Tag Archives: Nikumaroro

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.

Nauticos Strikes Out

After 42 days at sea, Nauticos has concluded search operations and is headed home, having failed for the third time to find any trace of the Earhart Electra. The technology deployed by scientists and technicians from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution seems to have functioned well, and the 1,800 square-mile target area was presumably examined. There is, undoubtedly, some value in mapping that relatively tiny segment of the vast Pacific, and the daily educational postings on the expedition’s website were well-received, but the point of the reportedly three million dollar effort was to find the aircraft – and it didn’t.

Nauticos’ failure to find the Lockheed on the ocean bottom near Howland Island doesn’t prove it isn’t there. What proves it isn’t there are the many radio distress calls that were sent from the aircraft for six nights following its disappearance. As was known at the time, those signals could only have come from the aircraft if it was on its wheels and able to run an engine to recharge the battery upon which the transmitter relied for power. When the Navy’s aerial search failed to see an aircraft on land, it was assumed – but never proved – that the messages were somehow bogus. The subsequent open-ocean search turned up nothing. If only one of the 57 credible receptions was genuine, the airplane did not go down at sea.

Adherents of the Crashed & Sank theory are quick to disregard the artifacts TIGHAR has found on Nikumaroro as being attributable to later activity – always a possibility with archaeological discoveries. Bones and objects found in 1940, before the island was subject to much in the way of human presence, are more difficult to dismiss. Electromagnetic phenomena, documented in contemporary sources, are not subject to the “it could be anything” wave of the hand. Those signals came from a radio that was transmitting on frequencies that were reserved for U.S. registered aircraft, and they originated from the vicinity of Gardner Island.

There are two possibilities:

1.  There was a hoaxer who had a transmitter that could broadcast on Earhart’s two primary frequencies; knew that neither Earhart nor Noonan was adept at Morse code; was able to mimic Earhart’s voice; and was pre-positioned on or near Gardner Island and therefore knew several days in advance that the flight would not reach Howland Island —


2.   The signals were sent from the Electra on Gardner Island.

Take your pick.

Responding to Nauticos, Part Three

Third and final installment.

Jourdan: So, what about the “mounting evidence” that Tighar touts? I got a chuckle out of a TV news reporter who said they “… had been finding evidence for 24 years.” I would have said, “… they have been FAILING to find evidence for 24 years”! But once you accept the (false) premise that Amelia flew to Niku, then you are tempted to associate ANYTHING you find with her!

Gillespie: TIGHAR is testing a hypothesis, not accepting a premise. In the course of eleven expeditions to Nikumaroro over a period of 28 years TIGHAR has found thousands of artifacts and collected hundreds, mostly for the purpose of establishing context. You can’t spot what is unusual if you don’t know what is usual. Of the 418 artifacts collected, only 54 (about 13%) are thought to be possibly associated with Earhart, Noonan, or the Electra.

Archeological recoveries, however, are by no means the most compelling evidence that the Earhart flight ended at Nikumaroro. Anything found on the island after 24 years of habitation (1939 to 1963), unless unquestionably attributable to Earhart or Noonan, is open to interpretation. Of far more certain significance are original historical documents and photos contemporary with the events in question.

Fifty-seven credible post-loss radio transmissions establish that the flight reached land and made a relatively safe landing.[1] The directional bearings taken by Pan American and the Coast Guard indicate that the signals were coming from the vicinity of Gardner Island.[2] Reconstruction of the water levels on the reef where photographic evidence suggests the plane was landed, show that the transmissions, which spanned six days, were made only at times when an engine could be run to recharge the battery upon which the transmitter depended for power.[3]

A photograph of the western shoreline of Gardner Island taken in October 1937, three months after the airplane disappeared, shows an object on the reef that forensic experts agree is consistent with the wreckage of a Lockheed Electra main landing gear assembly.[4]

Three years after Earhart disappeared a partial skeleton was discovered at a crude campsite at the remote southeast end of the atoll. The presence of the remains of a woman’s shoe and a box which had once contained a sextant caused the recently-arrived Colonial Service officer to suspect that the unfortunate castaway was Amelia Earhart. British authorities in Fiji chose not to inform the American consul nor seek help from anatomical experts in Australia. The bones were examined by a doctor in Fiji and judged to be male. The sextant box was identified as being for a mariner’s instrument, not a bubble octant as was used for aerial navigation. No further inquiries were made.[5] The bones and artifacts were dismissed as unimportant and apparently discarded or lost. The entire incident survived only as a distorted and widely ridiculed rumor until, after ten years of dogged research, TIGHAR tracked down the original British file in 1998. Re-assessment of the bone measurements taken by the British doctor by anthropologists using current forensic tools suggest that the castaway was a female of northern European descent.[6] The numbers reported to have been on the sextant box indicate it was the same kind of sextant Noonan used as a back-up instrument.[7]

None of that has anything to do with artifacts we have found.

