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K. Kris Hirst

Whatever Happened to Amelia Earhart? The Archaeological Evidence

By June 4, 2012

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Pioneer aviator Amelia Earhart and her co-pilot Fred Noonan disappeared somewhere over the Pacific Ocean in July of 1937, and people have been looking for her ever since. The latest evidence--the broken pieces of a jar of 1930s era freckle cream used by Earhart--was found by TIGHAR, The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, who over the past two decades has discovered several tantalizing clues from archaeological research on Nikumaroro, a tiny island in Kiribati.

Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan
Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan. Photo in TIGHAR Collection, courtesy Purdue University Library

The Amelia Earhart Project is an archaeologically-based study run by TIGHAR, whose senior research archaeologist Tom King, a colleague and friend of mine, wrote a piece for us called Amelia Earhart's Fate: The Archaeological Investigation some years ago. Since that time, a few more archaeological field seasons have passed—and Tom published a novel based on the evidence called Thirteen Bones. Recently, TIGHAR published a summary of the archaeological and other research to date that makes the case for Nikumaroro.

In addition to the freckle cream jar, archaeological evidence found on Nikumaroro Island which TIGHAR suggests may be from Earhart and Noonan include:

  • Aluminum and Plexiglas fragments which are consistent with a Lockheed Electra like the one in which Earhart disappeared;
  • Parts of two shoes, one of which is a Blucher-style oxford dated to the 1930s and known as a style used by Earhart;
  • Bones were discovered on Nikumaroro Island; they are now missing although measurements survive and were likely from a woman of European ethnic background, about 5'5" to 5'9" in height;
  • A sextant box discovered on the island in 1940, also now missing, had numbers strongly suggesting that it held a U.S. Navy sextant of a kind likelyk to have been used by Fred Noonan;
  • A broken bottle made in 1933 containing traces of oil and lanolin;
  • Two small pieces of thin beveled glass that match the mirror of a 1930s vintage American woman's compact;
  • Three small fragments of red material chemically identified as probably cosmetic rouge; and
  • Parts of a 1930s brand zipper.

Seeking Amelia Earhart

Amelia Earhart Amelia Earhart. Photo Credit: Purdue University Library

But the story is much more complex than can be told by a series of bulleted points: for the details, read Tom's summary of the logic behind the search in Amelia Earhart's Fate: The Archaeological Investigations.

In summary, though, after two decades of research, TIGHAR believes that its data indicate that Earhart and Noonan crash-landed on Nikumaroro Island in 1937, and died there a few months later.


October 27, 2009 at 2:00 pm
(1) david nystuen says:

The never ending story goes on and on. Fed by myths, and endless speculation.

October 27, 2009 at 5:48 pm
(2) David Billings says:

Gillespie’s Nikumaroro Hypothesis is just that, a hypothesis. The Hypothesis was first mooted by two serving American Military Officers but Gillespie took it over. There is no evidence whatsoever on his claim that Earhart and Noonan ran down a sunline to the then Gardner Island. There are several reasons for this and reasons “why” she would not go there.

1. Earhart already had a contingency plan before she set off from Lae. If she could not find Howland, this plan was to turn back for the spread of the Gilbert Islands which she had passed during the night. On not finding Howland she would do a 180 and head back for the 500 mile spread of the Gilberts. The spread is hard to miss. Why would she change this dedicated plan if she could not find Howland, was unsure of her position and ready to turn back ?

2. The radio call at 1912GMT, “We are on the line 157-337″ is in TRUE degrees and aviators never have worked in True degrees, aviators always work in Magnetic. Even if Noonan was working on a line through Howland he would have converted the TRUE degrees to MAGNETIC degrees and told her to fly on that line which would have been 148-328. If she had called 148-328 we would know that is a Magnetic line. A MAGNETIC line 157-337 through Howland would not run close to Nikumaroro. Earhart said, “We are on the line…” NOT, “We are on the sunline”.

3. Clarence William’s strip map prepared for Earhart for the flight from LAE-HOW show an approach MAGNETIC heading of 068 degrees as the last heading into HOW, NIL wind. We know the wind was from slightly North-East out at HOW at the time, Noonan could have had Earhart lay-off into the wind by steering 067 in the stage of the flight approaching the island to as near as they got. 90 degrees either side of 067 is 157-337, the “Line of Position” or “we are on the line” was nothing more than that, a MAG line at 157-337 at right angles to their last heading. It was not a sunline. It is just pure coincidence that the numbers are the same.

4. You cannot navigate from an “unknown position” to a “known position” you have no way of navigating. Earhart’s 1912GMT “Must be on you but cannot see you” says that “they” THOUGHT they were there, they were not sure they were there. They could have been lateral to the island but could also have been many miles short of the island. They only “Thought” they were there. In other words, they were “lost”. You cannot navigate from “Lost” to “Known”, you have no means of navigating.

