All posts by Ric Gillespie

Executive Director, TIGHAR

Is the Earhart Mystery Solved?

To those of us who share an evidence-based approach to knowledge, the answer is, “Are you kidding? Of course it is.” Over a period of thirty years, TIGHAR has pursued multiple lines of investigation that have developed several independent bodies of information – archival, photographic, physical, and analytical – all pointing to the same conclusion: Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan landed and died as castaways on Gardner Island, now Nikumaroro. At the same time, the testing of alternative hypotheses has failed to turn up a scintilla of supporting scientific evidence.

The only mystery that remains is why the case is not universally considered closed.  A recent article by psychologist Jeremy P. Shapiro, Adjunct Assistant Professor of Psychological Sciences at Case Western University, provides some answers.

The Earhart disappearance is neither the only, nor by any means the most important, issue about which there is consensus among scientists and forensic experts and yet continued denial and controversy in the general public. Professor Shapiro’s article addresses the problem of science-denial with respect to climate change, biological evolution, and childhood vaccination, but his observations ring true for the Earhart case.

As a psychotherapist, he sees “a striking parallel between a type of thinking involved in many mental health disturbances and the reasoning behind science denial. … Dichotomous thinking, also called black-and-white and all-or-none thinking, is a factor in depression, anxiety, aggression and, especially, borderline personality disorder.”

This is not to say that anyone who thinks Amelia Earhart crashed and sank or was captured by the Japanese is bonkers. As Professor Shapiro points out: “Dichotomous thinking is not always or inevitably wrong, but it is a poor tool for understanding complicated realities because these usually involve spectrums of possibilities, not binaries … like a pass/fail grading system in which 100 percent correct earns a P and everything else gets an F.

“Science deniers engage in dichotomous thinking about truth claims. In evaluating the evidence for a hypothesis or theory, they divide the spectrum of possibilities into two unequal parts: perfect certainty and inconclusive controversy. Any bit of data that does not support a theory is misunderstood to mean that the formulation is fundamentally in doubt, regardless of the amount of supportive evidence.”

To TIGHAR’s critics, if there is no “smoking gun” there is nothing. For those who are emotionally or institutionally invested in an alternative explanation of Earhart’s fate, if there is no absolute proof then all theories are equally possible.

Prof. Shapiro points out that “Deniers exploit the distinction between proof and compelling evidence by categorizing empirically well-supported ideas as “unproven.” Such statements are technically correct but extremely misleading, because there are no proven ideas in science, and evidence-based ideas are the best guides for action we have.”

A hypothesis can be disqualified but it can never be proved, only supported. Simply put, there is no such thing as a “smoking gun” in the sense of a piece of evidence that proves the case beyond all doubt.

Decades of research have uncovered and interpreted a wealth of archival and physical evidence that puts Earhart and Noonan on Nikumaroro. This qualitative evidence can be disqualified but only by showing that the identification or interpretation is incorrect. Analyses of photographs, post-loss radio signals, and most recently bone measurements have shown high levels of quantitative support for the Nikumaroro Hypothesis. Those findings can be credibly challenged, but only by showing that the numbers upon which they are based are wrong.

Prof. Shapiro puts it this way, “Research builds knowledge in progressive increments. As empirical evidence accumulates, there are more and more accurate approximations of ultimate truth but no final end point to the process.”

Is the Earhart mystery solved? We’re convinced that it is, but we’re willing to be proved wrong. TIGHAR will continue to test the Nikumaroro Hypothesis because science-denial is not something that can be fixed with a blog posting. The more scientific evidence we find, the more difficult it becomes for the deniers to deny.

Prof. Shapiro:

There is a vast gulf between perfect knowledge and total ignorance, and we live most of our lives in this gulf. Informed decision-making in the real world can never be perfectly informed, but responding to the inevitable uncertainties by ignoring the best available evidence is no substitute for the imperfect approach to knowledge called science.

