Thursday, September 25, 2014

Nikumaroro is Washing Away

I’m grateful to Ric Gillespie for sending me the image shown above.  He prepared it in 2006 by overlaying historical airphotos on satellite imagery of Nikumaroro, where we hypothesize that Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan landed and died.

The portion of Niku that’s shown is the land unit called Ritiati and the adjacent Tatiman Passage.  Ritiati is the site of the colonial (1939-63) government station and village.  The areas marked in red represent land eroded away since the earliest good aerial imagery in the late 1930s.  The yellow areas are those that as of 2006 had experienced substantial overwash by storm surges. 

The succession of aerial images actually shows that the shoreline was relatively stable until the late 1980s, at which point overwash and resultant land loss seems to have taken off.  In the years since Ric prepared the image shown here, it’s continued.

The bottom line is that Niku is washing away.  This is what sea level rise looks like – not a gradual rise in water level as in a bathtub, but the removal of land in a series of minor catastrophic events.  The rising sea levels send salt water into the porous coral island; it displaces the freshwater lens that makes plant life possible.  The plants die and their roots stop holding the coral soil together.  Storms send waves farther and farther inland, eroding the land and further destroying the freshwater lens. The cycle continues and is amplified through time.

Soon or late – probably rather soon – we’ll lose Niku.  That will be tragic, at least for those of us who love the place and are fascinated with its history, archaeology, and ecology, and for its resident crabs, rats, and birds -- and corals and fish.  But what’s far more immediately tragic in human terms is the loss of similar atolls on which people live, and have lived for thousands of years – Tarawa, Majuro, and the rest.  Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner said it best, in her speech to the UN Climate Change summit in New York --

I only wish I could share her fierce optimism.

I've had arguments with my fellow TIGHAR Board member Skeet Gifford about the extent to which climate change is the result of human activity; I'll confess to being unsure, as I am about most things.  But whether we're much to blame for it or not, it's happening, and driving sea level higher.  We are going to have to do something about it -- at least to adapt to it.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Some Other Seven Site Bones -- by Joe Cerniglia

Preface:  I'm honored that Joe Cerniglia has asked to post the following research paper on my AEArchaeology blog.  TFK

Assemblage of turtle bones on Tom Kings lab bench.

When TIGHAR researchers talk about Nikumaroro Island, eventually the discussion will turn to the discovery of bones.

Usually the bones discussed will be of the human variety, but not always.  The turtle bones found at the Seven Site at first do not seem nearly as fascinating as the official correspondence detailing the discovery of human bones of a castaway on Nikumaroro in late 1940 and 1941.  But they are worth a closer look for what they can tell us, both about turtles, and about the person or persons who used turtles at the Seven Site.

One reason they are worth a closer look is that we have them to study.  The human bones, by comparison, have been lost in the years since their analysis in Suva, Fiji but we continue to search for them. 

Another reason is that they provide a possible clue about the location on the island where human bones were found.  In an October 17, 1940 telegram to the Secretary of the Western Pacific High Commission, Gerald Gallagher reported that "remains of fire, turtle and dead birds" at the human bones discovery site "appear to indicate life."   The fact that Gallagher found turtle bones, as did TIGHAR in several excavations on the Seven Site, is, in Tom King's opinion, "one of the better reasons for equating the Seven Site with the human bones discovery site."

But Dr. King doesn't base this opinion simply on the fact that the turtle bones were there.  Pacific Islanders do, after all, hunt turtles, as do people all over the world.  He bases it on an inventory of what kinds of turtle bones were there, and how that inventory relates to what is known about hunting and food preparation practices of islanders known to have lived on Nikumaroro.  

The turtle bones found at the Seven Site appear to have all been associated with the carapace and plastron (the upper and lower shell) of one or perhaps more turtles.  No limb bones were found. 

The absence of other bones is at odds with the ways in which Nikumaroro islanders report hunting turtles:

During a 2011 interview with surviving residents of Nikumaroro now living in Rawaki Village in the Solomon Islands, Taniana Bourika, then aged 74, explained that "he and his comrades would hunt turtles on the far side of the island" (a fair enough description for the Seven Site) "butcher them there, using everything from the carcass except the bones and shell[1].  But if the turtle bones represent a casual use of turtles as a food source by islanders who prepared them as soon as they finished hunting them and indiscriminately discarded all the remains there, where are the limb bones? 

The Coast Guardsmen from the LORAN station, active from 1944-1946, could have decided one day to go turtle hunting (although surviving members interviewed by TIGHAR do not recall doing anything like this), but if they hunted turtles at the Seven Site, why would they not take the entire turtle back to their Quonset huts on the southern tip of the island?  If they staged a cookout on the Seven Site, why would there be left only carapace bones and plastron?