5. If Noonan did know “where” they were, why then did he not pass a heading to Earhart and say, “Fly this heading it leads to Howland”, there would be no need to go to Gardner and I would not be writing this……

6. The Tighar Hypothesis totally neglects to say that 11 crewmen from the S.S. Norwich City perished in the surf when the ship ran aground on the reef there at Gardner in 1928. Some of the bodies (not all were found) were buried in shallow coral graves. Some bodies could have been carried by the sea to “anywhere” and one could have been swirled around the island and dumped on the north shore. The bones found could also have been from a lost Pacific fisherman. We read stories of them drifting for weeks on end. Gillespie makes big licks about the presence of the crabs on Niku and these crabs could have unearthed the bones or eaten the cadavers. There are other reports of bones strewed on the beach from later visitors. Undoubtedly the bones found in 1940 came from the S.S. Norwich City.

7. The bones found in 1940 eventually got to Fiji where they were examined by a senior medical staffer there, a Dr. Hoodless. Hoodless pronounced them to be from a Male person of mixed race origin. He examined the bones, they were right in front of him. Tighar, without seeing the bones now says that the bones came from a white Nordic female person. How that can happen with out actually having the bones is astounding.

8. After a zillion trips to Gardner, Gillespie has tried to pass off the slightest whiff of gunsmoke as “real” evidence. Hence the attempt one time to pass of bronze bearing bushes found in an old Carpenter’s shack on the island as “could be bushes from the engines”…. or words to that effect when it is known that carts were used to collect Coconuts in the Copra experiment there. Carts need bushings for the axle bearings on simple carts. The shoe he proudly did proclaim as Earhart’s is about a size ten “man’s” shoe. Not one piece of supposed evidence Gillespie has brought back with him has been proven to have come from the Electra or from Earhart and Noonan.

Despite all this, the shells are being shuffled again…..

November 2, 2009 at 7:19 pm
(3) Tom says:

Where can one find a coplete transcript of the radio transmissions, both before and after the crash?

November 16, 2009 at 10:39 pm
(4) Zach says:

Actually, TIGHAR posts the personal story of a survivor of the 1928 wreck, so give them credit for that (and go over to the site yourself for a fascinating read).

They also cite quite a bit of evidence, based on materials analysis of the shoe, sextent, perfume bottle, etc.

They also readily acknowledge-with no attempt to hide-the gap in the analysis of the skeleton.

So while it’s certainly not a slam-dunk case, I think what they have come up with is compelling.

January 14, 2010 at 7:37 am
(5) Tom King says:

Responding to David Billings’ post, which I’ve just seen:


Comment: Billings, like other critics, refers to our work as simply Ric Gillespie’s private shtick. Ric is certainly the Boss TIGHAR, but there are quite a few of us working on it, and we argue with Ric pretty vehemently; the details of the hypothesis, and the means by which we pursue its testing, reflect a lot of discussion and debate.


Response: The ostensible contingency plan is something Earhart referred to in an interview; I’m not aware of any evidence of a detailed plan. Billings’ “she would have” statements — which he immediately accepts as statements of what she DID do — are typical of most Earhart “researchers.” We steer away from that kind of formulation. As for the “she went back to the Gilberts” hypothesis — to the extent it’s been tested, the results have come up blank.


Response: Again, a lot of assumptions about what AE and FN “would have” done. Maybe they would have, maybe they wouldn’t. What we KNOW is that she said 157-337, and that bearing has to have been either true or magnetic; if it was true, it ran almost through Nikumaroro. These observations were enough to cause us to go start searching Nikumaroro, and that search has produced quite substantial results.


Response: Again, “would haves” and assumptions presented as statements of fact.


Response. And?


Response: Well, if he knew, one assumes he would have done that. He apparently didn’t, or if he did, she didn’t follow his directions. We simply can’t know.


Response: There’s quite a lot of discussion both on the TIGHAR website and in Amelia Earhart’s Shoes (Altamira Press 2004) about the Norwich City wreck, and the possibility that the bones found at the opposite end of the island from where the ship went up were from one of its crew members. It’s a possibility, but hardly “undoubtable.” And the bones were, according to the reports of the discovery and analysis of artifacts, associated with a woman’s shoe. There were no women on the Norwich City (unless, of course, there was a stowaway; we could make up all kinds of stories about this, and do from time to time.


Response: If Mr. Billings tried reading the discussion of the bones, Dr. Hoodless, and the re-analysis of Dr. Hoodless’ measurements by modern forensic anthropologists that’s posted on TIGHAR’s website, or at least the summary in Amelia Earhart’s Shoes, he might be less astounded, but probably not; being astounded serves his purposes. Forensic osteology is an inexact science today, and it was a whole lot more inexact in 1941, particularly when practiced by a newly-qualified medical doctor with no known special expertise in the subject.


