Wednesday, March 14, 2018

About Those Amelia Earhart Bones...

There has been quite the stir in the scientific community lately, thanks to a group of scientists boldly claiming that the mystery of the disappearance of Amelia Earhart has been solved. But, has it, really? It certainly sounds intriguing, and it makes for great headlines. We get the same stories about Jack the Ripper's identity finally being revealed or the Zodiac Killer's, or DB Cooper's every few months. I'd swear that the press just keeps these sort of stories around as filler material to use on slow news days.

In case you're not familiar with the latest wrinkle in this Amelia Earhart case, here's what's going on: Skeletal human remains were found on the remote island of Nikumaroro (aka Gardner) in the South Pacific around 1940. At the time, measurements of the bones were made by D. W. Hoodless who concluded that the bones belonged to a man with a height of about six feet. Recently, Richard Jantz, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology and Director Emeritus of UT’s Forensic Anthropology Center, took another look at those measurements. Using several modern quantitative techniques, including Fordisc, a computer program for estimating sex, ancestry, and stature from skeletal measurements Jantz concluded that Hoodless had incorrectly determined the sex of the remains. Jantz also compared the bone lengths with Earhart’s presumed lengths using data from old photographs of her. Jantz concluded that the bones have more similarity to Earhart than to 99 percent of individuals in a large reference sample. Based on this, Jantz declared "until definitive evidence is presented that the remains are not those of Amelia Earhart, the most convincing argument is that they are hers".

Sounds pretty conclusive, right? Wrong. There are a lot of other things to consider here:


  • Jantz was working from an analysis made by Hoodless rather than doing his own analysis of the bones, which wasn't possible because the bones have been missing for quite some time. Even if we assume that Hoodless' measurements were accurate, context is still important. How old are the bones? What does a DNA analysis say? What condition are the bones in? Under what circumstances were they found? How do any objects found near the bones compare to them? These are important questions that cannot be answered because the bones have gone missing. 

  • The island had been of interest to the British since the 1800s and had been inhabited for quite some time prior to the discovery of the bones. Also, the SS Norwich City was shipwrecked on the island in 1929. Given these facts, it's hard to say exactly who those bones might belong to. 

  • If Earhart crash landed on the island and lived long enough to die there, then where is the wreckage of the plane? And why didn't any of the inhabitants of the island notice her? 

  • Nikumaroro was searched a day after Earhart's disappearance and a week afterward. No signs of her were found there. 

  • Nikumaroro is 1200km off of Earhart's route and in the opposite direction of her last known location. It stretches the bounds of credibility to think that she would have ended up there somehow. 

  • The statement "until definitive evidence is presented that the remains are not those of Amelia Earhart, the most convincing argument is that they are hers" is troubling. It's bad science to believe that your conclusion should be considered true until it is proven false.

  • Jantz's study was funded by TIGHAR, a search group who have been vocal proponents of the Earhart on Nikumaroro theory. This implies bias. In other words, the study was not conducted with an open mind to any conclusion. Rather, it was looking to prove a theory on behalf of the expounder of said theory.

So, given the list above, I'd say that the study, while compelling, is far from conclusive. And, unless the bones are somehow found, I don't think that this mystery will ever be solved.

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