Amelia Earhart May Have Survived Months as Castaway

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Fish, turtle and bird bones found in fire pits on a remote Pacific island may be signs of Amelia Earhart's last efforts to survive.
FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

THE GIST

- Researchers found a campsite with 11 fire features on an island believed to be Amelia Earhart's final resting place.

- The fire features contained thousands of bones from fish, turtles and birds.

- A number of artifacts, including a glass jar and broken knife were found at the site.

Amelia Earhart, the legendary pilot who disappeared 73 years ago while flying over the Pacific Ocean in a record attempt to fly around the world at the equator, may have survived several weeks, or even months as a castaway on a remote South Pacific island, according to preliminary results of a two-week expedition on the tiny coral atoll believed to be her final resting place.

"There is evidence on the island suggesting that a castaway was there for weeks and possibly months," Ric Gillespie, executive director of The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), told Discovery News.

Watch an audio slide show of Gillespie describing clues his team found on the South Pacific island.

Gillespie has just returned from an expedition on Nikumaroro, the uninhabited tropical island in the southwestern Pacific republic of Kiribati where Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan are believed to have landed when running out of fuel.

"We noticed that the forest can be an excellent source of water for a castaway in an island where there is no fresh water. After heavy rain, you can easily collect water from the bowl-shaped hollows in the buka trees. We also found a campsite and nine fire features containing thousands of fish, turtle and bird bones. This might suggest that many meals took place there," Gillespie said.

TIGHAR 's expedition to Nikumaroro was the tenth since 1989. During the previous campaigns, the team uncovered a number of artifacts which, combined with archival research, provide strong circumstantial evidence for a castaway presence.

"On this expedition we have recovered nearly 100 objects," Gillespie said. Among the items, 10 are being tested by a Canadian lab for DNA.

"We are talking about 'touch DNA,' genetic material that can be retrieved from objects that have been touched," he explained.

The best candidate for contact DNA appears to be a small glass jar that was found broken in five pieces, most likely a cosmetic jar.

Other candidates for DNA extraction include two buttons, parts of a pocket knife that was beaten apart to detach the blades for some reason, a cloth that appears to have been shaped as a bow, and cosmetic fragments of rouge from a woman's compact.

The excavation took place on the island's remote southeast end, in an area called the Seven Site, where the campsite and fire features were found.

"Only someone who really knew the island could choose this place. This is Nikumaroro's best place, it has shade and breeze, and it is close to the lagoon and the ocean. Here, red-tailed tropicbirds are nesting and are very easy to catch," Gillespie said.

The site is densely vegetated with shrubs known as Scaevola frutescens,and may be where the castaways' last meals were consumed. Indeed, it is here that a partial skeleton of a castaway was found in 1940.

Recovered by British Colonial Service Officer Gerald Gallagher, human remains were described in a forensic report and attributed to an individual "more likely female than male," "more likely white than Polynesian or other Pacific Islander," "most likely between 5 feet 5 inches and 5 feet 9 inches in height." Unfortunately the bones have been lost.

Gillespie believes that many of the bones might have been carried off by crabs, suggesting an unmerciful end for Earhart.

"In our experience, the crabs can be a serious problem. When we sat down to eat lunch, there were hundreds of these crabs climbing on our shoes. If you lay down, they think you are dead and they pinch pieces out of you," Gillespie said.

Abandoned for weeks on a desert island where temperatures often exceed 100 degrees, even in the shade, Earhart may have succumbed to any number of causes, including injury and infection, food poisoning from toxic fish, or simply dehydration.

"We do know that 1938 was one of the most severe drought years on the island, so if she survived long enough to get into that period, she could have been in real trouble," Gillespie said

Ironically, Earhart might have died surrounded by a paracetamol-like drug. The invasive Scaevola frutescens, which posed a nightmare to TIGHAR's archaeologists, is in fact a plant full of therapeutic properties.

Bark, roots and leaves are used in folk medicine to treat dysentery, headache, ciguatera (food poisoning associated with the ingestion of tropical fish) and tachycardia.

According to Rajappan Manavalan and colleagues at the department of pharmacy of Annamalai University, India, the plant has been proven to be "an excellent remedy as antidiabetic, antipyretic, antiinflamatory, anticoagulant and as skeletal muscle relaxant without any adverse reactions."

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