Prof. Shapiro’s full article can be found at The Thinking Error at the Root of Science Denial.

Fact Checking Snopes

Who watches the watchman? It seems that not even the popular fact-check website Snopes can maintain objectivity when it comes to the fate of Amelia Earhart. Reacting to widespread media acceptance of forensic anthropologist Richard Jantz’s 99% certainty that bones discovered on a remote Pacific atoll in 1940 belonged to Amelia Earhart, a Snopes “fact-check, history” article published on March 15  took issue with Dr. Jantz’s conclusions. The article itself sorely wants fact-checking.

I sent my fact-check of the Snopes fact-check to its author Alex Kasprak which resulted in a productive dialogue.  I have included Mr. Kasprak’s replies and my responses in this fact-check.

The title – “Have Amelia Earhart’s Remains Been Located?” – is a strawman that should set off alarm bells with anyone at all familiar with Dr. Jantz’s paper and TIGHAR’s work.

Fact Check: FALSE

No one has claimed that Amelia Earhart’s remains have been located. Not Richard Jantz, not TIGHAR, not nobody. The bones have been lost, as the article eventually admits.

Mr. Kasprak responded:
The headline is a reflection of media coverage of your work, which — as most viral news does — oversold the findings. We do this commonly so that our headline reflects the questions people are asking Snopes, which in this case was “Have Amelia Earhart’s Bones been found?” The claim that we were debunking, found in the “claim” section, is this: “Bones found on the remote Pacific Island of Nikumaroro belong to famed aviator Amelia Earhart.”

To which I replied:
Fact-checking your explanation, I find it FALSE.

What media have oversold the findings? Despite lots of Googling I’m unable to find any media source who made the claim you say you are debunking. The headlines and articles I’ve seen all include qualifiers such as “likely,” “may,” “99% sure,” etc. I don’t doubt that some readers skip over the caveats. Correcting their mis-impression would be an appropriate topic for Snopes to address, but that’s not what you did. You wrote a personal opinion piece about the Nikumaroro hypothesis under the guise of fact-checking a strawman.

In describing the discovery of the bones, he writes:

“Sometime around 1939, a local on the island of Nikumaroro came across a skull and a bottle.

Fact Check: FALSE

The skull and bottle were found in the spring of 1940.1

Mr. Kasprak responded:

I’m willing to correct this. My understanding — and I am happy to have you clear this up — is that, prior to the working party that located and buried the bones on Gardner in Spring 1940, a native had mentioned that he had seen bones earlier, which is why I hedged on the actual timing.

I replied:

You may be thinking of the story told to a San Diego Union reporter by Coast Guard veteran Floyd Kilts in 1960. Kilts claimed that, while stationed on Gardner Island in 1946:  “A native tried to tell me about it. But I couldn’t understand all of it so I got an interpreter. It seems that in the latter part of 1938 there were 23 island people, all men, and an Irish magistrate planting coconut trees on Gardner for the government of New Zealand. … The magistrate was a young Irishman who got excited when he saw the bones. He thought of Amelia Earhart right away. He put the bones in a gunnysack and with the native doctor and three other natives in a 22-foot, four-oared boat started for Suva, Fiji, 887 nautical miles away. The magistrate was anxious to get the news to the world. But on the way the Irishman came down with pneumonia. When only about 24 hours out of Suva he died.

“The natives are superstitious as the devil and the next night after the young fellow died they threw the gunnysack full of bones overboard, scared of the spirits. And that was that.”

It was an outrageous tale that no one took seriously, but we recognized what seemed to be kernels of truth. The island was first settled in “the latter part of 1938” by Britain, not New Zealand, and the initial work party was only eight men. There was no “Irish magistrate” but “Irish” was the nickname of Gerald Gallagher, Officer in Charge of the Phoenix Islands Settlement Scheme.  Gallagher never tried to go to Fiji in an open boat but he did die on the island and is buried there.

