Mystery of Amelia Earhart solved?

June 1, 2012 • 1:27 pm

If you’re like me, you’ve been fascinated forever by the disappearance of the aviator Amelia Earhart in 1937 on a round-the-world flight.  There has been increasing evidence that she managed to make it to an isolated South Pacific island, Nikumaroro.  There are reports that a female skeleton was found there in the 1940s, and excavations have suggested strongly that the island harbored castaways. Could one of them have been Earhart? (She was flying with a navigator, Fred Noonan.)

According to ABC news, a jar of what looks to have contained freckle cream of the type used by Earhart (who didn’t like her freckles) was found on the site, along with buttons, a zipper from a flight jacket, and what may have been fragments of human bones.  Here’s the found jar (left) that looks pretty much like freckle cream:

A freckle cream jar believed to belong to Amelia Earhart was found on the southeast end of Nikumaroro Island in the Pacific Ocean. Archaeologists are finding artifacts that suggest Amelia Earhart may have survived for a time there as a castaway.

The report continues:

TIGHAR [The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery] has long been investigating Earhart’s disappearance and has conducted nine archaeological excavations on the uninhabited island Nikumaroro in the southwestern Pacific republic of Kiribati.

“This is one of several bottles that we’ve identified from the castaway campsite that seem to be and, in some cases, are very definitely personal care products that were marketed exclusively to women in the United States in the 1930s,” Gillespie said.

The jar was found broken into five pieces, four of which were together. The fifth piece was about 65 feet away near the bones of a turtle and appeared to have been used as a cutting tool.

Fish bones and eel remains were also discovered, and the remains indicated that they had not been prepared the way natives would have prepared their food.

“This is not a Pacific Islander,” Gillespie said. “This is a westerner grabbing anything they can find and cooking it and preparing it the way westerners do.”

Gillespie said that according to recovered documentation, the partial skeleton of a female castaway was discovered in 1940 in the area along with part of a woman’s shoe, part of a man’s shoe and a navigational tool, but the artifacts were later lost.

Along with the cosmetic jar, TIGHAR found pieces of a woman’s compact, a zipper that was manufactured in the 1930’s, and a bottle of hand lotion that has been chemically analyzed to match Campana Italian Balm, which was popular during Earhart’s time.

Of course the results aren’t in (can they do DNA analysis?), but it looks increasingly as if Earhart and Noonan made it to the island, lived there a while, and then died a slow death as castaways.

Here’s Nikumaroro ; read more about it here:

The island is a coral atoll that is one of the Phoenix Islands, a remote archipelago here:

46 thoughts on “Mystery of Amelia Earhart solved?

  1. No doubt there are mysterians who vehemently object to the notion that an actual answer can be found.

    A bit sad, if that’s what happened. Why such a short survival time? I don’t think resources would be strained for just two people on an island of that size. Perhaps they just didn’t know how to access them.

    1. If they didn’t work out a way to collect rainwater (weave palm leaves into a “roof” if they didn’t have a suitable piece of the plane on the island) quickly, that would have done for them. The lagoon would be brackish. And the rain would be heavy at times, but intermittent and seasonal.

      1. Actually, there is fresh groundwater on coral atolls. Not a lot, but enough for a few people. Check this link –

        Wells do work. Which is not to say that Amelia Earhart and her navigator would have known this, or be in a condition to dig one.

        Also, there would be enough coconuts on that atoll to supply all the liquid drinking needs of maybe 50 or 100 people. But again, that requires knowing how to climb them, which few Europeans can do.

          1. I’d assumed (from the airphoto above) that the atoll looked to have a lot of coconuts on it, which seems to be the case from the photos here:

            But of course that’s recent, evidently not the case in 1937.

            I note also there was a village there which failed due to drought in the 60’s, which implies there was enough water for a few people for some time at least. If I was looking for a lens of fresh water I think I’d try the right-hand end (of the airphoto) where the land is widest.

            I do know that, on Pukapuka atoll, aside from the main island (which has a large village with water tanks etc), there is on Motu Kotawa, one of the other two islets five miles away across the lagoon, a complete village with thatch roofs whose only source of water is a well. (This was in the 80’s). And the whole population of Yato village used to go over there, sometimes for months, to make copra. The rest of the time the village stands empty, a weird experience to walk through. The width of Motu Kotawa is about half that of the widest bit of Nikumaroro. So water can be available on an atoll, even though one would instinctively assume that salt water would permeate it.

            The other factor was that the islanders’ consumption of fresh water was extremely small, just for drinking and possibly cooking. They washed in sea water and drank a lot of coconut ‘milk’.

          2. Coconuts propagate well by drifting at sea, taking root on any sandy beach where they may fetch up. I can hardly imagine any such island without them.

    2. Definitely water, as Shuggy suggested. The only chance would be sucking off some coconuts for a while, and perhaps getting lucky with some rain. That’s one tiny blip of a desert island.

