Saturday, December 18, 2010

Summary Data

I'm getting a lot of requests for basic background on the Nikumaroro Hypothesis, so here it is, derived from a handout I used during a recent talk to the Explorers Club here in Washington DC.


What Happened to Amelia Earhart? The Case for Nikumaroro

Aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, disappeared over the Pacific on July 2nd 1937. TIGHAR hypothesizes that they landed and died on Nikumaroro, then called Gardner Island, an uninhabited island in what is now the Phoenix Islands Protected Area of the Republic of Kiribati. Detailed documentation of our basis for the Nikumaroro Hypothesis is found in two books published by TIGHAR members , and on TIGHAR’s worldwide web site . I’ve also published a novel that imagines the circumstances surrounding the discovery of what may have been Earhart’s bones . I have prepared this short paper to summarize the reasons we believe we are right about Earhart’s fate. Here they are:

1. In the last radio transmission that all authorities agree came from Earhart, she said she was flying "on the line 157 337” – this is generally understood to be what is known as a “line of position,” a navigational line oriented 337° (NNW) and 157° (SSE). The strength of the transmission indicated that she was relatively close to Howland Island at that time. She was not understood to say which direction she was flying on the line but U.S. Navy experts, Earhart’s husband George Putnam, and her technical advisor Paul Mantz all agreed that the flight probably proceeded southeastward in the hope of reaching land . Such a line passing through the vicinity of Howland Island also passes within visual range of Nikumaroro.

2. Nikumaroro is much easier to see from the air than Howland Island; it is bigger, tree-covered, and has a brilliant aquamarine lagoon .

3. After her disappearance, over 180 radio messages were received by stations around the Pacific and elsewhere, most of them by professional radio operators, some of them in a voice identified as Earhart’s by operators who had heard her in past transmissions. When the U.S. Navy’s extensive search didn’t reveal anything, the Navy decided they were all mistakes or hoaxes. If even one of these messages was really from Earhart, she had to be on land with a fairly intact airplane capable of generating power for the radio .

4. Radio stations at Wake Island, Midway Island, and Hawaii took radio direction finding (RDF) bearings on six of the transmissions. Four of these bearings crossed in the vicinity of Nikumaroro .

5. The only radio (other than, we suspect, Earhart’s) documented as having been in the Phoenix Islands was in the possession of John William Jones, a coconut plantation supervisor on Hull (now Orona) Island, about 150 miles east of Nikumaroro. Jones’ radio is reliably reported to have been out of order between early June and late August of 1937 .

6. TIGHAR analysis of the whole body of radio messages indicates only two plausible explanations for them. Either an extremely well-informed hoaxer with an undocumented radio was on one of the western Phoenix Islands imitating Earhart’s voice, or Earhart was there .

7. Search plane crews from USS Colorado, flying over Nikumaroro seven days after the disappearance, reported “signs of recent habitation” but, believing the island to be inhabited, concluded that they were not related to Earhart, so the Colorado did not land a search party . The island had not been officially inhabited since 1892.

8. British colonial officers who visited Nikumaroro in October of 1937 to see whether the island could be colonized said they saw evidence suggesting an “overnight bivouac” (camp) .

9. A photograph taken by one of the officers shows an anomaly on the edge of the island’s northwestern reef that looks very much like an airplane’s landing gear

10. Residents of the colony established on Nikumaroro in December of 1938, which lasted until 1963, report aircraft wreckage on the northwestern reef flat and in the lagoon. A US Navy pilot who visited the island during World War II reported local residents using aircraft control cable as a fishing line, which they said came from a plane wreck that had been on the island when they came .

11. TIGHAR has recovered a number of pieces of aircraft wreckage from the remains of the colonial village on Nikumaroro; these appear to have been brought to the village to use in fabricating handicrafts. Some of these are from a B-24, probably one that crashed on Canton Island, some 230 miles to the northeast (people from Nikumaroro worked on Canton after World War II). Other pieces, including aluminum fragments and fragments of plexiglass, do not appear to match a B-24 but are consistent with a Lockheed Electra like Earhart’s .

