It's one of history’s enduring mysteries: what happened to famed aviator Amelia Earhart?
A University of South Florida researcher is joining National Geographic in trying to answer that question.
The hunt has gone on since Earhart and her co-pilot, Fred Noonan, disappeared in the Western Pacific Ocean during an attempted around-the-world flight in 1937.
Ocean explorer Bob Ballard, who discovered the wreck of the Titanic, is now looking for Earhart's plane, as well as her remains, as part of an upcoming National Geographic documentary, “Expedition Amelia.”
The investigation is focusing partly on bones that were found in 1940 on a small Pacific atoll called Nikumaroro (formerly Gardner Island) in the Republic of Kiribati. Those bones, including portions of a skull, ended up in the hands of Dr. D.W. Hoodless, who worked at a Fiji medical school.
Hoodless mistakenly believed the remains were that of a man. Sometime after he made that conclusion, the bones were lost.
Years later, items that could be those same bones may have been found in a museum in Tarawa, Kiribati.
That’s why National Geographic producers contacted Erin Kimmerle, the executive director of the Florida Institute for Forensic Anthropology and Applied Science at USF, to assist. She ended up making a 30-hour trip to the museum to see what she could learn.
“There are two questions: can we find the remains that Hoodless looked at and is it her? Is it Amelia Earhart?” said Kimmerle.
Expedition Amelia: See a preview of the National Geographic documentary here
“We looked through this museum in Kiribati and found female skeletal remains, particularly cranial remains, that were very consistent with her profile, very consistent with what Hoodless looked at,” she continued. “It wasn't like a box with his name on it, which would have been great… but it couldn't be ruled out, you couldn't say, ‘Well this is not the remains.’ It was like the best sort of possibility of anything there.”
Kimmerle is helping rebuild the skull, as well as seeing if DNA from the fragments match samples she plans on collecting from Earhart’s descendants this week.
“Because Amelia Earhart had a sister and she had children and they have extended family, there is a reference sample available for DNA testing and so that’s the way to know conclusively and to really know definitively,” she said.
Kimmerle thinks the results of that testing could be known by the time the documentary premieres Oct. 20.
Kimmerle, who has led an ongoing investigation into bodies buried in an unmarked cemetery on the grounds of the former Dozier Reform School for Boys in Marianna, says that the Earhart case is another example of how history and science can intersect.
“I think it's both – on the one hand, (I’m) always thinking like a scientist, focused on this idea of inclusion/exclusion, can we rule this out or can we not rule out these remains?” she said. “So, on the one hand, it's very much based on that process, but it is a neat history and story and it certainly doesn't escape one's mind.
She adds that a side benefit of taking part in the investigation is finding out things about Earhart that she didn't know.
“She had published two books prior to her death, wrote for Cosmo, was absolutely critical in building the airlines as commercial airlines, was a radical feminist, I just love her for so many reasons,” said Kimmerle. “And hopefully that is what is sort of the legacy. I think she could be very inspiring, especially to young girls going into science and things like that. She was really, I think, an interesting person.”