Amelia Earhart's Fate: The Archaeological Investigations

The Loss of an Aviation Pioneer

Ameila Earhart With Airplane
Amelia Earhart stands June 14, 1928 in front of her bi-plane called 'Friendship' in Newfoundland. Carlene Mendieta, who is trying to recreate Earhart's 1928 record as the first woman to fly across the US and back again, left Rye, NY on September 5, 2001. Earhart (1898 - 1937) disappeared without trace over the Pacific Ocean in her attempt to fly around the world in 1937. Hulton Archive / Staff/ Getty Images News/ Getty Images

On July 2, 1937, aviation pioneers Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan vanished into legend. The two explorers—Earhart piloting, Noonan navigating—were trying to be the first to circumnavigate the globe at the equator, and they’d made it all the way around from Oakland, California eastward to Lae, New Guinea. On the morning of the 2nd their fuel-heavy Lockheed Electra 10E took off from Lae heading for Howland Island, a tiny speck of coral in the mid-Pacific, where they were to refuel and fly to Honolulu, and thence back to Oakland. They didn’t make it. The US Coast Guard Cutter Itasca, lying off Howland, received messages from them—the last saying that they were flying “on the line 157-337”—but couldn’t establish two-way communication or a radio direction-finding fix. Earhart and Noonan couldn’t see the island, or communicate with Itasca. The messages ended, and that was that.

Looking for Amelia

The U.S. didn’t give Earhart up easily. She was a tremendous celebrity--a heroine at a time when people badly needed heroines. First woman across the Atlantic, first woman to fly nonstop across the U.S. First to fly to the mainland from Hawaii. Women’s altitude record holder. She was an inspiration to young women everywhere. You, she insisted and demonstrated, can do anything a man can do. So the nation wasn’t ready to shrug its shoulders and accept that she was gone. Nor was her husband and partner George Putnam, who had been her supporter and agent from the start. Putnam did everything but break down doors at the War Department, the State Department, and the White House, insisting that the Navy, the Coast Guard, the British in the nearby Crown Colony of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands turn the Pacific upside down looking for her.

They tried; the aircraft carrier Lexington, the battleship Colorado, and other Navy and Coast Guard ships and planes criss-crossed the area where she’d last been heard. The British deployed island residents to search the shores of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands for debris, and sent a chartered boat out to investigate a location where Putnam—possibly on the advice of a medium—thought Earhart might be. But everyone came up empty-handed. Earhart’s fate, Noonan’s fate, remain a mystery.

Mysteries demand solutions, and many answers to the Earhart/Noonan mystery have been proposed over the years. They ran out of gas and crashed at sea. They were captured by the Japanese and executed. They were involved in an elaborate espionage operation against the Japanese, and were secreted in other countries, or in the U.S. under assumed names. They were seized by aliens, or blundered through a Bermuda Triangle-type rip in the time-space continuum. Books have been written, television shows produced, archives searched, islanders and World War II GIs and Japanese officials interviewed. Lots of assertions have been made, lots of allegations have been confidently stated but lightly substantiated. Proponents of the various “theories” typically ignore or dismiss all others but their own, though there are some vituperative arguments behind the scenes. But no one has proved anything.


In the late 1980s, a tiny non-profit group in Wilmington, Delaware—The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery or TIGHAR (pronounced “tiger”)—entered the fray. Organized by the dynamic husband-wife team of Ric Gillespie and Pat Thrasher, who continue to oversee its operations today, one of TIGHAR’s purposes is to apply scientific techniques to investigating aviation historical mysteries. TIGHAR had avoided the Earhart arguments because none of the hypotheses put forward seemed testable using available methods, but then two retired navigators, Tom Gannon and Tom Willi, approached Gillespie with a “new” idea that was testable—using, among others, the methods of archaeology. As an archaeologist with Pacific island experience and a dearth of common sense, I got involved in TIGHAR’s work, and we’ve been at it ever since.