12. In 1991, TIGHAR recovered parts of two shoes on Nikumaroro, identified by footwear specialists as a woman’s shoe and a man’s shoe. The former was identified as a “Blucher-style oxford” dating to the 1930s. Earhart wore such shoes on her flight, though the only example that can be measured in photographs appears to have been smaller than the one found by TIGHAR . Photographic evidence indicates that Earhart had at least three pairs of footgear on the plane, two of them Blucher-style oxfords, and there is documentary evidence suggesting a pair of hiking boots .

13. In 1940, the Nikumaroro colonists found thirteen bones of a human skeleton on the southeast end of the island next to the remains of a campfire with bird and turtle bones. Nearby the remains of a woman’s shoe and a man’s shoe were found, together with a sextant box and some small corks on chains. The bones were examined by two medical doctors. One said the bones came from an elderly Polynesian, the other said they were from an adult male of European or mixed race. The bone measurements taken by the second doctor have been analyzed by modern forensic anthropologists, whose studies indicate that they may more likely be those of a woman of European ethnic background, about 5’5” to 5’9” in height. Earhart would have fit this description. The bones have been lost .

14. The sextant box – which has also been lost – is recorded as having had two numbers on it: 1542 and 3500. Recent research has shown that during World War I, the U.S. Navy acquired a large number of nautical sextants, some of which were converted for aviation use. Known sextants acquired by the Navy from the Brandis Instrument Company carried serial numbers ranging from 3227 to 5760, and were assigned Navy numbers 845 through 4705; these numbers were stamped into the boxes as well as the instruments themselves. The numbers on the Nikumaroro sextant box thus suggest that it held a Brandis instrument owned for a time by the U.S. Navy.

15. The second number on the box – 3500 – is also close to the number 3547, which is written on a sextant box held by the Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola, Florida and is documented to have belonged to Fred Noonan . Fred Noonan is known to have used a nautical sextant as a back up and a photograph of the navigation room aboard a Pan Am clipper shows a box for a Brandis sextant. One of Noonan’s jobs in the 1930s was as a navigator trainer and a photograph of one his students shows a Brandis sextant.

16. In 1946 the late Floyd Kilts, a U.S. Coast Guardsman on duty on Nikumaroro, was told about the bones discovery by a local resident. Other Coast Guardsmen purchased wooden boxes built by the residents, with inlaid pieces of aircraft aluminum .

17. TIGHAR has identified a site on the southeast end of the island (the Seven Site) that closely matches the description given in British colonial records of the bones discovery site. Here we have found the remains of several cooking fires containing bird, fish, and turtle bones. There are also two clusters of giant clam (Tridacna sp.) shells on the site, apparently brought there so their meat could be consumed. Many of the clams in one cluster appear to have been opened by someone who tried to pry them open on the hinge side (as eastern U.S. oysters and some clams are opened); others have been opened by smashing them with rocks . Fishbones from the remains of cooking fires on the site suggest that whoever camped there was unselectively catching mostly rather small reef and lagoon fish, cooking them on the coals, and disposing of their bones in the fires; none of this behavior is consistent with fishing and fish preparation by indigenous Pacific islanders .

18. Finally, we have found a variety of artifacts at the Seven Site. Some of these are clearly of colonial or Coast Guard origin, but others are not . Among the artifacts recovered from the site in 2007 and 2010 are:

a. a broken bottle made by the Owens Illinois Glass company in New Jersey in 1933 containing traces of a substance containing oil and lanolin, probably either a skin cream or hair dressing;

b. a shattered bottle with the word “Mennen” embossed on its side in Art Deco lettering, apparently a 1930s cosmetic container of American origin;

c. a broken glass vessel identified as a small ointment pot;

d. two broken, partially melted bottles identified as dating to before World War II, found in the remains of a cooking fire where it appears they may have been used in attempts to boil water;

e. a U.S. manufactured jackknife, comparable to one carried on the Earhart Electra, that appears to have been taken apart, perhaps to re-use its parts;

f. the pull and slider from a size 06, “auto-lok” Talon brand zipper manufactured in the U.S. sometime between 1933 and 1936;

g. what may be the back of a small broach or pin;

h. small fragments of red material chemically identified as probable cosmetic rouge;

i. two small pieces of thin beveled glass that match the mirror of a known 1930s vintage American woman’s compact.

