For TIGHAR members, this served as a sort of eureka moment. The group had already been leading excursions to the island since 1989, slowly gathering evidence – a piece of a plane that didn’t match any from World War II, a woman’s shoe heel – that hinted at Earhart’s possible presence but never confirmed it definitively. TIGHAR asked two forensic anthropologists to examine the Fijian doctor’s notes. Both concluded that he had been mistaken in his interpretation. The bones actually belonged to a woman, most likely of northern European descent, who stood around five feet and seven inches tall.
Encouraged, the TIGHAR team subsequently carried out three archaeological surveys on the island, uncovering artifacts that speak of an American woman from the 1930s, including a broken compact, personal care products and anti-freckle cream (Earhart reportedly considered her freckles unattractive). A bone fragment that came from a human fingertip raised hope, but geneticists at the University of Oklahoma were unable to recover enough mitochondrial DNA to test it against samples provided by the Earhart family.
Evidence pointed towards Earhart possibly landing in the coral reef surrounding Nikumaroro. It would have been low tide when she landed, meaning her plane could have stayed upright long enough for her to send out distress signals. Eventually, TIGHAR members hypothesise, the tide washed it down the steep reef shelf, engulfing it in several hundred feet of ocean. A photo taken by a British expedition in 1937, three months after Earhart’s disappearance, reveals an object sticking out of the reef that should not exist on an uninhabited island. The US State Department confirmed that the debris could be a piece from a Lockheed Electra 10E, Earhart’s plane, as did independent forensic examiner Jeff Glickman.
“I think the fact that we have a photograph of an object on the reef that was taken 90 days after she was lost and, by every measure, has the right configuration for being Lockheed Electra 10E landing gear is pretty convincing,” says Glickman, who specialises in image analysis.
Last summer, TIGHAR returned to the island for the tenth time and deployed a Bluefin-21 autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) to collect sonar imagery of the vertical face of the reef for the first time. The AUV gathered dozens of hours of recordings by scanning from the shallows to the depths in the area near the unknown object pictured in the 1937 photograph. Nothing of note turned up during the trip, but in March, a TIGHAR forum member spotted an anomaly in that data. Further analysis revealed a large object, about the size and shape of the Lockheed Electra’s wing or fuselage. Another $2-3 million dollar expedition will be required in order investigate the anomaly up close, to see whether it is an odd coral formation, a sunken ship or, perhaps, the evidence that solves the Earhart mystery. “What we need is that last piece, the thing that connects all other evidence to Earhart,” says Ric Gillespie, TIGHAR’s founder and executive director.
“I think we’ll find the plane,” Glickman adds confidently. “My goal is to get it back to the Smithsonian [Museum] where we can have an intelligent conversation about the courageousness of this woman and what she accomplished.”
A tin box in New Zealand discovered earlier this month by an archivist at the New Zealand Air Force Museum in Christchurch may also offer vital clues. Containing a slip of paper with the words “Gardner Island”, the box is said to contain 45 aerial photos taken for the New Zealand Pacific Aviation Survey 15 months after Earhart’s disappearance, which could provide detailed views of the area.