Last July, a new show debuting on the History Channel drew international headlines with claims that a never before seen photograph could finally unravel the near-century old mystery of what happened to Amelia Earhart on her final flight in 1937.  The grainy black and white photograph and accompanying expert analysis took the glove by storm, with media outlets including SOFREP, reporting on these findings as legitimate and based in fact. The picture reportedly showed Earhart, along with her co-pilot Fred Noonan sitting on a dock and in Japanese custody.

“The hairline is the most distinctive characteristic,” said Ken Gibson, a facial recognition expert who studied the image and claimed to confirm Fred Noonan is in the image. “It’s a very sharp receding hairline. The nose is very prominent.”

Of course, within days of the story breaking, a Japanese blogger was able to tear these claims to pieces by doing little more than visiting his local library. There, on page 44 of a book published in 1935 (two years before Earhart even departed on her trip) was the same photograph, proving without a shadow of a doubt that the image was not her, and that the History Channel hadn’t vetted their documents, or experts particularly well.

Image courtesy of Japan’s Diet National Library

“I don’t know what to say,” said Kent Gibson, the facial-recognition expert that the History Channel hired to analyze the photograph for the show. “I don’t have an explanation for why [the photograph] would show up two years early.”

Now, just eight months later, it would seem that the world has already forgotten how easily fooled the media can be by the claims of “experts” and the backing of large media empires. When you got up on Thursday morning, you likely came across a number of headlines in various outlets claiming, once again, that the mystery has been solved. Amelia Earhart’s bones, these headlines claim, have been discovered and confirmed. Well that’s that, you might have thought to yourself, bones, science, discovered… these are all words that seem pretty incontrovertible.

Unfortunately, headlines are usually intended to get you to click, not get you to understand something, and the latest round of Earhart related ones are no different. The bones these reports discuss were not recently discovered… nor were they actually even looked at in the new study claiming to have solved the mystery.

In 1940, bones were found on Nikumaroro Island in the South Pacific, which based on Earhart’s last known location and trajectory, seemed like they could have been hers. Analysis of the bones at the time, however, seemed to dash those hopes. A physician named D.W. Hoodless studied the bones at the time and claimed with high certainty that they belonged to a man, not the famed female aviator. The headlines might have you believe that this new study was conducted by analyzing those same bones, there’s just one problem with that: the bones have been missing for decades.

The bones were the subject of study and debate throughout 1940 and into 1941, but in July of that year, Dr. D.W. Hoodless sent one final telegram stating that he would take charge of the bones for further study… and then all correspondence, and mention of the bones, ceases until The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) started working to find them again in 1999. Thus far, with no success.

So what did this new study use to “solve” the Amelia Earhart mystery? Seven measurements recorded by Hoodless at the time, and nothing more.

“Metric data from the Nikumaroro bones are limited to seven measurements,” The study by Richard Jantz of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville reads, ” four of the skull (maximum cranial length, maximum cranial breadth, orbital height, and orbital breadth) and three long bone measurements (length of the humerus, radius, and tibia; see Burns et al. 1998 for measurements).”

Because the bones found on Nikumaroro island have been gone for decades, the best the researchers at the University of Tennessee could do is compare those measurements to other data sets in order to extrapolate the likely gender and ethnic heritage of the bones. Their findings are quite interesting, and do support the idea that the bones found only three years after Earhart went missing could have indeed been hers. What they don’t do, however, is prove much of anything. It’s worth nothing, of course, that neither Jantz, nor the study itself, make any such claims. The certainty in this case instead almost entirely media hype. Jantz’ study does, however claim that his findings do support the theory that the bones were Earhart’s.

“This analysis reveals that Earhart is more similar to the Nikumaroro bones than 99% of individuals in a large reference sample,” the study noted. “This strongly supports the conclusion that the Nikumaroro bones belonged to Amelia Earhart.”

It would seem, then, that this new study has done an effective and professional job of refuting D.W. Hoodless’ 1940 claims that the skeletal remains found on Nikumaroro Island could not possibly be Earhart, but unfortunately the analysis can go no further without making deductive leaps that aren’t back by evidence. In effect, we can now say with some certainty that those bones might have been Amelia Earhart’s. Unfortunately, without the bones themselves, that’s as certain as we can be.

It would seem that the mystery surrounding Amelia Earhart’s disappearance may live on… at least for now.

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You can read Richard Jantz’ study into the Nikumaroro here.


Image courtesy of the Associated Press