Response: Again, it’s all that damn Gillespie. Billings cherry-picks a couple of pieces of evidence that we’ve already rejected as “smoking guns,” and on the strength of their smokelessness insists the whole thing is bunk. The bushing sleeves are almost certainly from the U.S. Coast Guard’s bulldozer (not from Billings’ carts, for which there’s no evidence). The shoe parts remain an ambiguous bit of evidence, subject to multiple interpretations. I’d say that the evidence of a woman’s compact at the Seven Site, and the faunal evidence suggesting that someone non-local to the islands camped there and tried to exploit the local birds, fish, and turtles is a bit more suggestive, but Billings “would” doubtless find a way to explain all that away, too.


Response: Yup. Stay tuned for more to ignore, David.

September 16, 2010 at 2:29 pm
(6) Megan says:

Has it ever occurred to anyone that maybe there were tribes on the Island and that maybe they were cannibals and that maybe they knew she was dying or had already died when they found her and that they possibly ate her???

July 2, 2011 at 7:08 am
(7) Adam says:


Gardener Island is a tiny strip of land covered by dense foliage & no fresh water, unlikely there were cannibals there (the survivors of the Norwich City wreck did not meet any, less than a decade previously to Earhart’s flight)


The TIGHAR research is very interesting, but to my completely uninformed mind the huge volume of circumstantial evidence is quite contradictory…. Gardener Island was searched from the air & no plane wreckage was found, of course their plane could easily have been swept into the Pacific by then, but if that happened then how did the settlers start building trinkets & furniture out of the plane parts several years later, if no plane wreckage was visible on the island only days after the disappearance?

IMHO, the only hole in the crash & ditch theory is that you’d kinda expect to last ever msg received to be “mayday, mayday we’re going down” rather than we’re flying 157-337

Bearing in mind it took about 80 yrs to find the Titanic – a far larger craft in about half the depth of water & a smaller search radius, it may be a very (very) long time before this mystery is solved.. and even then what would discovery of the wreck tell us, that we don’t already know? [basically they didn't make it & perished en route]

yet despite this, here we all are devouring column inches & formulating opinions!

@at all you real researchers, keep going – the truth is out there !!


October 8, 2011 at 2:25 am
(8) h.van asten says:

Discussion about landing on any island , other than Howland itself are meaningless since aircraft´s fuel store was insufficient to sail further than a few hundred miles from Howland´s region . The people “searching” @ former Gardner 410 mls off Howland are the ones who know best that the aircraft & crew were never there . In Europe the s.c. clues and findings have a negative press ; comments when the ” fingertip” was ” found” were like (Discovery News) “Unknowingly people think to take part in an expedition , but what they do is paying for a tropical vacation” .

October 8, 2011 at 8:29 pm
(9) Monty Fowler says:

Mr. Van Asten, let it go … if you’re still that upset about getting asked to leave the TIGHAR forum over your conduct there, then set up your own forum to promote your own theory. It’s a free internet. Sheesh.

October 26, 2011 at 7:55 pm
(10) james rimeraz says:

i guess it will always be a mystery

June 18, 2012 at 3:47 pm
(11) Mark says:

TIGHAR’s nonsensical rewrite of history should be — and IS — laughed at in the scientific community. Beginning with a skeleton that was positively identified as male (then later conveniently “lost” and changed to a female), to tracing as Earhart’s garbage left by a 1939 British colony on an island Earhart never visited, TIGHAR’s so-called research is a farce designed to bring in investment money from an unsuspecting public.

July 24, 2012 at 2:44 pm
(12) hottestchic says:

no one knos wat happened to her so stop making up myths dont say nothing unless u kno for SURE!!!!!! :(

July 25, 2012 at 4:12 pm
(13) Dan Emmett says:

Would AE have made a wheels down landing on an uneven coral reef? It seems more likely a belly landing would have been made. If the item seen in a recent photo was a landing gear strut stuck in the reef it would indicate a crash, not a controlled landing after which the engine could have been run to power the radio making the transmissions allegedly heard for days. The plane would have ground looped or flipped inverted it would seem in a wheels down attempt.

The fact no wreckage was found on the latest expedition says to me the plane is not there, therefore they did not land on the reef and die on the island. Wreckage was found from the Norwich City which is located very close to where the Electra would have touched down. Ric has stated the plane may have floated away. Perhaps. I am not sure how far a Lockheed electra will drift before sinking. I would think not far based upon film of WW2 aircraft sinking shortly after making a landing at sea. Perhaps the airframe of a like plane could be left on the reef and observed to see what it would in fact do over time. Wherever it ended up would probably be in close proximity to where AE’s plane ended up if it was indeed there to begin with.