      1. So tiny, and the ocean so vast, that it is astonishing that they hit upon it unless they planned their route specifically to go nearby. Or maybe they had a lot of lead time that their plane was in trouble…

  2. Brian Dunning is very skeptical of all these claims – this is not the first one.

    TIGHAR is not a disinterested observer in the question and they’ve blown up every discovery in the past to be the final nail in the coffin for all doubt

    The island has been inhabited in the past, not just by castaways.

    How many women were ashamed of their freckles in the 30es? How common was this cream? Has no jars really drifted ashore on other islands, or is it just that they only looked on this one?

    1. the bottles are NOT all that alike also. Totally different types of glass and jars that were similar were used for different types of things. Not the vast variety we have today.

    2. And where is the plane? It must be nearby, even if they ditched in the ocean. They couldn’t have swam far to get to that island. With modern sonar, seems like it wouldn’t be that big an expedition to systematically search a circle of some reasonable radius around the island.

      Did their flight plan take them by this island? Because if not, it is hard to see how they could have found it in the vast vast ocean. Certainly not by accident. They would have to have been nearish and known they were in trouble and made an effort to get there.

      I want to believe this story because it is interesting. It is interesting to imagine their desperate struggle to get to the island, and their life while stranded there. I am not optimistic, however.

      1. Wasn’t a piece of aluminum corresponding to part of a Lockheed Electra found some yrs back, at an island like this one? Was it found by these guys?

  3. Isn’t there some rule of thumb to the effect that if the title of an article is a question the answer is “no”?

  4. I haven’t lived forever, so I can say that my interest in Amelia Earhart has existed for only a finite amount of time. I think I first heard about her in second or third grade, thanks to a comic-book version of her biography. She has, along with Ambrose Bierce, Judge Crater and D. B. Cooper, become a part of popular culture as a famous missing person (she did, after all, feature in an episode of Star Trek: Voyager). As a part of that popular culture, she’s in the national consciousness.

    It’s interesting to note that this news breaks close to 6 June, which is the 228th anniversary of the first flight by a woman (in 1784), presumably in a Montgolfier brothers’ globe aérostatique.

    1. Amelia has in fact featured in TWO popular science-fiction series, “Voyager” as mentioned above, and “Torchwood” a spin-off of “Doctor Who”. In both stories she went through some sort of wormhole/spacewarp. It’s certainly a testament to the enduring fascination with the character, although we will all opt for the mundane explanation.

  5. I’d like to know who thought it was a good idea to name a line of luggage after a woman who got into a plane and was never seen again? I was kind of amused when first saw “Amelia Erhart” brand suitcases in a store…

    1. Probably from the same agency that thought it would be a good idea to name a pickup truck after a natural disaster (Chevy Avalanche). Does the phrase “who were killed in the avalanche” not run thru anyone’s head?

      1. Come on. Chevy Chase may not be the best of actors, but to call him a “natural disaster” seems a bit over the top.

    2. Here in Australia we named a swimming pool after a former Prime Minister called Harold Holt… who disappeared at sea.

    3. In 1968, students at the University of Colorado at Boulder named their new cafeteria grill the “Alferd G. Packer Memorial Grill” after a prospecter who was tried for cannibalism in 1874. The cafeteria’s slogan is “Have a friend for lunch!”

      In 1977 the US Secretary of Agriculture announced the renaming of his department’s executive cafeteria “The Alferd Packer Memorial Grill”.

      I’ll leave you to decide whether either naming was in good taste.

  6. Jerry, you should read Brian Dunning’s take on the TIGHAR evidence. The freckle cream is a new announcement, but I don’t think it changes things much. The big problem is that Nikumaroro is just so far away from Howland that it’s not plausible that both Noonan and Earhart would have made such a grave error.

    You should especially like this snippet:

    TIGHAR’s hypothesis and claimed discoveries saturate virtually all television and print reports of Earhart for the past decade, but these media outlets almost never mention that TIGHAR’s is a fringe theory supported by poor evidence and that has almost no serious support from mainstream historians or archaeologists.

    Here’s the problem with TIGHAR’s findings. Even though they meticulously document and preserve every artifact, they exhaustively research each one to find matches with real objects from the 1930s, and they look exactly like what such an expedition should look like, their overall methodology is fundamentally, fatally unscientific. It’s unscientific in that it’s done completely backwards. TIGHAR begins with the assumption that Amelia Earhart crashed, camped out, and died on Nikumaroro. They take everything they find — every anomaly in a photograph or in a story, every piece of bone or manmade artifact found on the island — and try to match it to their assumption, rather than trying to objectively assess its origin.

    Sounds like how creationists and religious people work.

    1. “Meticulously” and “exhaustively” cataloguing and dating everything they find is good practice and playing out a hunch is not “fundamentally, fatally unscientific.” Should they just randomly sample a quadrant of every island in the south pacific until they find something?

      1. You are correct… meticulously and exhaustively cataloguing and dating everything they find find is not fundamentally unscientific. But then, nobody said that. Did you stop reading there to comment?