The reliable information we have about what really happened comes from the British files we found in 1997 and 1998. The files  are on the TIGHAR website in excruciating detail at The Bones Chronology.

Gardner Island was uninhabited until December 20, 1938 when a small work party of Gilbert islanders was put ashore to begin clearing a site for a village at the west end of the atoll. There was no European overseer in residence on the island until early September 1940 when Gerald Gallagher arrived as Officer in Charge of the Phoenix Islands Settlement Scheme.

On September 23, 1940 Gallagher sent a message to his immediate superior, the Resident Commissioner of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony, “Some months ago working party on Gardner discovered human skull – this was buried and I only recently heard about it. Thorough search has now produced more bones (including lower jaw) part of a shoe a bottle and a sextant box. ….”

In a message sent to the Secretary of the Western Pacific High Commission on October 17, 1940 Gallagher was a bit more specific about when the skull was found and buried.

“Skull discovered by working party six months ago — report reached me early September. Working party buried skull but made no further search.”

That would put the discovery of the skull some time in late April 1940.

Fact Check: OMISSION

Mr. Kasprak’s description of what was found is incomplete and misleading. With the bones were found the remains of a fire, dead birds, turtle, part of a woman’s shoe, part of a man’s shoe, and corks with brass chains. The sextant box was marked with numbers that meant nothing to the British authorities but which TIGHAR has identified as matching the type of sextant Earhart’s navigator, Fred Noonan, is known to have used as a back-up instrument.2

Mr. Kasprak responded:

You are welcome to make this argument.

In the Snopes article, Mr. Kasprak goes on to write, “After a prolonged back and forth between British officials, the bones were shipped to Suva, Fiji, where they were analyzed by two individuals — Lindsay Isaac and D. W. Hoodless.”

Fact Check: FALSE

Lindsay Isaac made an unauthorized examination of the bones when the ship carrying them to Fiji made a stop in Tarawa. Isaac quarantined the port which brought a rebuke from his superiors.3

Mr.Kasprak responded:

I can note that the first inspection happened at Tarawa en route to Fiji.

Mr. Kasprak continued, “Hoodless, the principal of the Central Medical School in Suva, Fiji, performed a second inspection. Much of our information about the Nikumaroro Bones comes from a 4 April 1941 telegram from Hoodless to an officer of the British Western Pacific Territories.”


The Central Medical School was not a medical school in the traditional sense. It did not train physicians. It trained Native Medical Practitioners.4  Hoodless’s report was not sent as a telegram and there was no such thing as the British Western Pacific Territories. The report is a typed document delivered to the Secretary of the Western Pacific High Commission.5

Mr. Kasprak responded:

Happy to correct the telegram/report point. A number of historians refer to the colonies of Britain that came into the empire as a result of the Western Pacific Order in Council of 1877 as the British Western Pacific Territories, but either way I am not sure this changes the argument in anyway.

In researching the article, Mr. Kasprak asked Dr. Jantz, “In your paper, you state, ‘Until definitive evidence is presented that the remains are not those of Amelia Earhart, the most convincing argument is that they are hers.’ This seems to be challenging the reader/opponents of the theory to prove a negative, which seems problematic in general and especially in this case, given the fact that the original material has been lost. Am I out of line there?”

Dr. Jantz replied, “Here is how I view your concern about asking readers/opponents to prove a negative. In forensic anthropology, we do that all the time. When premortem evidence for a suspected victim becomes available, and the premortem and postmortem do not match, the identification is rejected. My own analysis was constructed as a hypothesis that the Nikumaroro bones were those of AE. If the bones are a good match to AE, it supports the hypothesis. If they had not been a good match, I would have had to reject the hypothesis. In science hypotheses are rarely proved, only supported, or not. This hypothesis is out there with the support I have offered and others are free to test it in any way they can construct a meaningful test. If someone can provide evidence that supports another hypothesis, then we will have learned something. In the meantime, the Nikumaroro hypothesis has far more support than any of the others.”

