Laboratory inquiry 3: Forensic case

2 minute read

Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan

Amelia Earhart was a famous aviator and pioneer in flight during the 1920s and 1930s. In 1932 she became the first woman to fly solo nonstop across the Atlantic Ocean, and she set an altitude record for flight in an autogyro in 1931. She was well known for her efforts to increase the role of women pilots and publicize the growing importance of airplanes.

Earhart attempted an around-the-world flight in 1937, taking a tropical route. One of the final legs of this flight was planned from Lae, New Guinea to Howland Island in the South Pacific Ocean, a total distance of 2550 miles. On July 2, 1937, Earhart took off with her navigator, Fred Noonan, to make this flight. Earhart was known to have reached the vicinity of Howland because of her radio transmissions; the U.S. Navy vessel USS Itasca was tasked with communicating with Earhart and helping guide her to her destination. Her final transmission, at 8:43 am, came after more than an hour of searching for Howland on very low remaining fuel.

After a 17-day search effort across more than 100,000 square miles of ocean, Earhart was given up for dead. However, many people operating shortwave radio sets across the U.S. claimed to have heard faint transmissions from Earhart during this time. Stories about her possible survival have persisted since that time, and archaeologists and aviation enthusiasts continue to investigate her disappearance.

One of the most striking stories about Earhart’s disappearance is that she may have survived the crash of her plane on another island. The most common island mentioned is the uninhabited Nikumaroro island in present-day Kiribati. A skeleton was recovered on this island by British colonial officials in 1940 and sent to Fiji, from where the remains later disappeared.

The skeletal remains in this lab were recovered from a private residence on Fiji. One or more of them may have been part of the collection curated by the British government on the island, which were sent away for safekeeping during the Second World War.

Your task is to determine whether these remains may have belonged to Earhart or Noonan. Earhart was 39 years old at the time of her disappearance and stood approximately 5 feet 8 inches (173 cm) tall. Noonan was 44 and stood approximately five feet 11 inches (180 cm) tall.

Assess the sex, race, stature and age of these skeletal remains, to the extent possible. Can they be the remains of Earhart or Noonan?