        1. I read the excerpt to its conclusion, which, if it isn’t illustrative, is pointless. So what’s fundamentally, fatally unscientific in what TIGHAR is doing?

          1. I am a professor at a science college so maybe I can help. The search for sound and trustworthy scientific discoveries has strict rules. You can’t go into trying to discover something with your theory already in your head. For instance, if you go into a study saying “I believe peanut butter causes cancer, and I’m going to prove it!!” Your results will be skewed by a strong bias that’s desperate to make that link work. Instead, you must go into the study saying–“Perhaps this has a link, but I’m going to study the effects of all food on health and cancer, and even if I do find a link–it’s correlational and not causal, thus not PROOF.” That’s better science. So, for them to go to the island with their die hard theory that “We believe Earhart was here!” before they ever even searched anything, this makes their methodology skewed. Ever bone, evey dead turtle, every little bottle, they are trying to connect directly to Earhart in the 1930s. No doubt this evidence may prove Western castaways, maybe even from the 1930s (Earhart was not the only person in the air, nor the only lost person in that decade), but by not exploring ALL options and immediately trying to pin things to Earhart, the 30s and her freckles, this is generally considered untrustworthy science and bad archeology. Labeling and all–that’s great, very organized, but working so hard to fit a theory they had from the get go, that’s shoddy research. However, our media is not concerned with promoting science, they are concerned with getting people to click on their links and believe stories.

            1. The picture you paint of this organization as ideologically driven may be true but you haven’t given much in the way of evidence. Show me where they have fudged data or egregiously misinterpreted their findings to level the charge of fundamentally, fatally unscientific. It sounds to me like all they’re doing is making inconclusive even reasonable correlations.

              1. They find a woman’s shoe. Earhart was a woman, therefore this shoe must have been hers.

                They find an old jar that resembles a jar of freckle cream. Earhart used freckle cream, therefore this jar must have been hers.

                They find an empty wooden box. Earhart’s navigator carried a sextant, therefore this is the box he carried it in.


                Get it?

              2. You’re adding your own editorial spin here. The title of this post was framed in a question and nowhere in the excerpt Jerry quoted does TIGHAR attempt make an open and shut case. I’ve always read it as suggestive.

  7. Damn skeptics. Always ruining the fun! 😉

    Nikumaroro sure looks beautiful from the air, though.

  8. Ah, TIGHAR – always good for a laugh. I wonder if the turtle bone they mention is the same “human finger bone” they claimed a few years ago?

    Dunning does an OK job, but he gets some things wrong as well such as the claim that the sextant or the flight computer should have shown any errors in the flight path. For the flight computer that’s like saying “I couldn’t have been lost in the forest, I had my pocket calculator to navigate with”. As for the sextant, that’s a good tool for reading the elevation of stars and the sun, but it tells you nothing of the azimuth which would be the primary datum of interest. However, knowing the time and elevation of the sun as well as having a chart to calculate solar elevation, you may be able to check your latitude. A simple chart, the correct time, and an analog wristwatch would be very useful though.

  9. I too have been interested in this mystery since I was a small child. My career Navy dad was a radioman on the USS Colorado at the time and sometimes spoke of their week-long search in this exact area. The Colorado captain’s report can be found here:'s_Report.html

    Interesting that it mentions just about every island and reef in the Phoenix Island group except Nikumaroro; possibly because it lies a bit to the west and south of the others.

    I found Friedell’s report fascinating, and wish I had seen it when my dad was still alive to discuss it.

  10. Very cool. I did a report on AE in 5th or 6th grade.

    However: “Of course the results aren’t in (can they do DNA analysis?)”

    I think the bones were lost too.

    Yep, just checked the infallible Wikipedia and that’s what they said too…

    1. The report on the bones stated “male”; I’d expect any medical student to be able to inspect the pelvic girdle of an adult and make that decision, it’s unlikely the person examining the bones got that wrong but TIGHAR believes otherwise. TIGHAR has many strange beliefs; they seem to comb the island and pick up all human artifacts which they believe fits their conclusion that Earheart wound up there and go “Aha!”; another thing they do is try to cast doubts on various reports (such as the ones about the sextant box and the bones). As remote as the island is, there are an awful lot of human artifacts there and have been long before Earhart disappeared. TIGHAR also consistently ignore all the reliable published reports of the event including all the facts that indicate Earhart was at the position she said she was and flying in the direction she said she was flying. To get from where she was to where TIGHAR claims she was requires an act of god – and since there are no gods … well. Many of TIGHAR’s claims are pretty bizarre – for example, what they claim to be a lump of plexiglass which could have been a fragment of a window on the Electra – well, if the plexiglass is there, where’s the rest of the plane, or how could a fragment of a window make it there but with no other part of the plane? If the window were broken by a hard crash, there’s no chance the crew survived; if the crew were intent on surviving they would have tried to splash down and if that were successful there wouldn’t be a broken piece of a window.

  11. Correction to my post: I find that in the 1930s Niku was called “Gardner Island”, and is indeed mentioned in Friedell’s report.

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