The exchange is not mentioned in the Snopes article.

Mr. Kasprak responded:

You are welcome to include that email exchange. There is nothing nefarious about not including every word of an email exchange in an already 3000-word story.

Mr. Kasprak wrote, “[Dr.Jantz’s] nearly-complete certainty refers specifically to the kind of analysis Jantz performed, in which he compared the dimensions of the Nikumaroro bones to a pool of data which contained a random assortment of 500 Euro-American individual’s skeletal measurements.”

Fact Check: FALSE

The correct number, as clearly stated in the published paper, is 2,776.

Mr. Kasprak responded:


Mr. Kasprak was unable to find an anthropologist who disagreed with Richard Jantz. Bruce Anderson at Arizona State University described Jantz as “the pre-eminent physical/forensic anthropologist in the US in terms of measurements of the human body” and is quoted in the Snopes article as saying “If I were a betting man, I’d put my money on the interpretation forwarded by Richard Jantz.”

Kristina Killgrove, a biological anthropologist at the University of West Florida felt that some media reports have “oversold” Jantz’s findings. “Dr. Jantz has done a great job with the information at hand in an attempt to go further in solving this case. … It’s essentially gaming out the logical conclusion of a whole lot of different variables. So this isn’t positive identification as Jantz noted in his article.”

Unable to shoot down Richard Jantz, Mr. Kasprak turned on TIGHAR.

“One group in particular has been remarkably successful in promoting their own theory of the incident to the mystery-loving public – The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), led by aviation accident investigator Ric Gillespie. The group is single-handedly responsible for the bulk of viral Amelia Earhart headlines over the past decade.”


Past decade? Make that the past three decades. Somehow, a non-profit research foundation publishing its results is “promoting their own theory,” even though we have been as transparent in reporting our many failures as we have been in announcing our occasional successes. If TIGHAR’s discoveries generate viral headlines that’s not a weakness of “the mystery-loving public.”

Mr. Kasprak did not respond to this criticism.

Before publishing his article, Mr. Kasprak made no attempt to contact TIGHAR. Instead, he stated,

“TIGHAR’s hypothesis rests on the assumption that bones recovered from an island about 350 nautical miles south of Howland named Nikumaroro Island (but known at the time as Gardner island), belong to Earhart.”

Fact Check: FALSE

TIGHAR’s hypothesis that the missing flight ended at Nikumaroro was formulated in 1988, ten years before we discovered documentation that bones had been found on Gardner.6 The Nikumaroro hypothesis was founded on Earhart’s last inflight transmission heard by USCG Itasca, “We are on the line 157 337 … running on line north and south.” Two TIGHAR members – retired military aerial navigators familiar with celestial navigation – pointed out that Earhart’s “line” was a Line of Position that, if followed to the southeast, would lead to Gardner Island. We soon learned that Earhart following the Line of Position to the southeast and landing on an island was not a new theory. It was, in fact, the U.S. Navy’s initial hypothesis in the days following the disappearance. When a brief aerial search a week later saw no airplane on the ground, the Navy shifted to searching the open ocean for floating debris but found nothing. The closer we looked at the historical record, the more clues we found that the Navy’s first assessment had been right all along.

Mr. Kasprak responded:

You are welcome to make this argument.

In detailing “Problems with the Nikumaroro Conclusion” Mr. Kasprak bias is revealed by his embrace of the shibboleths promulgated in the “famous” book Amelia Earhart: The Mystery Solved by “Mary K. and Elgin Long” (their correct names are Marie and Elgen).

The book stands the scientific method of inquiry on its head. Rather than formulate a hypothesis based on solid documentation, the Longs begin with the received wisdom that the aircraft ran out of fuel within moments of Earhart’s final inflight radio call. They then selectively interpret the historical record to support their preconceived answer, often presenting raw speculation as fact. To this day, despite no fewer than four multi-million dollar hi-tech searches of the ocean bottom near Howland Island, not one shred of physical evidence has been found to support the Crashed and Sank hypothesis.

