Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

Why can't we solve the Amelia Earhart mystery?


Clues to the Earhart Mystery
The jar discovered on Nikumaroro Island by TIGHAR explorers is pictured next to a 1930s container for freckle ointment. The explorers think the jar (which they repaired) belonged to Amelia Earhart who was known to dislike her freckles.
The jar discovered on Nikumaroro Island by TIGHAR explorers is pictured next to a 1930s container for freckle ointment. The explorers think the jar (which they repaired) belonged to Amelia Earhart who was known to dislike her freckles.
TIGHAR/Barcroft USA/Barcoft Media via Getty Images

Toward the end of its search for Earhart in 1937, the Navy sent a destroyer to an uninhabited atoll called Gardner Island, now known as Nikumaroro. It is located 400 miles (643 kilometers) southeast of Howland. Radio transmissions on the frequency Earhart had been using were being broadcast sporadically from that area. The search was called off after two observation planes launched from the ship turned up no evidence of human life.

Perhaps that would have been the end of the association between Earhart and the island, had it not been colonized by the British a year after her disappearance. In 1940, Gerald Gallagher, the lead official on the island, discovered evidence that a castaway had inhabited the island before it was colonized. Among the finds were the sole of a woman's shoe, a man's shoe, a liqueur bottle, a container for a sextant (a navigational device), a human skull and bones [source: Thurman].

These findings have led to many groups to see Nikumaroro as the key to unlocking the mystery of the disappearance of Amelia Earhart. One of these groups, The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), has launched several investigations of the island and turned up some interesting finds. At an area on the island known as the Seven Site, something that appears to be a castaway camp was found. Giant clam shell fragments suggest a shell was smashed open. A cache of bones of turtles, fish and birds display evidence of having been exposed to fire. Also, the remains of woman's compact and a jar that once held a cream for lightening freckles, both from the 1930s were found. In the remains of the village on Gardener (which was left uninhabited once more in 1963 after a long drought), crafts made by residents out of aluminum aircraft metal were left behind [source: King].

The idea that Earhart's airplane broke up upon contact with the ocean and ended up used piecemeal for island handicrafts hasn't deterred some explorers from searching for the plane in the depths of the Pacific. Expeditions using sonar have focused on areas around Howland Island looking for the plane. But so far, neither the aircraft nor any pieces of it have been recovered. Why is that?


More to Explore