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Mystery bones likely belonged to Amelia Earhart, says study

The enigma of aviator Amelia Earhart's disappearance gets a new twist with a forensic analysis of bones discovered decades ago on a Pacific island.

Amelia Earhart

Amelia Earhart in her plane in a photo dated to 1936.

Harris & Ewing/Library of Congress

Did famed aviator Amelia Earhart die as a lost castaway on a remote island after her plane disappeared in 1937? A new forensic analysis of bones discovered on an island has at least one scientist feeling pretty confident about her unfortunate fate. 

Anthropologist Richard Jantz of the University of Tennessee took a fresh forensic look at a set of bone measurements gathered by physician D.W. Hoodless in 1941. The bones came from a skeleton discovered in 1940 on the uninhabited Pacific island of Nikumaroro. Some historians believe Earhart crashed on or near the island.

The actual bones disappeared decades ago in Fiji, but we still have some of the measurements, including humerus and radius arm bones. At the time, Hoodless concluded the bones must have come from a man, but Jantz believes he was mistaken.

Jantz published a study on the bones in the journal Forensic Anthropology. Here's the bombshell conclusion: "This analysis reveals that Earhart is more similar to the Nikumaroro bones than 99 percent of individuals in a large reference sample. This strongly supports the conclusion that the Nikumaroro bones belonged to Amelia Earhart."

Jantz compared the bone measurements with estimates of Earhart's own bone lengths. The estimates came from examinations of photographs and from physical measurements taken from Earhart's clothing. 

"Until definitive evidence is presented that the remains are not those of Amelia Earhart, the most convincing argument is that they are hers," Jantz writes.

This isn't the first time the bones have caused excitement. The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (Tighar) has been investigating the bone measurements for years and released an update to its research in late 2016 that focused on the unusually long forearm measurements. The group matched them to Earhart's. 

"The match does not, of course, prove that the castaway was Amelia Earhart, but it is a significant new data point that tips the scales further in that direction," Tighar said at the time.

Jantz's new analysis adds strength and intrigue to the Nikumaroro castaway theory of the Earhart mystery, but there are some competing ideas out there, including that she disappeared at sea or was captured by Japanese forces. The bone measurements are fascinating, but there is still plenty of room for speculation and questioning.

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