Earhart is known to have carried a compact which, if it was like others of the period, would have contained rouge. U.S. Coast Guardsmen, island colonists, and British colonial officials are unlikely to have had such items. The apparent cosmetic containers are also more consistent with the presence of a Euroamerican woman on the site than with any of the others known to have used it. Zippers were used extensively by Earhart in her own clothing design, and by her friend Elsa Schiaparelli in designing some of Earhart’s wardrobe. The bottles in the fire suggest an effort to boil or distill drinking water – there is no fresh surface water on Nikumaroro except what can be caught during sporadic rain squalls.

Current Status of Research

TIGHAR conducted its most extensive excavation of the Seven Site in May-June 2010 , and analysis of results is currently underway.

Immediate Need

One thing that has become apparent from our work at the Seven Site is that the site was the scene of some sort of land clearing and construction activity, probably in the late 1940s or 1950s. It is important for us to understand what this activity entailed, since it introduced material (corrugated iron, fiberboard, nails) that confuse and obscure the record of site use during the period when Earhart and Noonan might have been there. People living today in the Solomon Islands, to which the Nikumaroro colonists were relocated in the 1960s, may well be able to advise us about this. There are also likely to be records relevant to the island in the Solomon Islands archives in Honiara, which we have not yet searched. We are urgently seeking financial support for a short (ca. 2-3 week) visit to the Solomon Islands by a small (ca. 4-5 people) team of trained volunteers to conduct both archival research and oral historical interviews. The cost of this project is estimated at US$50,000.00. For information and to contribute, see

For further information or to join the search, please visit, or contact:

• TIGHAR Executive Director Ric Gillespie at, or

• Senior Archaeologist Thomas F. King at

Books Related to the Research

• Amelia Earhart’s Shoes, AltaMira Press 2004; see^DB/CATALOG.db&eqSKUdata=0759101310

Finding Amelia, Naval Institute Press 2007; see

Thirteen Bones, Dog Ear Press, 2009; see

(or from any bookseller)

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Discovery Channel on TIGHAR and Amelia Earhart

So, what did I think of the Discovery show? Well, I thought it was by far the best TV portrait yet of our project, and generally represented it fairly. And I wasn’t as put off by the re-creations as I thought I’d be (Discovery at one point wanted US to do re-creations while in the field; we politely declined, having other things to do).

I do have two beefs:

First, I think it was too bad they made it so much The Ric Gillespie Show. That’s not because Ric doesn’t merit the exposure, and it’s not to say that he didn’t take his lumps. Nor is it to deny that Ric is the one who’s made the project go, all these years, or that he’s the central figure in the search. But one thing that really makes the project special is what producer/videographer Mark Smith calls its “Hive Mind” – the Earhart Project Advisory Council (EPAC), a free-wheeling group of experts and generalists who debate, argue, plan, scheme, critique, and in many ways both power and direct the research. Yes, several of us EPACers were shown doing our things – Kar Burns, Bob Brandenburg, Jeff Glickman, me – and it obviously would have been impossible to crowd everyone in, but some representation of the EPAC as corporate entity would have made the portrayal of the project more accurate. As would an occasional glimpse of the other scholars who’ve contributed their efforts, in and out of EPAC – my generous neighbor Tony Mucciardi and his mids at the U.S. Naval Academy doing materials analysis, Taylor Keen of the University of Maryland doing ground-penetrating radar and dendrochronology, Sharyn Jones at the University of Alabama analyzing the fish bones, Dave Wheeler introducing us to Kite Aerial Photography (KAP)….. As would some representation of the way some of us -- notably Randy Jacobson and Reed Riddle, occasionally I --  beat up on Ric, and dispute his take on things.  Again, I know they couldn’t crowd everybody in, and the purpose of the show wasn’t to give everybody credit, but I think some portrayal of the interactive, collaborative nature of the research would have better informed the public about how such research is done, and better served TIGHAR as a research organization, than did presenting the thing as Ric Gillespie’s personal quest. Even though, on one level, that’s what it is.