Mr. Kasprak responded:

You are welcome to provide this context to your work, I have corrected the typo for Marie Long’s name.

I replied:

You might also correct the spelling of Elgen’s name.  People frequently misspell it “Elgin,” probably because Lord Elgin and the “Elgin Marbles” are well known, but Elgen Long’s name is spelled Elgen (check the cover of his “famous” book).

Fact Check: OMISSION

Mr. Kasprak makes no mention of TIGHAR’s book which corrected many of the false assertions with solid original-source documentation. Finding Amelia – The True Story of the Earhart Disappearance, published by the Naval Institute Press, was hailed by Pacific scholar Dr. Mark Peattie as “Superb …first-rate history…carefully researched, eloquently written. Probably the most detailed and factual account of Amelia Earhart’s disappearance and the failed attempt to find her that we shall ever have.”

Mr. Kasprak responded:

You are welcome to highlight your book in your fact check.

Fact Check: OMISSION

Like the Longs, Mr. Kasprak utterly ignores the post-loss radio distress calls that dominated the headlines for nearly a week after the disappearance. The airplane’s manufacturer Lockheed avowed at the time that the signals could not be sent unless the aircraft was on land and able to run an engine to recharge the battery. Bearings on the signals taken by Pan American Airways and U.S. Coast Guard direction finding stations around the Pacific crossed near Gardner Island,7 prompting an aerial search by three aircraft from USS Colorado, but it took the battleship a week to get there from Pearl Harbor and, by then, the signals had stopped. No aircraft was seen during a brief over-flight of the island and no search party was put ashore. The radio signals were written off as hoaxes or misunderstandings and the rest of the Navy’s search looked for floating debris in open ocean but found nothing. A twelve-year scientific propagation and content study by TIGHAR found 57 of the 120 reported post-loss radio transmissions to be credible.8

In the late 1990s, anecdotal accounts by former settlers led us to formulate the hypothesis that the plane had made a safe landing on the island’s fringing reef but had been washed into the ocean by rising tides and surf before the Navy searchers arrived. The broad, flat expanse of reef in the area where wreckage was allegedly seen is smooth and dries at low tide. An on-site survey in 2007 enabled us to compare 1937 water levels with the transmission times of the credible signals. Night after night, with startling reliability, credible signals were heard only when the water level on the reef was low enough to permit an engine to be run.9

Mr.Kasprak responded:

You are welcome to make this point.

Fact Check: OMISSION

In 2012, U.S. government photo analysts concurred with TIGHAR’s forensic imaging specialist that an object seen on the reef in a photo taken by a British expedition in October 1937, appears to be the wreckage of a main landing gear assembly from a Lockheed Electra.10

Fact Check: OMISSION

TIGHAR has confirmed the location on the island where the castaway’s remains were discovered. Archaeological excavations of the site have produced artifacts reliably dated to the 1930s, several of which – such as the broken mirror and cosmetic from an American compact – are gender-specific. Others suggest a direct link to Earhart and her struggle to survive. A pocket knife of the same type inventoried aboard Earhart’s aircraft, had been beaten apart apparently to remove the blades. Small, broken travel-size bottles that once contained American personal care products had once stood upright in a fire, apparently part of a crude water collection and purification system. Clam shells, fish, bird, and turtle bones found in and around the remains of cooking fires reflect Western rather than Pacific islander food selection and preparation practices.11 The castaway-related artifacts and features at the site provide context for the bones whose measurements Dr. Jantz analyzed. The archaeological discoveries support his conclusion that “Until definitive evidence is presented that the remains are not those of Amelia Earhart, the most convincing argument is that they are hers.”

Mr. Kasprak responded:

You are welcome to make this point.