It has been speculated the turtle bones may in fact not be the remains of a meal at all; rather, they could represent the castaway's attempt to use the concave parts of a turtle to collect rainwater.  That is a possibility, but it may not tell the whole story.  Some of the turtle bones show signs of having been chopped apart with a tool such as an ax or machete.  Colonists and Coast Guardsmen most likely had easy access to such tools, but so might have the castaway.  Some of the glass at the site, notably that of the base of the ointment pot, which has been interpreted as a freckle cream jar, shows what use wear specialist Geoffrey Cunnar observed as signs of having been used as a cutting tool.

Then we come, in this leisurely paced tour of turtles, to what must needs be one of the stranger aspects of turtle remains found at the Seven Site.  A piece of plastron exhibits a round hole in it.

Ric Gillespie measured the hole and observed that its dimensions matched nearly exactly to a casing from a .22 caliber pistol.  Ric and some others of us opined, perhaps too conveniently, that the turtle from which the plastron came was shot by a hungry but tender-hearted castaway aiming for what was perceived to be a vital organ.

Guns can be carried by anyone, however.  A Coast Guardsmen could also have dispatched the turtle with a gun, and there are signs that Coast Guardsmen did shoot for recreation at the site, bringing dishes or radio tubes or anything handy, perhaps even shooting up artifact bottles. A .22 caliber civilian firearm, however, does not seem to have been the type of weapon they used for shooting practice. Rather, a .45 caliber seems to have been the Coast Guard's standard sidearm[2].
TIGHAR, of course, is testing whether the identity of the castaway who died on Nikumaroro was Amelia Earhart.  If we assume for the sake of our discussion that the identity of the castaway was Amelia Earhart, then we must eventually ask whether or not there exists any evidence that the Electra carried firearms.

The evidence is sketchy, anecdotal and even contradictory at best, but a member of the family of Fred Noonan's second wife, Mary Bea Martinelli, recalled in an email that Mary's brother-in-law, Tex Jordan, an actor and friend of Fred Noonan, used to recount in the 1970s how "he claimed to have taken his Colt 45 out of his pocket and handed it to Fred just as he was getting on the plane" at the Oakland Municipal Airport.  Whether the alleged handover of the gun occurred before the first world flight attempt or before the second is not stated[3].

There is another anecdote, also many years after the fact, from Harry Balfour, radio operator at Lae, to Leo Bellarts, who was stationed on the Itasca the morning of Earhart's last flight, regarding Earhart's surrender of a "pistol and ammunition" at Lae prior to the takeoff for Howland[4].

There is also a photograph indicating Earhart may have had some experience with using a handgun[5].

Of course, none of this anecdotal and photographic evidence can override the fact that any individuals who were on Nikumaroro could have shot a turtle at the Seven Site.  Dr. Dan Brown, a member of the group researching the holed plastron, was also correct to point out that bullets are not the only sources of holes in turtle plastrons.  Barnacles are often known to attach to turtles and over time can sometimes burrow through their shells.

A study into the details of barnacle behavior as it relates to turtles, however, shows that while the barnacle hypothesis may be the simplest, it may not be as pat a rebuttal to the bullet hole hypothesis as it initially seems.

 The plastron is the leathery underbelly of a turtle.

The hole was located on the plastron of a turtle.  A check of the relevant literature on barnacle behavior with regard to turtles, however, shows that settlement of barnacles on turtle plastrons is comparatively uncommon.  A 2012 study found that 74% (n=125) of the barnacles settled on the carapace of the turtles studied, whereas only 18.3% (n=31) settled on the plastron[6].  An earlier study from 1982 arrived at a similar finding for the most common areas where barnacles settle on turtles[7].  The reason for barnacles' apparent favoring of the carapace region over the plastron region was found to be an optimal flow of food and water over these regions.  The 1982 study concluded that the number of available sites where a turtle can bask in the sun and scrape its undersides has an effect on the number of barnacles that can settle on its body.  Sunny areas tend to dry out the carapace.  When a turtle is able to scrape its undersides frequently, it can more easily rid itself of its plastron-settling barnacles[8]. Nikumaroro is abundant in sites where turtles can both bask in the sun and scrape their undersides.  Heavily industrialized locations tend to present fewer options for turtles to clean themselves.  Nikumaroro is not one of these industrialized areas and thus seems an unlikely location for a turtle to experience invasive damage from barnacles.