Second, there’s the &^%$*&^% “smoking gun.” They trimmed the debate between Ric and me about smoking guns versus the preponderance of evidence (which I recall as being rather truncated anyhow) to the point of being meaningless, and made me seem as fixated as Ric is on finding the hot pistol. I’m not, and think it’s really unwise and unhelpful to keep pandering to the simpleminded about this. Maybe there’s a smoking gun to be found, probably there’s not, but what people ought to learn from our work is a little bit about how science (particularly a science like archaeology) is done. Particularly in a field like archaeology, smoking guns are rarely found, and the success or failure of a piece of research seldom if ever turns on finding one. Only a fool, I’d argue, would base research on the hope of finding a smoking gun, and we try, if not always with success, not to be fools.

With those caveats, I thought it was a good show. It’ll be interesting to see what its results are in terms of public interest.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Book Note: "The Hunt For Amelia Earhart"

Just finished reading The Hunt for Amelia Earhart, by Douglas Westfall (Orange, CA, 2007; Paragon;; thanks to Lonnie Schorer for sending along a newspaper article that alluded to it.  The Hunt is a fascinating account of the 1937 search efforts by the Itasca, Colorado, Lexington and other ships, and their seamen and flyers.  Many first-person accounts, some of which are well-known to TIGHAR researchers, others new to me at least.  Lots of good reference data and quite wonderful maps and photos, and at $10 for the downloadable E-book version, it’s a steal.
Reading about how hard the Colorado's crew in particular worked to find Earhart made me think that one thing we pursuers of the Nikumaroro Hypothesis ought to make clear is this: although if the hypothesis is correct, they missed finding Earhart and Noonan on Nikumaroro, this does not mean that they did anything but the best job they could.  Sometimes when I give talks on our work, somebody asks why the Colorado didn't steam in close to Niku and put people ashore to search, or why the Colorado's float-plane crews didn't land to look around.  There are excellent reasons for both circumstances.  The Colorado was a great big expensive battleship, and the waters of the Phoenix Islands were not well charted.  Captain Thompson was very well advised not to steam in too close to islands where uncharted offshore reefs could be lurking.  The situation was similar with the planes.  The only place they could have landed was in the lagoon, which was and is studded with coral heads.  Running into one of those in a flimsy little float plane would really ruin your day.
The pilots gave it their best shot; came in low, made lots of noise, circled and zoomed, tried to attract attention; when they didn't see anyone, they reasonably concluded that there was no one there.  We now know from first-hand experience that it's very hard to see people on the ground amid the hard light/dark contrasts of even the shoreline environment, and quite impossible to see people back in the bush.  We also know how hard it is, if you're back in the bush, to get out to the shore in a timely manner when you hear an aircraft overhead.  The Colorado pilots didn't know those things, and Earhart and Noonan, if they were there, didn't know that airplanes were out searching for them, so there's no reason they would have spelled out "SOS" in seaweed or something.  As for the Electra, if we're right in reconstructing its fate, by the time the Colorado pilots flew over it was off the edge of the Nutiran reef, almost if not completely submerged, in the surf zone where white water would have made it difficult if not impossible to see. 
So, no one ought to affix any blame to the captain and crew of the USS Colorado for missing Earhart and Noonan, if that's what they did, and The Hunt for Amelia Earhart vividly recounts -- often in their own words -- the thinking, planning, and plain hard, dangerous work that they put into the effort.   

