Bones Unearthed in 1940 Are Likely Amelia Earhart's, Says New Research

Famed aviator Amelia Earhart smiles as she sits in the cockpit of a small plane. Decades later, her disappearance and fate continue to captivate scientists and the public alike. Bettmann/Getty Images

"If we knew what we were doing, it wouldn't be called research, would it?" This quote, frequently misattributed to Albert Einstein, pretty much sums up the process of scientific inquiry: Scientists make observations, form hypotheses, test hypotheses, then form conclusions. And a lot of the time, those conclusions turn out to be straight-up wrong. (Flat Earth model, anyone?)

That's because our understanding of science is constantly evolving. As is the case with famed aviator Amelia Earhart's disappearance in 1937, a mystery that has led to tons of speculation, offbeat theories and expensive search missions for her remains. In 1940, human bones found on Nikumaroro — an island in the western Pacific Ocean where Earhart could have crash-landed and survived — were suspected to be Earhart's. Upon examining the remains in 1941, Dr. D.W. Hoodless of Central Medical School in Fiji determined that they belonged to a middle-aged stocky European man, and therefore not Earhart. But in the years since, researchers have gone back and forth on this conclusion, debating Hoodless' ability to assess the bones and the accuracy of forensic anthropology, a developing field at the time.

The remains are lost now, but the question persists: Did the bones belong to Amelia Earhart? According to a March 2018 study out of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, it's awfully likely that they did. In the study, Richard L. Jantz — professor emeritus of anthropology and director emeritus of UT's Forensic Anthropology Center — analyzed Hoodless' bone measurements using Fordisc, an industry-standard computer program that identifies sex, ancestry and stature based on skeletal measurements. He also relied on measurements of Earhart's pants and photos of Earhart to estimate her body build and bone sizes for comparison to the Nikumaroro bones.

The results were enticing. Not only did he find that the bones could have belonged to a woman, but he also discovered that the bones are at least 84 times more likely to belong to Earhart than to a random person who ended up on the island. "Until definitive evidence is presented that the remains are not those of Amelia Earhart, the most convincing argument is that they are hers," Jantz said in the paper.

Jantz's findings remind us that researchers aren't infallible, and scientific techniques improve over time. But that means that his work isn't immune to error, either. After all, there are other practical explanations for what happened to Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan on that fateful July day. For instance, they simply could have ran out of fuel and crashed in the Pacific Ocean.

We may never know what happened on that ill-fated flight, but that doesn't keep us from wondering. Perhaps Einstein did say it best: "The important thing is not to stop questioning."

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