The black arrow on the right shows an example of scar tissue from a burrowing barnacle.

The holed plastron, further, lacks a telltale sign that is present in the turtles whose shells are breached by barnacles.  Since barnacles burrow very slowly over time, the boring action produces noticeable scar tissue on the interior of the wounds they create[9].  The holed plastron exhibits none of the scarring on its interior that would be expected if caused by a barnacle.

Barnacles leave clues when they burrow, but so do bullets.  One of the first questions the late anthropologist Dr. Karen Burns asked when presented with the plastron and its associated hypotheses was whether it showed signs of surface beveling or whether the hole was "straight through like a core sample."  Bullet wounds typically cause inward beveling at the entry site and outward beveling at the exit site.  The holed plastron seems to show (in this layman's opinion) a slight inward beveling on the exterior of the plastron. Analysis by a ballistics expert would be needed, however, to answer definitively the question of whether the plastron is indeed beveled, or not.

Exterior view of plastron with circular inward beveling radiating from hole.

Interior view of holed plastron.

Presuming that the turtle was shot in its underside by a bullet or, less likely, pierced by a spear, Ric Gillespie has posited three main possibilities for the holed plastron:

1) Somebody shot a live turtle with a .22.

2) Somebody poked a live turtle with a smooth-pointed (no head) spear having about the same gauge as a .22.

3) Somebody used a dead turtle, or a piece thereof, as a target for a .22 or spear.

It is worth noting that the idea of spearing or shooting a turtle for any reason would seem unwarranted to a Pacific Islander, since their method of preparing turtles in the early to mid-20th century seems to have consisted of turning them over on their backs prior to butchering[10].

We have few firm conclusions we can draw from the turtle bones found, holed or otherwise, at the Seven Site, but we can say that these bones indicate activity that is atypical of a Pacific Islander or member of the Coast Guard.  Gallagher and the British colonist overseers of the island remain open candidates for the disposition of these bones, but they do not appear to be probable ones. 

Atypical is not the same as impossible, however.  Groups and individuals have been known to behave atypically.  The turtle bones could represent atypical behavior of one or more of the groups known to visit the site.

Ascribing these bones to the activity of the castaway or castaways, whose bones and other personal effects appear to have been deposited at the Seven Site, seems a simpler proposition.  Overall, we think there is much information these bones may potentially tell us about how the castaway of the Seven Site lived and, perhaps, died there.


[1] Interview in 2011 at the Solomon Islands by Gary Quigg, Nancy Farrell, Karl Kern and John Clauss.

[2] Information on Coast Guard weaponry was provided by TIGHAR member Karen Hoy in consultation with Scott T. Price, historian at U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters, Washington, D.C.  The subject of bullets and shell casings recovered at the Seven Site is very complex and requires a dedicated paper beyond the scope of this article.

[3] This anecdote was obtained from research by Gary LaPook.  These and other anecdotes are worthy of mention but need to be assessed in light of the fact that one is secondhand and both occurred many years after the fact.  Ric Gillespie, in weighing the value of these kinds of stories, has appropriately cautioned about their value as historical proof:  "There is no way to tell unless we can find a written source that is contemporary with the event who had access to the information."

[4] This anecdote was obtained from an interview by Earhart Project Advisory Council member William Webster-Garman.

[6] Eduardo Nájera-Hillman, Julie B. Bass, and Shannon Buckham. (2012). Distribution patterns of the barnacle, Chelonibia testudinaria, on juvenile green turtles (Chelonia mydas) in Bahia Magdalena, Mexico, p. 11741176.

[7] Richard A. Siegel, Department of Environmental Sciences, University of Central Florida. (1982).
Occurrence and Effects of Barnacle Infestations on Diamondback Terrapins (Malaclemys terrapin) pp. 35-36.

[8] Siegel, pp. 35-36.

[9] Siegel, pp. 37-38.
The photograph of scar tissue is from Mark Flint, Janet C. Patterson-Kane, Colin J. Limpus, Thierry M. Work, David Blair, Paul C. Mills. (2009). Postmortem diagnostic investigation of disease in free-ranging marine turtle populations: a review of common pathologic findings and protocols.

[10] The practice of hunting turtles in this way is now illegal in many areas.  New York State law, for example, prohibits hunting snapping turtles with anything but firearm or bow, and diamondback terrapins must be captured alive.  A valid hunting license issued by the state is also required.

Nikumaroro, under the authority of PIPA (Phoenix Islands Protected Area), now forbids all harvesting of green turtles with the exception of subsistence use on Canton Atoll.