TIGHAR agrees that the Nikumaroro hypothesis remains “unproven.” Ninety-nine percent is not certainty, but TIGHAR’s thirty years of science-based research has uncovered and assembled a multi-faceted jigsaw puzzle of archival, forensic, and archaeological evidence that comes as close to certainty as we may ever get – but we will keep  trying to close that 1% gap.



[1]  The Bones Chronology.
[2]  Numbers Game. 
[3]  The Bones Chronology.
[4]  Bones and Bias.
[5]  The Bones Chronology.
[6]  “Earhart Project Receives Diplomatic Approval.” 
[7]  Robert Brandenburg, LCDR USN (ret), Radio Direction Finder Analysis.
[8]  Robert Brandenburg, LCDR USN (ret), Radio Signal Catalog.
[9]  Robert Brandenburg, LCDR USN (ret), Tidal Study: Post Loss Signal Statistics and Tide.
[10] The Object Formerly Known as Nessie.
[11]  Archaeological Context.

Crickets and Corrections

In the wake of the revelation that the photo at the heart of the July 9th History Channel documentary “Amelia Earhart – the Lost Evidence” is from a travel book printed two years before Earhart disappeared, the network canceled scheduled re-broadcasts of the show and withdrew it from streaming and pay-per-view platforms.

“HISTORY has a team of investigators exploring the latest developments about Amelia Earhart  and we will be transparent in our findings. Ultimately, historical accuracy is most important to us and our viewers.”

It has now been more than a month and no findings have been announced. No information has come to light to question the veracity of the book’s publication date. Skeptics have suggested that, because The Life Line of the Sea, My South Sea Memoir is string-bound, it is not a “real book” and pages may have been added after the original 1935 publication date. The National Diet of Japan Library (equivalent of the U.S. Library of Congress) certainly considers it to be a real book, and both the Library Stamp and the copyright page confirm that the book was printed in “Showa Ten” (1935).

Official stamp of the NationalDiet of Japan Library.
Copyright page.

As a service to the History Channel team of investigators, whoever they may be, TIGHAR is pleased to offer an additional correction to information presented in the documentary. Early in the show, former FBI investigator Shawn Henry shows F-16 pilot Dan Hampton a slide of what Henry says is “the index page of all the records relating to Amelia Earhart that were submitted to the National Archives.” He zooms in on one paragraph which Hampton reads aloud:

“This file consists of 170 pages of correspondence and reports relating to the flight of Amelia Earhart and also includes a report dated January 7, 1939 that Earhart was a prisoner in the Marshall Islands.”

But that’s not what the paragraph says. Hampton left out a key phrase. It is not a report that Earhart was a prisoner in the Marshall Islands. It is a report on information that Earhart was a prisoner in the Marshall Islands. Whether the report found the information credible is not mentioned. The report itself is not shown. Henry had earlier said that many documents relating to Earhart are missing.

So where is this January 7, 1939 report and what does it say? Is there a government report, now missing, confirming that Earhart was a prisoner of the Japanese? Actually, the report is right where the National Archives index page says it is, in Record Group 38. It is even featured on the National Archive website page of Records Relating to Amelia Earhart.

It’s a two and a half page communication, apparently from an intelligence officer attached to the American Embassy in Paris. He says he was allowed, by the Chief of the Far Eastern Section of the French Foreign Office, to read papers found in a bottle discovered washed up on the coast of France. The writer of the papers in the bottle, who did not sign the papers nor otherwise identify himself, claimed that his yacht was sunk and his crew of 3 Maoris killed when he “disembarked on Mila [sic] Atoll.” He was imprisoned on Jaluit where he saw “Amelia Earhart and her mechanic as well as several other European prisoners held on charges of spying on large fortifications erected on the atoll.” He says Earhart and her companion were “picked up by a Japanese hydroplane and will serve as hostages.” The writer of the message further claimed that he was subsequently forced to serve as a “stokehold” on an unnamed Japanese ship bound for Europe where he hoped to escape (apparently accounting for why the bottle washed up on the coast of France).