Our adventures in pursuit of Earhart and Noonan are recounted in a book that several of my colleagues and I published a few years ago, and republished in 2004 in updated, expanded form, called (AltaMira Press, 2004). Ric Gillespie is finishing work on a more exhaustive book about the disappearance, the search, and our studies--particularly a study of the many radio messages received after Earhart’s disappearance that were at first thought to have come from her and later were dismissed as mistakes and hoaxes. We hope that book, tentatively titled The Suitcase in My Closet, will be in bookstores within the next year or so.

Our project is an interdisciplinary one--our all-volunteer research team includes oceanographers, meteorologists, experts in navigation, radio science, island geology and ecology, forensic anthropology, and a host of other fields. In this article I’d like to focus on how my own science--archaeology--is contributing to the study.

What "the Toms"—Willi and Gannon—pointed out to Ric Gillespie back in the '80s was that to a celestial navigator, that last radio message, about flying 157-337, had a very specific meaning. A line from 157 to 337 degrees on the compass is a line perpendicular to the sunrise on the morning of July 2. It's a line that, following standard navigational practice of the day, Noonan would have laid out when he shot the sunrise with his navigational instruments and fixed their position. He then would have advanced that line—alled the "line of position" or LOP--by dead reckoning along their line of flight until he calculated that they should be within sight of Howland Island. If they couldn't see the island, then they'd simply fly up and down the line until they did see it, or got in contact with the Itasca. And if they didn’t see Howland, didn't contact the cutter? Then there was another bigger island, much more visible than Howland, a couple of hours flying time right down the LOP—an uninhabited island in the Phoenix Island group, at the time called Gardner Island, now called Nikumaroro.

That, the Toms proposed, was where Earhart and Noonan had wound up. Nikumaroro today is part of the Republic of Kiribati, pronounced "Kiribas". In Earhart’s day it was part of the British Crown Colony of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands.

Ric and Pat raised the several hundred thousand dollars necessary to get a team to Nikumaroro, and in 1989 we undertook our first archaeological survey. We've been back to the island five times in the last 16 years, and have done research on other islands in the vicinity as well as in Fiji, Tarawa, Funafuti, Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain, the Solomon Islands, and even--to gain comparative data from Lockheed Electra crash sites--in Idaho and Alaska. We haven’t proved the hypothesis to be correct, but we have quite a bit of evidence pointing that way. A lot of that evidence is archaeological.

Evidence From the Village

In 1938, Nikumaroro was colonized as part of the Phoenix Islands Settlement Scheme (yes, the PISS)--an effort to bleed off surplus population from the southern Gilbert Islands into economically self-sufficient coconut plantations in the mostly uninhabited Phoenix group. A village was established near the north end of the island, and in 1940 the colonial administrator, Gerald B. Gallagher, set up his headquarters there. Gallagher died and was buried on the island in 1941, but the colony lasted until 1963 when it succumbed to drought conditions.

The village is a rather ghostly place today. Through the rampant vegetation--coconut, pandanus, a really nasty shrub called Scaevola--you can still see the neat coral-slab curbs that line the dead-straight, seven-meter-wide streets, and the remains of the big flagstaff can still be seen in the middle of the graveled parade ground, next to Gallagher’s grave. Public buildings stood on concrete platforms, which today loom out of the foliage, and the ground is littered with the artifacts of daily life--cans, bottles, dishpans, a bicycle here, a sewing machine there--poking up through the rotting coconuts and palm fronds.

Aircraft Aluminum?

We didn’t plan to do archaeology in the village--an unlikely place to find a big Lockheed Electra or a couple of lost flyers--but as it’s turned out, we've done a bit of work there, and found a lot. To put it simply, the place is crazy with aircraft aluminum, most of it cut into small pieces for use in handicrafts--made into hair combs, used as inlay in woodwork. The colonists were apparently "quarrying" the aluminum somewhere and bringing it to the village. In surveys of specific house sites and in more general walkabouts, we’ve found several dozen little pieces, and a few bigger ones.

