Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Fickle Finger

In a just-published November 2010 "Review and Update" issue of Tighar Tracks, Ric Gillespie summarizes where things stand with the Earhart project; it's a good background to have on hand when watching the Discovery Channel's Finding Amelia on December 11.

One thing Ric writes about is "the fickle finger," a single phalange that turned up during the sorting of faunal remains from the Seven Site. I want to elaborate a bit on this interesting object.

Identified bones at the Seven Site fall into six general categories. There are fish bones, bird bones, rat bones, baby sea turtle bones, adult sea turtle bones, and medium mammal bones. The fish bones come from reef and lagoon fish; the bird bones come from Frigate Birds, Boobies, and perhaps a few other species. The baby turtle bones doubtless represent (duh) baby turtles collected either in the eggs or shortly after leaving them on the beach. The medium mammal bones appear to represent canned mutton. It was the adult turtle bones from all three fieldwork episodes at the Seven Site (2001, 2007, 2010) that I was sorting when I came upon the fickle finger (FF).

Turtles, of course, have phalanges; they're the skeletal structures of their flippers. The FF came from a part of the site -- the northeast end, under the big ren (Tornefortia) tree -- where turtle bones have been found, so I put it in the "adult turtle" category, but it looked enough like a human phalange (finger or toe bone) that I first sent it to forensic anthropologist Karen Burns (U. of Utah) for her diagnoses. She thought it was probably turtle, but couldn't rule out the possibility that it was human.

Meanwhile, for the first time I'd organized all the rest of the turtle bones, and found that the vast majority clearly represent the carapace (back) and perhaps the plastron (tummy) of one or more turtles; at the moment I see little reason to think we have more than a single individual, though the pieces were deposited at three locations on the site. There were also a number of odd long bones that I -- by no means a turtle specialist -- figured were fragments of femur, tibia, radius, ulna, or humerus. I imaged these bones and sent them out to TIGHAR's Earhart Project Advisory Council (EPAC) and others, seeking advice.

Dr. Howard Hutchison is a retired Paleontologist associated with the University of California Museum of Paleontology, and a friend of TIGHAR's Andrew McKenna, whose late father, Malcolm, was a noted paleontologist. Andrew showed Dr. Hutchison my images, and Dr. Hutchison identified my "long bones" as the peripheral bones that run around the periphery (duh) of the turtle's shell. In other words, I apparently had no long (leg) bones. We're in the process of working with Dr. Hutchison to confirm (or disconfirm) this identification.

So, as Ric says in Tracks, "if whoever brought the turtle to the Seven Site didn't bring the legs, how did a phalanx get there?" The interesting contrast is that -- assuming, of course, that we're right about the Seven Site being where the colonists collected human bones in 1940 -- human leg (and arm) bones have been found there. And Gallagher tells us that those bones, like the FF, were found under a ren tree.

The fickle finger is now with Dr. Cecil Lewis at the University of Oklahoma's Molecular Science Laboratories, being checked for human (or turtle) DNA. Stay tuned.

1 comment:

  1. As usual, there are lots of if's, buts, and maybes plus an "assuming".

    Even if the "phalange" is human, that does not mean it came from Earhart or Noonan but could just be a bone from an unfortunate castaway, as we have seen just this weekend in the story of the Tokelau Trio adrift for weeks in the Pacific....., DNA testing notwithstanding. If the "phalange" is sooo interesting, why not have it DNA tested, it may be from a mongoose for all you know.

    Nothing concrete and set in stone has come from Nikumaroro, that is a fact. It is also a strong possibility that the bones that set off the searches by Tighar (the bones that were found in 1940) are nothing more exciting than some remains of one of the 11 unfortunate seamen from the S.S. Norwich City who died in 1929 when the ship ran aground there. Tighar always turns a blind eye to that possibility and glosses over that, n'est pas ?