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Why I Don’t Think We’ll Find the Airplane – And Why I Don’t Think It Matters

As we approach the air date of “Finding Amelia” on the Discovery Channel, and the buzz about the show builds up, there’s some tendency to reduce the complexities of testing the Nikumaroro Hypothesis to “finding the airplane.” If we can find Earhart’s Lockheed Electra off Nikumaroro’s Nutiran reef, we’ll have proved the hypothesis; if we can’t, the hypothesis will be dealt a deadly blow.  I think this is nonsense, and I want to tell you why.

It’s certainly true that if we find the Electra, or some definitive part of it, down there in the deep water off the edge of the reef, that will cinch the case. But I don’t think that’s going to happen, and I think it’s a mistake to even imply that anyone ought to use it as the basis for saying yea or nay to the hypothesis.

When I say I don’t think we’re going to find the airplane, that doesn’t mean I think our hypothesis is wrong. Quite the contrary; I think it’s very, very likely to be correct. We have good evidence – from radio data, from historical documents, and from archaeology, that Earhart and Noonan landed on Nikumaroro, survived for awhile, and died. We have good evidence – anecdotal, topographic, tidal, and photographic – that they landed on the Nutiran reef flat, and that the plane sat there for several days and nights before the high tides, increasing from neap to flood, washed it over the lip of the reef.

So we ought to find it down below 300 meters, where the slope of the reef face becomes less precipitous and the talus slope is probably studded with boulders on which the wreckage could get hung up. Right?

Wrong, I think. I think finding the plane, or even substantial parts of the plane, down there is a very long shot, and while I don’t disagree with plans to look for it down there, I don’t think we should let ourselves get too hopeful. And under no circumstances should anyone think that if we don’t find the plane, we’ve disproved the Nikumaroro Hypothesis.

Assuming our interpretation of the “Nessie” photo is correct, the plane – or a big chunk of it including at least one landing gear – got hung up just over the reef edge, in shallow enough water for the gear to protrude and be captured by Eric Bevington’s camera. At that point it would have been there about three months. Assuming Emily Sikuli’s recollections are correct, some elements of the wreckage were still there a couple of years later, observable by fishermen and recognizable – exactly how, we don’t know – as the remains of an airplane. Then they disappeared. What happened to them, and to whatever parts of the airplane may not have hung together with the “Nessie” wreckage?

Currents along the face of the Nutiran reef are variable, but for the most part they flow at a pretty good clip from northwest to southeast. They’re powered by trade-wind-driven swells from the northeast, sweeping around the island’s north cape. Most of the time the Nutiran reef is in the island’s lee, but there’s still plenty of power in the waves that crash on it. And the big storms that hit the island are mostly westerlies, crashing directly into the Nutiran reef. The reef face, at least its upper parts, are a high-energy environment. A fragile thing like an airplane is not likely to last long.

A decade ago, we were blessed to have on the Earhart Project Advisory Council (EPAC) Howard Allred, a New Zealand-based coral reef geologist (though he’d gone into olive growing to make his living). Tragically, we lost Howard to a brain tumor not long before the 2007 expedition. I vividly recall Howard making a presentation to an EPAC meeting – he’d flown all the way from New Zealand to participate – on what he thought the action of the ocean on the Nutiran reef would do to the Electra. It would most likely, he said, tear it to shreds, and the pieces would then move slowly southeast along the reef face, every now and then being coughed up onto the reef flat. Such fragments may be responsible for the reflective signatures that appear on some mid-twentieth century aerial photos of the southern Nutiran reef flat, and the periodic deposition of such fragments farther southeast, along the Ritiati shoreline, could be the source of the airplane parts we’ve found in the colonial village, some of them fashioned into handicrafts.

