly the mate to the one found by Gallagher and we
know that shoe to be American in origin, dating from the mid-1930s and
identical in style and size to Earhart’s. Our campfire is, likewise,
the one he noted at the site. We know that the remains and the artifacts
he found were eventually shipped to Fiji and we are now trying to determine
if they may still survive in some official repository there. Meanwhile,
we're doing our best to track down the numbers reported as being on
the sextant box. We already know that the presence of an “inverting
eyepiece” suggests that the instrument was for aeronautical use.
We’re also trying to push forward with the identification of the two
additional artifacts we found at the site this year – a small washer-like
object and a partially-burned fragment of what appears to have been
a can label.
Many, many questions
remain. Why only one skeleton? In 1991 we found two very different shoe
heels, indicating the presence of two pair of shoes and, possibly, two
people. Did one survive long enough to bury the other? Whose remains
were found? Who may still be buried nearby?
Whatever the questions
and whatever the answers, the discovery of Kiribati National Archives
File No. F13/9/1 represents the most dramatic archival find in the sixty
year history of the search for Amelia Earhart.