Where were they quarrying it? Some of the aluminum is from a B-24; it's got part numbers that match B-24 specifications. A B-24 crashed on Kanton Island, northeast of Nikumaroro, and there was some travel between the islands during and after the War, so the source of these pieces is easily nailed down. But much of the aluminum, especially the small, cut-up pieces, doesn't appear to be military. No serial numbers, no zinc chromate paint. And some pieces have rivets that match those in Earhart's Electra. Four pieces, all from the same part of the village, represent some kind of interior fixture that was nailed to a wooden deck. Until recently we thought they were “dados”--used along the edges of an airplane’s deck to give it a finished look and cover up control cables, but we now think they may be insulating devices, perhaps used to insulate fuel tanks from nearby heater ducts. But we still don't know where any of the apparently non-military aluminum came from.

Why don’t we ask the colonists? We have. They left in 1963, and are now either in a village named Nikumaroro in the Solomon Islands, or scattered across other islands of the area. Tapania Taiki, who lived on the island in the 1950s as a little girl, says she remembers an airplane wing on the reef near the village, and the elders told the kids to stay away from it because it had something to do with the ghosts of a man and a woman. Emily Sikuli, who lives in Fiji, left Nikumaroro in 1941, but says her father showed her airplane wreckage on the same part of the reef, and that human bones were found in the area.

Rumors of Shoes

In 1991, Ric Gillespie got the idea that a very small grave we’d found near the middle of the south side of the island was where the colonists had buried Earhart’s bones. The origin of this strange notion was a story told by a former Coast Guardsman, Floyd Kilts, to a San Diego Tribune reporter in 1960. Kilts--dead by the time we learned of the story--had said he was sure that Earhart had wound up on Nikumaroro, because when he was there in 1946 a “native” had told him of finding human bones and a “woman’s shoe, American kind” on the island. The “Irish magistrate,” he said, had “thought of Earhart right away,” and set out to row the bones to Fiji in the island’s four-oared boat. But he had died en route, and the “superstitious natives” had thrown the bones overboard.

A strange story, and we speculated a lot about it. When the isolated grave turned up, Ric speculated about that, too. Why so far from the village? Why in such an isolated place? Why so small? Maybe the bones had been disarticulated, and maybe the colonists were afraid of the ghost that might be attached to them. Maybe they were the bones Kilts had heard about.

So Ric got permission from the government to excavate the grave, and in 1991 a TIGHAR team landed on the island to do so. They excavated it with all the care that archaeology requires, and all the respect due a dead person, and found the remains of an infant. So much for that; they put the bones back, and filled in the grave.

Shoe Fragments

But while they were doing so, one of the team members, Tommy Love, was changing his boots when a small coconut crab ran under his legs and turned over a leaf, exposing the heel of a shoe. The heel was embossed with the name “Cat’s-Paw”--an American brand. Detailed search of the vicinity revealed the fragmentary sole associated with the heel, and the heel of a different shoe. The sole-heel combination were the remains of a woman’s blucher-style oxford, dating--said shoe experts--to the 1930s or thereabouts--while the other heel was from a man’s shoe.

Earhart wore blucher-style oxfords; we have pictures. But it appears in the pictures that her shoes were smaller than the one found on the island. But we know from news accounts of her flight that she carried at least a couple of pairs of shoes. Was one pair more commodious than another, perhaps to accommodate heavy socks when flying? We don’t know. The shoe parts remain in TIGHAR’s collection, the subjects of endless speculation.

The Seven Site

The place on the island where we’ve done the most intensive archaeological fieldwork is called the Seven Site--because of a natural seven-shaped clearing in the Scaevola that covers it. The Seven Site is near the southeast end of the island on the windward (northeast) side, about a quarter mile northwest of the old Coast Guard station, about two miles southeast of the village and across the lagoon. There’s a colonial-era water tank there, a scatter of artifacts, and a hole in the ground.

In 1997, New Zealand TIGHAR member Peter McQuarrie was doing research in the Kiribati National Archives on Tarawa for his World War II history book Conflict in Kiribati, and came upon a file titled “Skeleton, Human, finding of on Gardner Island.” It contained copies of 1940-41 wireless traffic between Gallagher on Nikumaroro and his superiors, mostly in Fiji, about the discovery of a partial human skeleton near the southeast end of the island. The bones were associated with a woman’s shoe and a sextant box, as well as a Benedictine bottle and the remains of a fire with bird and turtle bones. Gallagher thought they might represent the remains of Earhart.