Jourdan: Here is a short list of the claims made by TIGHAR and their outcome. Tighar has NEVER found a thing remotely proven to be related to Amelia, that doesn’t have a much simpler explanation.

The presence of a shipwreck (the Norwich City, with passengers & crew of 34), colonists (up to 100, including a British colonial HQ), and debris that washes on shores all around the world are reasonable & likely sources for what man-made items they have found.

Gillespie: Let’s take those objections in order.

The SS Norwich City had a crew of 35 men. There were no passengers and there were no women aboard. When the ship went aground on the reef on the night of November 30, 1929 extreme seas prevented the successful launch of the ship’s lifeboats. Everyone went in the water. Twenty-four made it to the shore alive. Four bodies washed up and were buried by the survivors. The other seven were presumed drowned and/or taken by sharks. The survivors were rescued five days later.[8]

Could the castaway whose partial skeleton and campsite were found in 1940, have been an unknown survivor of the Norwich City shipwreck in 1929? For that to be true he would have to make it to shore alive but not re-unite with the others for five days. He would also have to be wearing one man’s shoe and one woman’s shoe. I suppose stranger things have happened. I just can’t think of any at the moment.

Could artifacts found on the island be attributable to the 100+ colonists who once lived there? Of course they could. They could also be from the U.S. Coast Guard LORAN station that was there from 1944 to 1946. Most of the artifacts collected and studied by TIGHAR are clearly attributable to the island’s 24-year period of inhabitation. They establish context. As noted above, anything found on the island now, unless unquestionably attributable to Earhart or Noonan, is open to interpretation. Objects found in 1940? — not so much.

And what about wash-up? Could the shoe parts and sextant box found with the castaway in 1940 have been washed there by the ocean? All kinds of flotsam does wash up on Pacific islands but the site is well above the high tide line on relatively high ground at the southeast end, a part of the island that is sheltered from storms. There is no indication that it has been over-washed. Of course, a castaway could beachcomb useful objects, but it’s difficult to explain what use he could make of part of the sole of a woman’s shoe. It’s easier to think that he might find a sextant box useful, but finding a box for the same kind of American sextant Fred Noonan used as a back-up instrument would be an extraordinary coincidence. It seems more reasonable to attribute the objects found at the site in 1940 to exactly what they appeared to be: items worn or belonging to the castaway.

Jourdan: A woman’s shoe sole that was claimed to be from the type she wore. However, it was not the right size, and could have been from many other sources. (They theorized she wore bigger shoes while flying because her feet would swell.)

Gillespie: Mr. Jourdan’s information is at least 16 years old. TIGHAR’s current research on the shoe parts found in 1991 was published in the April 2016 issue of TIGHAR Tracks.[9]

Jourdan: Aluminum plate that had rivet patterns different than a Lockheed L10 Electra. Tighar suggested it was a repair to the plane, hence the different rivet patterns. When it was pointed out that there was no documentation of such a repair, they said it could have been an “undocumented repair.” (P.S. This is the source of the metal piece they are now touting as a window covering. It is actually very likely from a PBY flying boat. The rivet patterns DO match that!)

Gillespie: That a special window on the Electra was replaced with a plain aluminum patch while the aircraft was in Miami at the start of Earhart’s second world flight attempt is beyond question. The repair was undocumented, except in a series of irrefutable photographs.[10]

The artifact has been shown to definitely not be from a PBY flying boat.[11]

Jourdan: A bone claimed to be Amelia’s finger bone, that upon lab examination could not be verified as human, and was probably the rear flipper bone from a turtle.

Gillespie: TIGHAR never claimed the bone was Amelia’s finger bone. The following is from a press release we put out on March 1, 2011:

As detailed in the Earhart DNA Research Update released by Cecil M. Lewis, Jr., Ph.D., of the University of Oklahoma Molecular Anthropology Laboratories, tests of a bone fragment that could conceivably be from Amelia Earhart’s finger are, to date, inconclusive. The bone fragment was found on Nikumaroro, known at the time of Earhart’s 1937 disappearance as Gardner Island, where a large and growing body of circumstantial evidence suggests the missing flyer and her navigator, Fred Noonan, landed and lived for a time as castaways only to eventually perish on the uninhabited, waterless atoll.