The unlikely location of the bottle’s discovery, the failure to name the Japanese ship, and especially the failure of the supposedly desperate prisoner to identify himself, reveal this to be one of the many hoaxes perpetrated in the aftermath of Earhart’s disappearance.

The report about the bizarre tale was classified “Confidential” at the time and there seems to have been no follow-up by U.S. authorities. It was declassified in 1977.

The History Channel’s team of investigators needs to investigate why the producers of the documentary so grossly misrepresented this document, creating the false impression that the U.S. government had proof that Earhart had been captured by the Japanese. We take the History Channel at their word that they will be transparent in their findings.

The information in this posting was developed with help from contributing members of the TIGHAR Amelia Earhart Search Forum. Special thanks goes to Matt Revington, TIGHAResearcher #4155R; Karen Hoy, TIGHAResearcher #2610RC; Greg Daspit, TIGHAResearcher #3971R, and Dan Brown, TIGHAResearcher #2408R.

Who Is Nei Manganibuka?

When misfortune strikes a TIGHAR expedition to Nikumaroro we often jokingly lay the blame on Nei Manganibuka, “the island goddess.” That’s not quite right. “Island goddess” is a Western construct for what, in the traditional culture of Kiribati (formerly the Gilbert Islands), might be more accurately described as a “spirit ancestor.” Spirit ancestors are often female and have great wisdom and power. In Tungaru, the language of Kiribati, “Nei” is roughly the equivalent of “Ms.” “Manganibuka” means “old woman of the Buka trees.” In Gilbertese mythology, Nei Manganibuka taught the people of the Gilbert Islands the art of long-distance canoe navigation. According to some, her home was “Nikumaroro,” a beautiful island far to the southeast that was covered in Buka trees (Pisonia grandis, massive softwood trees that can grow to a hundred feet tall).

Buka forest on Nikumaroro.

In October, 1937, British Lands Commissioner Harry Maude and Cadet Officer Eric Bevington led an expedition from the over-populated Gilbert islands to the uninhabited islands of the Phoenix Group to assess their suitability for future settlement. Sailing far to the southeast, the first atoll they visited was Gardner Island. When the expedition’s delegation of Gilbertese elders beheld a beautiful atoll covered in Buka trees they immediately concluded that they had discovered Nikumaroro.

When going ashore at Nikumaroro we follow Kiribati tradition and dab some beach sand on our faces. That breeze we feel on our cheeks is Nei Manganibuka sniffing us. We want her to say, “Ahh, these are people of the island. I will not molest them.” (It doesn’t always work.)

Kiribati, by the way, is pronounced “Kiribas.” It’s the local pronunciation of “Gilberts.” The strange spelling has an interesting history. Tungaru, the Gilbertese language, was first transliterated by the American linguist Hiram Bingham II in the late 19th century. Bingham’s typewriter had a broken “s” key so he used “ti” (as in nation) instead. As a consequence, there are no “s”s in the written language. Christmas Island is Kiritimati (Kirismas).

When the first settlers arrived at Nikumaroro in late December 1938 the New Zealand Pacific Islands Survey Expedition was camped on the island’s northwest end. The settlers named that part of the atoll Nutiran (newseeran – New Zealand). The main lagoon inlet is Tatiman (tasman) Passage. The village area was named Ritiati (reesas, after British High Commissioner Richards). Another district was called Noriti (noris, after the Norwich City shipwreck). So it’s all really not as mysterious as it looks.

Ric Gilletipie

Click HERE for a detailed ethnohistory of Nikumaroro in the TIGHAR Ameliapedia.

I Hope You Find Something

It has happened a hundred times. I’ll be signing a book after a speaking presentation in which I’ve spent an hour, and often two, going through the many discoveries TIGHAR has made in our Earhart investigation, and the new book owner will say, “That was SO interesting! I sure hope you find something.” At which point I smile, turn, and start banging my head against the wall.