So Kilts had not been completely off-base, but instead of rowing the bones to Fiji, Gallagher had searched the site and sent the bones to Fiji on a small ship that serviced the islands. There they were examined by Dr. David Hoodless, who decided they represented a male, of European or mixed ethnicity. Further research in England turned up Dr. Hoodless’ notes, with measurements of the bones. TIGHAR turned these over to forensic anthropologists Karen Burns and Richard Jantz, who applied the modern forensic program FORDISC, and concluded--with lots of caveats--that the bones appeared to have been most like those an adult woman of European ethnicity, about Earhart’s height.

The records ended in early 1942, with the bones being held for government by Hoodless. Needless to say, we immediately launched a search for them, with the aid of the Fiji Museum. At this writing, we’ve not located either the bones or the shoe, bottle, and sextant box. And a comparison of Gallagher’s description of the sextant box with such boxes in historical collections around the world has produced only one with similar features. Interestingly, however, that one--now in the Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola, Florida--belonged to Fred Noonan.

If we can’t find the bones in Fiji, we thought, perhaps we can find some on Nikumaroro. Unfortunately, Gallagher left no map--or at least we haven’t found one--showing where on the southeast end of the island the bones were discovered. But the Seven Site is near the southeast end, and we began to wonder about those colonial-era artifacts on it, and the water tank, and a hole in the ground. Did the debris represent stuff left during Gallagher’s search? Had the tank been set up to supply the searchers? Gallagher had written that the original discoverers of the skull had buried it, and he was poised to excavate it. Did the hole in the ground represent where the skull had been buried, and then dug up? Might there be teeth--excellent reservoirs of mitochondrial DNA, left in the hole?

2001 Excavations at the Seven Site

So in 2001 we attacked the Seven Site, clearing a lot of Scaevola and very, very carefully re-excavating the hole. We found no teeth, but nearby we did find a whole series of locations where there had been fires, associated with Frigate Bird, reef fish, and Green Sea Turtle bones. And we found some clusters of giant clam (Tridacna) shells, and a few artifacts. It’s clear that someone spent time at the Seven Site cooking birds, fish, and at least one sea turtle. Someone also hauled at least thirty or forty Tridacna clams up to the site, probably from nearby clam beds, and opened some of them in odd ways. Island people typically sneak up on giant clams while they’re sitting with their shells open, siphoning microscopic food particles out of the water, and quickly slice the adductor muscle that allows them to close their shells. With the clam immobilized, the harvester can then cut out the meat or safely bring the open shell ashore with the meat aboard. The clams at the Seven Site, however, had been brought ashore closed, and then someone had tried to pry some of them open by jamming a sharp piece of metal (which we found) through the hinge.

When this didn’t work, they’d taken the clam in one hand and used the other to smash it open with a coral rock. The way you open an oyster in the eastern U.S. is by jamming an implement through the hinge. Was whoever tried to open Tridacna at the Seven Site more familiar with eastern U.S. oysters than with giant Pacific clams?

Most of the artifacts found so far at the Seven Site are probably of colonial origin, or associated with the Coast Guard (M-1 rounds, for example), but a few may be something else. There's the little metal implement that someone tried to use to open the clams--a pointed chunk of ferrous metal, perhaps a piece of a hatch from the Norwich City, a 1929 shipwreck that lies on the reef off the northwest end of the island. There are three pieces of glass--one piece of plate glass, one fragment of a drinking glass, one fragment of a fishing float--found together in a cluster, as though they’d been in a bag or pocket, perhaps picked up on the beach and held for use in cutting things. There are two little—things--made of aluminum, punctured with wood screws, with scalloped edges. They look like perhaps clips of some kind, but several other uses have been suggested, and we really just don’t know. And there’s a lot of corrugated iron that someone spread over much of the site at some time in the past--all reduced to rust now.

What on earth, we wonder, is that all about? Ric Gillespie speculates that whoever camped there dragged it in to catch water; I think he’s nuts, and speculate that Gallagher had it brought in to cover up the area he inspected to impede vegetation growth.

