|Volume 14 No. 2,
Earharts Bones and Shoes?
of aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart in 1937 is a mystery that continues
to grip the imagination of many. Although the most widely held assumption
is that she simply crashed and sank in the Pacific Ocean, many speculative
and not-so speculative alternative explanations have been advanced over
the years. An ongoing interdisciplinary study by The International Group
for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) has recently generated anthropological
data consistent with the proposition that Earhart and her navigator, Fred
Noonan, landed and later died on Nikumaroro Island in the Republic of
TIGHAR is a non-profit
research, educational, and historic preservation organization based in
Wilmington, Delaware, one of whose specialties is the investigation of
aviation-related historical puzzles like the disappearance of Earhart.
Following up on a reconstruction of Noonan’s most likely navigational
decisions given the practices of the time, TIGHAR’s Earhart research has
focused on Nikumaroro, an uninhabited island some 400 miles southeast
of Howland Island, Earhart’s destination at the time of her loss. Four
archeological surveys and test excavations have been conducted to date
on the island with the cooperation of the Kiribati Government, and extensive
archival and oral historical research is ongoing. Background documentation
and current research findings can be accessed through TIGHAR’s web site
known as Gardner Island, was uninhabited in 1937, and is so today. In
1938, however, it became an important part of the Phoenix Island Settlement
Scheme (cf. Maude 1968; Laxton 1951) of the British Western Pacific High
Commission, and was occupied by I-Kiribati colonists until 1963 when the
effort was given up. In 1944-45 the island also hosted a U.S. Coast Guard
Floyd Kilts Story
In 1960, the late
Floyd Kilts, a retired Coast Guardsman, gave an interview to the San Diego,
California Tribune, in which he posited Earhart’s crash-landing on Nikumaroro
(Skarr 1960). His speculation was based on what he said he had been told
by one of the colonists while Kilts was helping dismantle the Loran station
|A native tried
to tell me about it... It seems that in ... 1938 there were 23 island
people, all men, and an Irish magistrate planting coconut trees...
They were about through and the native was walking along one end of
the island. There in the bush about five feet from the shoreline he
saw a skeleton.
him to it was the shoes. Women’s shoes, American kind... size nine
was a young Irishman, who...thought of Amelia Earhart right away.
He put the bones in a gunnysack and...in a 22-foot, four oared boat
started for Suva, Fiji...
|When only about
24 hours out of Suva, he died. The natives are superstitious as the
devil and the next night ... they threw the gunnysack full of bones
Kilts’ story, though
laden with fantastic premises like the sailing of a small four-oared boat
from Nikumaroro to Fiji, contains certain elements that resemble known
facts. There was never an “Irish magistrate” on the island, but there
was a British colonial administrator of Irish descent, Gerald B. Gallagher,
whose nickname was in fact “Irish.”" Gallagher did not die in
a boat 24 hours out of Fiji, but he did die on Nikumaroro about 24 hours
after returning from leave in Fiji. What sort of actual course of events
the story might reflect, if any, has until recently been a matter of mere
The Nikumaroro Shoe
In 1991, while conducting
test excavations at a site on Nikumaroro suspected to have Earhart associations,
TIGHAR encountered a surface scatter of shoe fragments. These included
a Cats-Paw replacement heel, pieces comprising most of a rubber sole,
and a brass shoelace eyelet. Experts from the Cat’s Paw Division of the
Biltrite Corporation identified the heel as dating from the mid-1930s
and the sole, which exactly aligns with the nail holes in the heel, as
probably coming from a woman’s blucher oxford of the same era. Reassembly
of the fragmented sole indicates an overall length equivalent to about
a size nine. Photographs of Earhart taken shortly before her disappearance
show her wearing blucher oxford style shoes of that approximate size with
brass shoelace eyelets and what appear to be recently replaced heels (TIGHAR
1996:25). This discovery, of course, gave added credence to the Kilts
account, and justified further detailed investigation of the site in 1997.
Analysis of the results of the 1997 work is continuing.
The Tarawa Papers
In the summer of
1997, historical researcher and TIGHAR member Peter McQuarrie discovered
a file of papers in the national archives of the Republic of Kiribati
on Tarawa Atoll pertaining to the discovery of bones on Nikumaroro (c.f.