But seriously, I do understand why people say that. Preponderance of evidence is great. Most historical questions are answered by a broad array of mutually supportive data rather than by the discovery of a single “smoking gun,” but in the case of a mystery as iconic and contentious as the Earhart disappearance it is going to take more than a mile-high pile of circumstantial evidence to finally solve the mystery of Amelia Earhart’s fate.

What do we mean when we say “finally solve the mystery?” I would suggest it means acceptance by the general public that a particular explanation of what happened to Earhart is supported by incontrovertible evidence. It means people saying, “It’s good to know what really happened.”

After twenty-eight years of research we have uncovered evidence from multiple avenues of investigation suggesting that Earhart and Noonan made a relatively safe landing on the reef at Gardner Island (now Nikumaroro), and sent radio distress calls for several nights before the aircraft was washed into the ocean by rising tides and surf. Earhart survived as a castaway for weeks and perhaps months before dying at a makeshift campsite at the island’s southeast end. Noonan’s fate is less clear.

What is needed to close the case is either a DNA match to human remains or a conclusively identifiable artifact that can be linked uniquely to Earhart. Let’s consider those possibilities.


A DNA match is possible, but unlikely. The castaway bones found in 1940 were sent to Fiji but the bones disappeared and the chain of evidence is long since broken. Were bones to be found in Fiji that match Earhart’s DNA, it would prove that the bones were Earhart’s but it would not prove where the bones came from. To prove that Earhart died on Nikumaroro, the DNA match would have to be to a bone archaeologically recovered on Nikumaroro. Only thirteen bones were found in 1940. The rest were presumed to have been carried off by crabs.

The survival of a bone in that environment after so many years is possible. We found a fragment of a human finger bone there in 2010 but there was insufficient surviving mitochondrial DNA to get a sequence for matching. DNA survives best in cold, dark conditions, and there is just not a lot of cold and dark on Nikumaroro. What the island does have is a large population of rats. Rats chew up bones for the calcium. Still, more bones or bone fragments may survive, but finding them is a daunting task and the chance that they would yield usable DNA seems remote.


Finding an artifact linked directly to Earhart or Noonan would do the trick but, again, the object must be found “in situ,” undisturbed by humans from the time of Earhart’s presence on the island.  We’ve found a number of artifacts at the castaway site that could be Earhart-related but none of them meet the requirement of being uniquely linked to her or Noonan.  That’s not surprising.  After weeks or months surviving in a harsh environment, what would a castaway have?  The numbers on the sextant box found in 1940 establish that it was for the same kind of sextant Noonan used as a back-up, but that’s not good enough.  If we could find records that prove that Noonan owned that particular sextant, that would be great but we still wouldn’t have the object in hand.

Airplane parts found in the abandoned village, no matter how convincing, were brought there from somewhere else – but from where? Island folklore says that the early settlers salvaged parts from a “downed plane” and former residents have described seeing airplane wreckage on the reef – but those are stories, and stories that may or may not be true. We’ve found airplane parts in the abandoned village. Some are WWII debris that was imported from elsewhere. Other pieces are more likely from the Electra, but “more likely” doesn’t cut it, and there’s no way to be sure how they got there.

So What Do We Need?

A smoking gun airplane part would have to be found wherever it was deposited by natural forces, not human intervention. Any component of a Lockheed Model 10 would qualify,
because NR16020 was the only Electra that was ever within thousands of miles of Nikumaroro, but a part that was unique to Earhart’s airplane would obviously be icing on that cake. Finally, the nature of the discovery must be such that there can be no accusation that someone planted it there.

So, to summarize, we need a clearly authentic, in situ, conclusively identifiable part of a Lockheed Electra. Whether something like that still exists and, more to the point, can be found, has been the focus of TIGHAR’s work at Nikumaroro.  It’s an extraordinarily high bar but as Carl Sagan famously said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”  TIGHAR aspires to the extraordinary.