We estimate that we cleared and inspected only perhaps twenty percent of the Seven Site in 2001. We found five fire areas, and excavated only three of them. We need to do more work at the site, and until we do, we’re reserving judgment, but it certainly looks like we may have found the site where Gallagher and the colonists found the bones--a place near the southeast end of the island, associated with fire, bird, and turtle bones. Perhaps--just perhaps--more archaeology at the site will tell us whether the human bones were Earhart’s.

It costs over half a million U.S. dollars to take a reasonable sized archaeological team to Nikumaroro and keep it there for a month or so, and since our last full-scale expedition--we were on the island on 9-11-01--fundraising for the pursuit of obscure mysteries has become even harder than it used to be. We’re hoping to get a team into the field in 2006, however, with two major jobs.

  • More work at the Seven Site. We’d like to clear and closely inspect the surface of the whole site, and carefully excavate some more fire areas. We’d like to do a subsurface survey of it using ground-penetrating radar, in case there’s a grave there. If the bones found on the surface in 1940 were Earhart’s, then Noonan’s remains must be somewhere. We want to plot the extent of the corrugated iron, and try to figure out what it’s there for.
  • More work in the village. We’d like to look very closely at the part of the village where the four “dados” have been found. Whatever the things were, they must have been brought to the village in some related set of events. Imported from Kanton Island by a particular group of residents? Found on a wreck someplace? Floated ashore attached to a chunk of wooden floor? Maybe finding out more about the area where they were lying--what buildings stood there, what activities were going on--will help us figure them out. And of course, there may be more airplane parts there.

    Deep Water Exploration?

    There are other things we’d like to do, like deep-water exploration of the reef face near where Emily Sikuli and Tapania Taiki reported wreckage, but that sort of work gets frightfully expensive. The reef drops off to abyssal depths, and it’s a long way--about seven miles--down into the abyss. That’s a lot of territory in which to look for small fragments of aluminum and a couple of radial aircraft engines.

    There’s another reason, too, for concentrating our work on land. There’s pretty good evidence that we’re losing the island to rising sea levels. The inundation of the atolls of Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, and other low island groups in the Pacific is something that the governments of the area are deeply worried about, and it’s happening all over, at varying rates and in various ways. On Nikumaroro, it’s not that big pieces of the island go underwater and stay there, but--so far--that storm-driven waves reach farther and farther in from the shore, tearing up the land and killing the vegetation. In the 16 years we’ve been going to the island we’ve seen a regular pattern of erosion along the southwest shore, where the big storms tend to come in. Unfortunately, the area of heaviest erosion borders the village. House sites we recorded in 1989--including one that contained one of our “dados,” which we fortunately collected--have disappeared entirely in the years since then. Nikumaroro probably isn’t going to vanish beneath the waves anytime very soon, but a piece of it containing critical evidence could go any time--and perhaps already has.


    The Nikumaroro hypothesis isn’t the only one whose study can and does employ archaeological methods. In 2004, archaeologists in the Northern Mariana Islands tested one version of the Japanese Capture hypothesis--the Tinian Variant, it might be called. St. John Naftel, a U.S. Marine stationed on Tinian (home of the B-29s that bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki) at the end of World War II, said he had been shown two graves on that island, said to be where the Japanese had executed and buried the aviators. Jennings Bunn, just retired from a position as the U.S. Navy’s archaeologist on Guam, organized a field project to examine the place where Mr. Naftel said he’d seen the graves. Feeling that any hypothesis deserves a test, Karen Burns and I volunteered to help out, as did a number of academic and contract archaeologists on Guam and in the Northern Marianas. We carefully hand-excavated the location Mr. Naftel pointed out, right down to bedrock, and found nothing. Excavation director Mike Fleming then brought in a big gradeall and we stripped the surrounding acreage, with no results.

    The Northern Marianas Historic Preservation Office is now planning archaeological excavations around the old Japanese jail in Garapan on Saipan, where some variants on the Japanese capture hypothesis say Earhart was incarcerated and perhaps executed. And the deep-ocean exploratory firm Nauticos continues to plan a search for Earhart’s Lockheed on the ocean bottom near Howland Island. What will come of these enterprises remains to be seen.

    In TIGHAR’s view, the Nikumaroro hypothesis remains the only one worth spending much time and money on. Planning and fundraising are now underway for a major expedition to the island in 2006.