TIGHAR 1997). The file contained copies of wireless traffic between Gallagher
on Nikumaroro and various officials on Ocean Island, on Tarawa, and in
In the first message,
dated September 23, 1940, Gallagher reports the discovery of a skull “which
is just possibly that of Amelia Earhart.” In a second message dated the
same day, Gallagher reports that the skull had been discovered “some months
ago” and buried. He goes on to say that:
has now produced more bones (including lower jaw) part of a shoe a
bottle and a sextant box. It would appear that:
is possibly that of a woman,
|(b) Shoe was
a womans and probably size 10,
box has two numbers on it... 3500 (stencilled) and 1542- sextant being
old fashioned and probably painted over with black enamel.
Gallagher was directed
by the Western Pacific High Commission to keep the matter “strictly secret,”
and was asked for more information. On October 6, 1940 he describes the
shoe as “a stoutish walking shoe or heavy sandal” and on October 17
he reports that the discovery site included the “remains of fire, turtle,
and dead birds.” He also reports that the bones recovered comprise:
... only skull,
lower jaw, one thoracic vertebra, half pelvis, part scapula, humerus,
radius, two femurs, tibia and fibula.
Gallagher was instructed
to send the bones to Fiji, and this he did, though they were briefly intercepted
and inspected by the medical officer on Tarawa, Dr. Lindsay Isaac, who
on February 11, 1941 pronounced them the remains of an elderly Polynesian
male. After receiving what seems to have been rather pointed direction
to send the bones on, Isaac reported releasing the “wretched relics” on
February 14, and the Commission reported receiving them on April 28th,
The Hoodless Analysis
Research in the Western
Pacific High Commission’s archives in London has recently produced evidence
of the next step in the bones’ journey. A report by the late Dr. D.W.
Hoodless of the Central Medical School in Suva, Fiji (discussed below)
documents his analysis of the remains, and his conclusion that they “definitely”
represented a male but that they were probably not those of a Polynesian,
or Micronesian. Instead, he thought them most likely the bones of a “short,
stocky European, or even a half-caste” (TIGHAR 1998:9). Importantly, the
report includes Dr. Hoodless’ hand-written notes with the measurements
and first-hand observations he made on the bones. (These may be seen by
downloading the PDF file of this article).
Re-analysis of Hoodless’ Observations
The Hoodless report
and his handwritten notes were examined by forensic skeletal biologists
Burns and Jantz independent of one another, and each separately analyzed
Hoodless’ measurements. Two questions were considered:
- To what extent can the opinions offered by Hoodless about the character
of the bones be relied upon?
- What can be said about the bones based on the application of modern
analytic procedures to Hoodless’ measurements?
Reliability of the Observations
Hoodless’ report begins:
I have to-day
examined a collection of bones forming a part of a human skeleton.
These bones were delivered to me in a wooden box by Mr P.D. Macdonald
of the Western Pacific High Commission.
He goes on to list
the thirteen bones included, commenting that among them were:
... a skull with
the right zygoma and malar bones broken off ...
The zygoma and the
malar are the same bone. This raises some question about the extent of
Hoodless’s skeletal knowledge.
Hoodless notes that:
[f]rom this list
it is seen that less than half of the total skeleton is available
As noted, only thirteen
bones are listed in this inventory. Officially, the adult human skeleton
is composed of 206 bones, or over 130 bones if bones fused in adulthood
(e.g. the cranium) are counted as single units and the teeth and very
small bones are left out. In any event, thirteen bones is less than 10
percent of the bones of the skeleton.Hoodless examined much less than
“less than half” of the skeleton.
He goes on to observe
are very weather beaten and have been exposed to the open air for
a considerable time. Except in one or two small areas, all traces
of muscular attachments and the various ridges and prominences have
Note that he says that “except in one or two small
areas, all traces of muscular attachments.... have been obliterated.”
is important in evaluating a subsequent statement.
... By taking
measurements of the length of the femur, tibia and the humerus, I
estimate that those bones belonged to a skeleton of total height of
5 feet 5.5 inches approximately.
When speaking of
stature, a value of a half inch is not “approximate.” The range
that includes the standard error of estimate in long bones is between 3
and 4 inches. About one third of the population is not even covered by
Hoodless then concludes
[f]rom the half
sub-pubic angle of the right innominate bone, the “set” of
the two femora, and the ratio of the circumferences of the long bones
to their individual lengths, it may be definitely stated that the skeleton
is that of a MALE. [emphasis in original]
To a skeletal biologist,
these read like the words of a person who never expects to be challenged.
Forensic anthropologists will recognize this kind of statement as common
in the analysis of skeletal remains by non-osteologists. The victim is
not going to contradict the opinion, and the people reading the report
are concerned only with the bottom line, not the methodology. Snap judgements
are made to satisfy those requesting the report, based on analysis that
lacks methodological rigor. In fact, of course, human variation is such
that population norms must be taken into account when assessing sex from
skeletal remains. Even if the population is well-known to the observer,
caution is important. The overlap between the normal curve for male measurements
and the normal curve for female measurements is considerable.