The archaeological site where the bone fragment was found fits the description of where the partial skeleton of a castaway was discovered in 1940, three years after Earhart disappeared. No hand bones were found at that time so the presence of a surviving human finger bone on the site seems plausible. The bone fragment is clearly from an animal that was neither a bird nor a fish, and is structurally finger-like. The only animals known to have been on Nikumaroro that have finger-like bones are humans and sea turtles. Although there were some turtle bones in the area, all were associated with the shell – no limb bones have been identified. As described in Dr. Lewis’ report, initial tests for the presence of human mitochondrial DNA in the bone fragment were positive, but subsequent testing was unable to replicate those results. More general tests for animal DNA were negative. As Dr. Lewis says, at this time it is not possible to make any definitive statements on the bone’s origin.

Jourdan: Lumps of “clay” in the sand around the campfire that they claimed was Amelia’s poop. They even put it in a plastic bag and sent it to the U. of Oklahoma for analysis! No luck.

Gillespie: From the same press release:

The lab’s analysis of clumps of a substance recovered from the same archaeological site that may be human fecal matter has been more rewarding. The clumps’ physical characteristics were initially examined by University of Maine anthropologist Kristin Sobolik, Ph.D., who has extensive experience in analyzing ancient fecal material. She concluded the mass had some fecal properties and recommended that TIGHAR ask Dr. Lewis to further evaluate the clumps using molecular genetic methods. The University of Oklahoma Molecular Anthropology Laboratories were successful in detecting human mitochondrial DNA in the material. Unlike the bone fragment, the presence of human DNA in the clumps is unambiguous. DNA from two individuals was detected but, to date, the amount extracted is not sufficient for comparison to reference samples. More sophisticated testing is now under way in the hope of learning more.

Jourdan: A rust-colored pixel in a satellite image of the reef. They claimed it was the rusting hulk of the plane. Never mind the plane was made of aluminum, which has never been known to generate iron oxide when it corodes! Turned out to be brown algae.

Gillespie: TIGHAR never claimed the rust-colored pixels were anything but an unusual feature that was worth investigating. It turned out to be algae.

Jourdan: Some sonar images that show straight lines, claimed to be parts of the plane. Independent analysis by at least two experts, after correcting for glitches in the image, shows this feature to be much bigger than initially supposed and part of a larger geological structure. No plane.

Gillespie: There were no glitches in the image and the scaling of the object was correct. The object was anomalous in the sonar mosaic delivered to us by the contractor who conducted the survey of the reef slope. We thought it might be the airplane but we never claimed it was the airplane. It was something that needed further investigation. Upon digging into the raw sonar data, we discovered that the contractor had used only one of four sonar lines to construct the mosaic. When the other lines were examined it became apparent that there were several other similar features in the same area. They are probably low coral ridges.[12]

Jourdan: And others, equally unprovable. See a fairly scathing commentary: Randall Brink. Despite debunking of all of this, they still claim there is “mounting evidence.” The only connection between what they have found and Amelia Earhart is: They are LOOKING for Amelia Earhart.

Gillespie: It is not difficult to find critics of TIGHAR who are equally as uninformed as Mr. Jourdan. We accept that as inevitable in a subject as emotionally charged as the fate of Amelia Earhart.

Jourdan: Oh, and BTW, Niku Island is less than 4 square miles in area! It’s available for satellite imagery, aerial photography, and ground surveys. Tighar teams have visited many times over decades. Don’t you think they would have found something by now? (By contrast, we are searching 1,800 square miles at 18,000 ft. depth.)

Gillespie: I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Jourdan.

Jourdan: In conclusion, I would not advise anyone to contribute to Gillespie’s efforts if they hope that he will find the Electra. If you feel sorry for Ric and want to subsidize his personal income, or help Tighar with an educational program, or just want to get PR for associating with their expedition, fine. But don’t for a minute believe that he is conducting a valid search for Amelia!

Gillespie: It’s regrettable that Mr. Jourdan attempts to undermine TIGHAR’s efforts by resorting to personal insults.

I hope my responses to his allegations have been useful and informative to anyone who is interested in TIGHAR’s investigation, but what I have presented here is only the tip of the iceberg. You’ll find a wealth of historical documents and research reports in TIGHAR’s Earhart Project Archives, and the on-line TIGHAR Tracks archives. If you’re not already a member of TIGHAR, I invite you to join us and support our continuing research. Click HERE for several membership options.

Thank you.