|Earhart Project Research Bulletin #21
|Signs of Recent Habitation?
There appears to
be photographic evidence of recent human activity on Nikumaroro prior
to the arrival of the island’s first settlers. There are marks on the
ground, visible in an aerial photograph taken on December 1, 1938, which
are identical in appearance to known trails or footpaths appearing in
later aerial photos. The apparent footpaths in the 1938 photo appear in
a location we suspect as being the site of the castaway’s campsite where
human remains were found in 1940. Analysis of the measurements of the
bones found at that site suggests that the remains were probably those
of a woman of northern European ancestry of approximately Earhart’s stature.
(See Amelia Earhart’s Bones and Shoes.)
There is, of course,
as yet no way to know for sure whether or not the castaway who died on
Nikumaroro was Amelia Earhart, but pinning down the spot where the bones
were found is a good first step toward finding more evidence which could
make such an identification possible. The existence of footpaths at the
suspected site could be verification that we have found the place where
the castaway lived and died.
Much of the island’s
surface is covered with material known as “coral rubble.” This
is finger-sized pieces of dead coral which are characteristically medium
or dark gray in color on surfaces exposed to the intense equatorial sun
and somewhat lighter gray or even white on shaded surfaces.
left is an undisturbed coral rubble surface. When people walk across coral
rubble following the same route, time after time, a light-colored path
quickly develops. People are the only animals on Nikumaroro large enough
to leave a visible trail.
right is a low-level aerial photo which was taken along Nikumaroro’s
southern shoreline in 1975 and clearly shows a footpath across coral rubble
leading inland from the beach. The wider straight track running parallel
to the beach is a vehicle track used by the U.S. Coast Guard during WWII.
detail at left is taken from an aerial photo shot from a much greater
altitude (8,000 ft.) on April 30, 1939. It shows wide footpaths associated
with the newly established village. Note that they start from a central
location inland and fan out toward different places along the shoreline.
The photo below was taken from the starboard cockpit window of a Supermarine
Walrus launched from HMS Leander on December 1, 1938 (the starboard
wingtip with navigation light and the tip of the starboard wing float with
mooring ring are visible at upper right). The hand-drawn arrows indicate
features of interest at the far end of the island — the shipwreck,
the main lagoon passage, etc.
picture below is a detail from the photo at right which has been enhanced
by Photek, Inc. of Hood River, Oregon. Note the naturally occurring open
avenues of coral rubble which form a figure “7.” That feature is still
present today. (The color photo above was taken in 1996 looking seaward
along the “top” of the 7.)
Of particular interest
is what appears to be a network of trails or footpaths associated with
the top of the 7 and a single winding path leading to a large white open
area farther up the shoreline. Although vaguely airplane shaped, detailed
inspection reveals that the white feature is not an airplane. It seems
to be just a T-shaped sandy area.
It is worth noting
that we are not the first to notice “trails” on this part of
the island. When the U.S. Navy prepared a map of Gardner Island from the
aerial photo mosaic taken on April 30, 1939 and the results of the surface
survey made by USS Bushnell in November 1939, the map maker noted
the presence of an "old trail" between the lagoon and the ocean at a location about one
kilometer northwest of the “7.” The feature can be seen in the
1939 aerial mosaic and in the 1938 photo.
It is, of course,
possible that the features which resemble trails are some naturally occurring
phenomenon that we do not at present understand, but if they are evidence
of human activity the implication is that someone was active on a remote
section of the isalnd in the years immediately prior to 1938. Exactly
why that particular part of the atoll might be attractive to a castaway
is hard to say. It was, and is, dominated by a forest of tall, shady Buka
trees (Pisonia grandis) which are home to a rich assortment of
sea birds. The ocean shore near the “7” is unusually free of
the dense protective wall of underbrush that characterizes most of the
coastline and so might provide a good view of the northern horizon for
someone hoping for rescue. The area is far from the only stands of coconut
palms that were present on the island in those pre-settlement years but
the drought conditions which prevailed throughout much of 1938 may have
rendered those trees useless as a source of sustenance.
In any event, this
part of the atoll clearly merits further attention.