Hoodless does not
provide a number of key pieces of data. What is the actual measurement
of the sub-pubic angle? What is the femoral head measurement? What population
database is he using? Is the database appropriate for the unknown individual
in question? What about the angle of the sciatic notch, the size of the
mastoid processes, the rugosity of the occipital, the shape and size of
the brow ridge, the contour of the frontal bone, and other sex indicators?
He proceeds to discuss
the individual’s age:
Owing to the
weather beaten condition of all the bones, it is impossible to be
dogmatic in regard to the age of the person at the time of death,
but I am of the opinion that he was not less than 45 years of age
and that probably he was older: say between 45 and 55 years.
Hoodless does not
mention cranial sutures, pubic symphysis contour, rib ends, dental wear,
osteoarthritis, or any other skeletal age indicator. What is the basis
for his opinion? Of course, much of the research on skeletal age has been
published since the time of Hoodless’s report, but a ten year interval
in the middle or late years of life is a narrow range, and he must have
had some basis for his conclusion. If the skeletal material is in as poor
condition as he says, there is no way to determine age within such a narrow
range even today except by using microstructural analysis.
I am not prepared
to give an opinion on the race or nationality of this skeleton, except
to state that it is probably not that of a pure South Sea Islander
– Micronesian or Polynesian. It could be that of a short, stocky,
muscular European, or even a half-caste, or a person of mixed European
In other words,
Hoodless says he is not prepared to give an opinion, but then he gives
a rather precise opinion, without providing a basis for it. In assessing
the reliability of this opinion, one must consider that:
- “Short” is a relative
term. Assessing stature requires an accurate assessment of the long
- “Stocky” requires
some idea of weight. Without a belt or measurable clothing, weight cannot
be determined from skeletal remains.
- “Muscular” requires
analysis of muscle attachment areas, which Hoodless previously described
as “obliterated” except in “one or two small areas.”
- “Race” is very
difficult to determine, and racial mixture is even more difficult, yet
Hoodless suggests “half-caste” with no stated basis for his
his report by suggesting that:
details are necessary I am prepared to take detailed and exact measurements
of the principal bones in this collection, and to work out the various
indices (e.g. the platymeric index for the femur or the enemic index
for the tibia) but if such a detailed report is required the obvious
course to adopt would be to submit these bones to the Anthropological
Dept of the Sydney University where Professor Elkin would be only
too pleased to make a further report.
This one paragraph
suggests that Hoodless knew he might have missed something in his analysis.
Unfortunately, there is no evidence to indicate that his very reasonable
suggestion that the bones be subjected to independent analysis was taken
up; the University of Sydney has reported no record of having received
In summary, there
is little reason to trust Dr. Hoodless’ conclusions about the age,
sex, or racial background of the individual represented by the Nikumaroro
Reanalysis of the Measurements
taken over 55 years ago by a now-deceased individual of unknown expertise,
with no description of the methods or assumptions employed, must be used
with great caution. In the case of the Nikumaroro bones, although Hoodless
says that six long bones were present, he presented information on only
three. For the cranium, he supplied only four measurements. We have no
way of judging the reliability of the data he does present. The measurements
he provides do not appear unreasonable, however, and in any event they
are all we have to work with until the bones themselves are recovered.
Both Burns’ and
Jantz’ analyses were based on the assumption that Hoodless measured
orbit breadth and tibia length in the same way as these variables are recorded
in current data bases. This may not be correct, but we have no basis for
assuming that he measured them in any different way.
Burns and Jantz both
employed FORDISC 2.0 in their reanalyses of Hoodless’ cranial measurements.
FORDISC is an interactive computer program for the classification of unknown
adult crania according to race and sex, using any combination of standard
cranial measurements (c.f. Moore-Jansen, Ousley, and Jantz 1994; Ousley
and Jantz 1996). Both arrived at the following conclusions:
skull is more likely European than Polynesian, although it cannot be excluded
from any population. Comparing the skull measurements to European, Polynesian
and Micronesian populations, it is most similar to Norse females (see
the skull represents a person of European ancestry, the FORDISC analysis
indicates that the individual represented was most likely female. Unfortunately
the level of certainty is very low; the female/male probability is ca.
