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.