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The Fate of Amelia Earhart: A Rumor of Shoes

Are These Amelia's Shoes?


Hinge-chipped Tridacna valve

Hinge-chipped Tridacna valve with possible pry-tool, Seven Site

TIGHAR collection

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.http://anthro.dac.uga.edu 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.

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