.65/.35. If Hoodless measured orbit breadth in a different way, such that
the orbits were in fact a couple of milimeters greater as measured today,
this would change the classification to male, with male/female probabilities
gave the question of stature special attention. Noting that Hoodless got
rather widely varying estimates, depending upon which bone he used, Jantz
employed formulae derived from a modern reference sample (Ousley 1995)
in the forensic anthropology data bank at the University of Tennessee,
Knoxville and obtained the following:
of individual assuming
|Humerus @ 32.4 cm:
|Tibia @ 37.2 cm:
|Radius @ 24.5 cm:
These estimates have
confidence intervals that range from ca. 162.6 cm./64″ to 177.8 cm./70″.
Estimates based on the different bones do not vary greatly from one another – certainly
not to the extent Dr. Hoodless’ did. If the bones are those of a female,
the best estimate is ca. 5′6″ to 5′7″, if male
about 1.5 inches more. Since the results from the tibia fall into line
with those derived from the other measurements, it is likely that Hoodless
measured the tibia comparably with the way Jantz measured the tibiae in
the reference sample.
Turning the question
around, Jantz asked what bone lengths would be expected from a women of
Earhart’s height? According to TIGHAR records, Earhart gave her height
as 5′8″, but there is some indication she may have been closer to 5′7″.
Regression predictions of bone length from stature for women of 5′8″ and
5′7″ are as follows:
||322.4 ± 10.95
||318.4 ± 10.95
238.0 ± 9.67
These results indicate
that the Nikumaroro bones fit Amelia Earhart’s stature very well.
The observed lengths all fall within one standard deviation of the estimates.
For the humerus and tibia, the departures are trivial.
Based on the information
now in hand, Jantz and Burns both concluded that the remains found on
Nikumaroro in 1939-40 represented an individual who was:
- More likely female than male
- More likely white than Polynesian or other Pacific Islander
- Most likely between 5′5″ and 5′9″ in height
It is, of course,
impossible to know whether the bones inspected by Dr. Hoodless in 1941
were in fact those of a white female, and if anything even less possible
to be sure that they were those of Amelia Earhart. Only the rediscovery
of the bones themselves, or the recovery of more bones from the same skeleton
on the island, can bring certainty. What we can be certain of is that
bones were found on the island in 1939-40, associated with what were observed
to be women’s shoes and a navigator’s sextant box, and that the morphology
of the recovered bones, insofar as we can tell by applying contemporary
forensic methods to measurements taken at the time, appears consistent
with a female of Earhart’s height and ethnic origin. Historical, ethnohistorical,
archeological, and forensic research is continuing in an effort to achieve
more definitive conclusions. Current planned research includes further
inspection of archives in Tarawa and in England, further study of the
site where the shoe parts were found in 1991, and a detailed archeological
survey of another site on Nikumaroro that closely matches Gallagher’s
description of the bones discovery site. Details of the ongoing investigation
may be accessed by going to The
Earhart Project on this Web site.
- Laxton, P.B. 1951 "Nikumaroro" Journal of the Polynesian Society
- Maude, H.E. 1968 "The Colonization of the Phoenix Islands." In Of
Islands and Men: Studies in Pacific History, H.E. Maude, editor,
pp. 315-42, Oxford University Press, Melbourne.
- Moore-Jansen, P.H, S.D. Ousley, and R.L. Jantz 1994 Data Collection
Procedures for Forensic Skeletal Material. Third Edition. Report
of Investigations No. 48, Department of Anthropology, The University
of Tennessee, Knoxville.
- Ousley, S. D. 1995 Should we estimate biological or forensic stature?
Journal of Forensic Sciences 40:768-773.
- Ousley, S. D. and R. L. Jantz 1996 Fordisc 2.0: Personal Computer
Forensic Discriminant Functions. The University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
- Skarr, Lew 1960 "San Diegan Bares Clue to Earhart Fate." San Diego
Tribune: July 21, 1960.
- TIGHAR (The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery)
- 1996 "Found Objects." TIGHAR Tracks: Journal of The International
Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery: 12:2/3:11-27, TIGHAR, Wilmington.
- 1997 "The Tarawa File." TIGHAR Tracks: Journal of The International
Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery: 13:1:18-31, TIGHAR, Wilmington.
- 1998 "The Noonan Project." TIGHAR Tracks: Journal of The International
Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery: 14:1:9-11, TIGHAR, Wilmington.
Burns is with the Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Social Work,
University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
Dr. Jantz is with the Department of Anthropology, University
of Tennessee at Knoxville.
Dr. King is a Consultant in Archeology and Historic
Preservation, Washington DC.
Richard Gillespie is Executive Director, The International
Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR).
|Archive of Past Issues