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 Of far more certain significance are original historical documents and photos contemporary with the events in question.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. The directional bearings taken by Pan American and the Coast Guard indicate that the signals were coming from the vicinity of Gardner Island. 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.
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.
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. 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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
The artifact has been shown to definitely not be from a PBY flying boat.
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.
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.