At the EPAC meeting someone – perhaps I – asked Howard where the plane parts might be by now. He said that by now they would have reached the midpoint of the shoreline, where the currents flowing down from the northwest run into those flowing up from around the southeast tip.

And how big would they be by now? Howard opined that they could be reduced to the size of sand grains.

Of course, it’s certainly possible that biggish parts of the Electra – notably those two big heavy engines – went down into deep water before they had a chance to be ground up by weather and waves. But the engines and other heavy parts of the airplane have their own problems. They’re steel, as are the pieces of the SS Norwich City that are scattered down the face of the Nutiran reef. The 2010 ROV work didn’t turn up a great deal of Norwich City wreckage on the reef face above 300 meters, but we know that the stern of the ship broke off and went down there, and much of the rest of it must have followed. There’s probably a good-sized Norwich City debris field at the base of the reef, all made of steel. Can the Electra’s steel engines or gear be distinguished from Norwich City debris? Maybe, but I’d call it a long shot.

My point is simply this. It’s very easy to imagine ways that the Electra could have done exactly what we think it did – landed on the Nutiran reef, sat there awhile, gone over the edge and been hung up for awhile in the surf zone or just below it – and leave no trace at all that’s discernible today. Except in the form of fragments collected by the colonists and brought to the village to be made into combs, fishing lures, and inlay for wood boxes. Maybe some big pieces escaped being ground to powder or coughed up in little chunks to be recycled by the colonists; maybe some big pieces slid down into the abyssal depths and can be detected. Or maybe not. It’s the old chestnut: absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. If we find the plane, good, but if we don’t find it, it will not by any means discredit the Nikumaroro Hypothesis.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Nikumaroro: Challenges to Doing Archaeology - 5

Screening (sifting, sieving) is relatively ineffective, because this is what you're confronted with once you've filled your screen.
In 2010, we used screens only as a backup, finding that it was more efficient, and that we actually could be more confident of finding things (even very small things) through straightforward troweling.

Bottom line:  Nikumaroro isn't exactly a HARD place to do archaeological fieldwork, but it is an extremely SLOW place to do it, and artifacts, bones, and other items of interest don't exactly leap out at one.

Nikumaroro: Challenges to Doing Archaeology - 4

The surface sorts itself, so that there's a sort of "armor" on the very surface, made up of biggish (say, finger-sized and bigger) pieces of coral, through which smaller stuff filters, generally concentrating at about 10 cm. depth.  So the surface "armor" obscures smaller items (even things like fire features made up of charcoal and ash, to say nothing of bottle shards, rouge fragments, ferrous items, and so on).
This is the stratigraphy in the north wall of our deepest unit; the logs across the top are to minimize collapse.  Again, a 50 cm. scale (and 20 cm. North Arrow).

Nikumaroro: Challenges to Doing Archaeology - 3

Once you get the surface clear, it looks like this -- made up of coral rubble.  That's a 50 cm. scale.  Hard to spot things, especially things like bones.

And that's not the only problem....

Nikumaroro: Challenges to Doing Archaeology - 2

Areas that aren't covered in Scaevola are often covered in coconuts and pandanus gone wild, which dump a tremendous load of leaves, fronds, nuts, etc. on the ground, which then rots and forms a pretty difficult ground-cover.

Walking through this stuff is not entirely easy, and detecting anything under it is something else again.  Not a walk in the park.

Nikumaroro: Challenges to Doing Archaeology 1

I'm sometimes asked how come, given that Nikumaroro is such a small island and we've been there so often, we're still uncertain about exactly what's there to be found that might be related to Earhart.  Having just learned (I think) to add images to a blog posting, I thought I'd illustrate.  Apparently I can include only one image per post, so there will be several posts to follow.

Here's Challenge #1: Scaevola frutescens, or Mao: Covers many areas of interest including the Seven Site.  Grows about 3 meters high, tangled, very hard to cut. Here John Clauss tries to penetrate a patch.  Not easy.