There is no getting around the fact that the U.S. Navy flew over the island shortly after AE’s disappearance and saw no aircraft on the reef or anywhere else. Given the timeline of things it would seem the aircraft or its remains would have been noticeable to the sharp eyes of a Naval Aviator circling the island. The search plane was moving at approximately 120 knots, not 400 and the pilot would have seen the plane.

August 21, 2012 at 2:53 pm
(14) billy says:

what condition was the Norwich City in when they may have flew over? perhaps thinking there was a ship there they may not have needed to radio a mayday. I’d also imagine a ship like that would have been visited a lot by locals looking for scrap/salvage. perhaps they put the plane down next to the vessel in deep water.
would you really try and land on a reef?
what ever happened her partner was ex navy, he would have been aboard that ship as soon as possible looking for anything they can use. and there would be no doubt in my mind they would have bumped into scavengers at some point. perhaps not with good results.
regarding the bones on the island, when it was colonized , where did the residents bury their dead?

September 2, 2012 at 12:47 pm
(15) Gish says:

Seems the longer things go on the more ‘hypotheses’ there are.

As Billy said, would they have encountered scavengers? I read recently that AE had a pistol but left it behind at Lae, PNG – I think.

TBH after reading about the Norwich City survivors and the sharks I wouldn’t rate their chances landing at any coral reef, at least a direct impact into the sea would have been pretty much instantaneous death – and from what I have gathered the Electra with no power flew like a brick, its props were unfeathered and the torque would have also added to the problems.

The fact about this case is that there are few real ‘facts’!! Nearly everything is considered suspect by someone somewhere, I have read that some of Howland’s radio guys say that the messages attributed to them were not correct, there seems to be confusing about parachutes, life vests and rafts whether they had any or not. I understand that considered carrying kites as a means of signalling distress – did they? And could the Electra really float for any length of time?

As I see it, no theory fits all the ‘facts’, each theory cherry picks and as a result folks reading THEIR information form the same or similar opinion.

We may need a time machine to sort this one out.

January 17, 2013 at 2:07 am
(16) Everard O'Donnell says:

Did anyone check the CO/FO documents at the UK National Archives?
Code 45 file 479, later Document FO 371/21541 refers. And maps and plans are referred to in Document File AVIA 2/1082.

May 3, 2013 at 8:41 pm
(17) Stanford says:

April 2013. Perhaps this is a bit off topic for an archeological site, and late for this thread, but I consider “Betty’s notebook” to be compelling evidence that AE landed somewhere and was able to send on HF for at least a couple of days. “New York City” in those notes certainly could be “Norwich City”, the wrecked freighter. Pity Betty’s father was not more persistent in his efforts to disseminate this information at the time. Such are the “what if?” tragedies of history.

May 30, 2013 at 5:59 pm
(18) Robert says:

If, as it is claimed, she did land on the reef and make other transmissions after she crashed on the island, why didn’t she state, ‘landed on reef near wreck of ship’? It is apparent this is the only island with a ship wrecked near shore. It seems like everyone would have been able to say right where she was located.
None of the supposed transmissions I have read say anything about the Norwich City. Wouldn’t you say “I landed near a big ship wreck?” That is the biggest landmark on the island.

June 26, 2013 at 9:31 pm
(19) kath says:

I love Robert’s point! It’s the most rational thought in all of this. Sometime the simplest, most basic concept is the most telling. Why indeed would her transmissions, if made from “land” at Gardner Island, not have given a description of their surroundings — i.e., “on an island with dense vegetation and a large shipwreck”? Amelia and Fred weren’t idiots. I’m wondering, too, why Amelia continued to be the transmitter. Fred, unless incapacitated, was the navigator and the one who I’d think would have taken over the radio at that point. Still, with the evidence at hand, Gardner does seem to me to be theory to beat.

June 28, 2013 at 10:57 am
(20) colin says:

As this island would be a 300 miles overshoot of Howland, EM and FN would realise they would never make it. No, Electra is some point 30-40 miles to the west of Howland.

June 28, 2013 at 11:05 am
(21) colin says:

As the island would be a 300 mile overshoot of Howland, EM and FN would not consider attempting it, if they thought that they were almost over their destination. No, they went down 30-40 miles to the West of Howland

August 21, 2013 at 3:11 pm
(22) betty says:


January 26, 2014 at 2:04 pm
(23) Wayne Shaw says:

Tighar will not stop trying to prove that their theory is correct… Not even
when Amelia and Fred are found. Betty’s reception report is fantasy.
Amelia Earhart never called herselt “Putman”!
American Direction Finding equipment was primitive at best, at that time, and yet Tighar zeroed in on Gardner Island. Not to mention that Howland Island had trouble hearing Amelia… How on earth could a DF station thousands of miles away hear the aircraft and give a heading?
It sickens me to read all the rubish published by Tighar.
Don’t change the evidence to fit the crime…

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