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Oh, those bones

March 12, 2018

Gerald Gallagher, an enthusiastic colonial officer serving in the twilight of the British empire, set out in 1940 to create a settlement on Gardner island, a small atoll in the western Pacific, now called Nikamuroro. He had had success on nearby islands. But would die on his newest settlement after barely a year.

It seems somehow appropriate that he was the first to investigate a skeleton discovered there. It was found with a sextant box and the remains of a shoe sole. As is the case with real mysteries, the bones were weathered and partial. The ones that were found are shown white in the diagram left. (Click to expand.) Gallagher describes the remains:

All small bones… removed by giant coconut crabs… difficult to estimate age bones owing to activities of crabs but am quite certain they are not less than four years old and probably much older…no hair found

If the remains were more than four years old, they could not belong to famed aviator Amelia Earhart, lost during her attempted air circumnavigation only 32 months earlier. Still, some poor soul had died on what then had been a deserted island. Gallagher dutifully sent the bones on to Fiji, where Dr. David W. Hoodless examined them and concluded that they belonged to a stocky, middle-aged male.

The bones were then lost. They would become one of those absent puzzle pieces attached to a mystery, and the perfect subject for endless re-analysis in the decades following. In 1998, The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery — TIGHAR — sponsored two forensic anthropologists who presented a paper at the American Anthropological Association annual convention arguing that the remains were consistent with Earhart’s, based on a computer analysis of cranial measurements. They were, of course, relying on the measurements made by the physician in 1941 whose work they did not approve. Just three years past, Cross and Wright, anthropologists from the University of Bradford reviewed the subject (cite and pdf), pointed out the risks of such second-hand analsysis, highlighted some of the other evidence, and concluded:

A critical review of both investigations and contextual evidence shows the original British osteological analyses were made by experienced, reliable professionals, while the cranial analysis is unreliable given the available data. Without access to the missing original bones, it is impossible to be definitive, but on balance, the most robust scientific analysis and conclusions are those of the original British finding indicating the Nikumaroro bones belonged to a robust, middle-aged man, not Amelia Earhart.

Now comes Richard Jantz, an anthropolgist from the University of Tennessee, armed with a newer, better computer analysis showing that the bones fit Earhart better than they do 99% of the population (cite), and arguing on the basis of that:

If Hoodless’s analysis, particularly his sex estimate, can be set aside, it becomes possible to focus attention on the central question of whether the Nikumaroro bones may have been the remains of Amelia Earhart. There is no credible evidence that would support excluding them. On the contrary, there are good reasons for including them. The bones are consistent with Earhart in all respects we know or can reasonably infer. Her height is entirely consistent with the bones. The skull measurements are at least suggestive of female. But most convincing is the similarity of the bone lengths to the reconstructed lengths of Earhart’s bones. Likelihood ratios of 84–154 would not qualify as a positive identification by the criteria of modern forensic practice, where likelihood ratios are often millions or more. They do qualify as what is often called the preponderance of the evidence, that is, it is more likely than not the Nikumaroro bones were (or are, if they still exist) those of Amelia Earhart. If the bones do not belong to Amelia Earhart, then they are from someone very similar to her.

What about the sex?

Anyone who has studied human anatomy, wondering about a skeleton’s sex, first turns their eyes to the subpubic arch. It is the only skeletal feature that is so clearly dimorphic that simple observation often is enough to say “male” or “female.” Jantz explains well why this is. But this is no simple case. a) Only half of the pelvis remained. While an angle is easily determined from a half angle in geometry, anatomy is more complex. Humans are not entirely symmetrical. A pelvis halved by natural elements is not cleanly cut. b) The bones were degraded. c) Humans vary. d) The bones are missing, so there is no way to determine the accuracy of those first measurements and estimates.

The first doctor to examine the remains was Duncan McPherson, who recommended that they be sent on to Fiji for more full analysis. Unlike Dr. Hoodless who examined them in Fiji, Dr. McPherson wasn’t willing to make a judgment about sex, precisely because of the state of the pelvis:

.. no positive evidence of identification was found, and I am afraid the data available does nothing to establish the skeleton as that of Mrs. Putnam. It is unfortunate that the complete pelvis is not available as this would have done much to establish remains as being those of a woman.

Mrs. Putnam is Amelia Earhart, of course. She was quite the modern woman, who insisted on a prenup prior to marrying the publisher George P. Putnam. And on keeping her own surname. And on flying around the world. She was ahead of most of the mid-20th c. world, many of whom referred to her as Mrs Putnam, despite all that.

Along with the sextant and bones, Gallagher found the sole of what he identified as a woman’s shoe. That is a clue in its own right. Though my first thought is that Earhart would more likely wear a pair of boots for her circumnavigation.

What does this show?

The press are busy declaring that Jantz has proven the bones are Earhart’s. Few reporters understand how probability works. If I tell you that I have measured a skeleton, and determined with 99.999% certainty that it is yours, you would rightly answer that cannot be, since you’re still alive. Jantz, being a scientist, understands that his computer analysis only measures similarities, and that probability for any claim on the basis of it depends on what we know prior. Including uncertainty about the underlying data used, given that he is working from past measurements.

Jantz makes the argument that there aren’t any other people whose remains they could be:

In the case of the Nikumaroro bones, the only documented person to whom they may belong is Amelia Earhart. Her navigator, Fred Noonan, can be reliably excluded on the basis of height. .. Eleven men were killed at Nikumaroro in the 1929 wreck of the Norwich City on the island’s western reef, something over four miles from where the bones were found in 1940. This number included two British and five Yemeni that were unaccounted for, but we have no documentation on them and there is no evidence that any survived to die as a castaway. The woman’s shoe and the American sextant box are not artifacts likely to have been associated with a survivor of the Norwich City wreck. If an Islander somehow ended up as a castaway, there is likewise no evidence of this.

I am a bit leery of this line of reasoning. The oceans are large, and full of possibility. Much of what transpires on them goes undocumented. Even today. Moreso a century past. Nikumaroro’s history is largely a blank slate between the 1929 wrecking of the Norwich City and Gallagher’s attempt to put a settlement there in 1940. Any number of vessels passed nearby during that decade. Did I mention that all sorts of things happen at sea? It could be the case both that some unknown sailor or passenger about Earhart’s size perished on Nikamuroro in the 1930s. And that Earhart did so, a few years later.

There are multiple lines of evidence pointing to Nikumaroro as Earhart’s last stop. That those bones likely are compatible with her remains provides one more clue. But not a definitive one.

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