Four bone-sniffing dogs that were brought to the remote Pacific island of Nikumaroro to search for traces of Amelia Earhart have identified a spot where the pioneering aviator may have died 80 years ago.
The dogs — four border collies named Marcy, Piper, Kayle, and Berkeley — arrived on the island on June 30 as part of an expedition sponsored by The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) and the National Geographic Society.
TIGHAR researchers had previously visited the island and narrowed their search to a clearing they call the Seven Site because of its shape. In 1940, a British official visited the site and reported finding human bones beneath a ren, or tournefortia, tree.
In 2001 searchers located what they believe is the ren tree site, and subsequent excavations unearthed possible signs of an American castaway, including the remains of several campfires, and U.S.-made items such as a jackknife, a woman’s compact, a zipper pull, and glass jars.
Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, disappeared on July 2, 1937, on their way to Howland Island — 350 nautical miles northeast of Nikumaroro along the line of position that Earhart outlined in her last confirmed radio transmission. Nikumaroro, or Gardner Island, is part of the Phoenix Islands, Kiribati, in the western Pacific Ocean.
TIGHAR’s hypothesis is that, when the aviators couldn’t find Howland, they landed on Nikumaroro’s reef during low tide. Proponents of competing theories argue that Earhart’s plane crashed and sank into the ocean, or that she ended up in the hands of the Japanese in the Marshall Islands or on Saipan.
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A new documentary may shed light on what happened
Indeed, a new documentary from the History Channel resurfaces a photograph that purports to show Earhart and Noonan in the Marshalls some years after they disappeared. But the man’s face is indistinct, and the woman’s back is to the camera.
The black-and-white photo is of a group of people standing on a dock on Jaluit Atoll in the Marshall Islands, including one who seems to be a slim woman with her back to the camera.
Retired U.S. Treasury Agent Les Kinney said in an interview Wednesday with The Associated Press that he was looking for clues surrounding Earhart’s disappearance in the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, when he found the photograph in 2012 in a box filled mostly with text documents from the Office of Naval Intelligence but “didn’t really look at it carefully” because he was looking over thousands of documents and images.
In 2015, he took another pass at the photo. “I looked at it and I went, ‘I can’t believe this!’” He asked his wife to come over and pointed to the seated person, asking if it seemed to her to be a man or a woman. “She said, ‘It’s a woman!’” His search led him to identify the ship seen at the right apparently pulling Earhart’s plane wreckage on a barge.
Kinney, who started his career as a naval intelligence agent, said the photograph he found was in a batch of documents collected by U.S. sources in anticipation of the 1944 invasion of the Marshall Islands. “This was a mistake. This was never meant to be there,” he said. The National Archives verified Thursday that the image is from its holdings and was in a file “unrelated to Earhart.”
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FILE – In this file photo taken on or about July 2, 1937, American aviator Amelia Earhart, left, and her navigator, Fred Noonan, right, pose beside their plane with gold miner F.C. Jacobs at Lae, New Guinea just before Earhart and Noonan took off in a flight to Howland Island on July 2, during which they disappeared somewhere in the Pacific. (AP Photo, File) (1937 AP)
The image is at the heart of the two-hour “Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence,” which argues that Earhart, along with her navigator Fred Noonan, crash-landed in the Japanese-held Marshall Islands, where they were picked up by the Japanese military and held prisoner.
In the documentary, that photo is subjected to facial-recognition and other forensic testing, such as torso measurements. Experts on the show claim the subjects are likely Earhart and Noonan.
Others aren’t convinced, including Dorothy Cochrane, a curator at the National Air and Space Museum and an expert on women in aviation. She said Thursday the blurry image isn’t conclusive. “I cannot say definitively that this is Amelia Earhart. That doesn’t mean that it might not be, somehow. But you can’t say that just through the image the way it is.”
“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, like a bone or DNA,” said Andrew McKenna, who has participated in several TIGHAR expeditions to Nikumaroro. The forensic dogs were brought to the island in hopes of finding that proof.
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Within moments of beginning to work the site, Berkeley, a curly red male, lay down at the base of a ren tree, eyes locked on his handler, Lynne Angeloro. The dog was “alerting,” indicating to Angeloro that he had detected the scent of human remains.
Next up was Kayle, a fluffy, eager-to-please female. She also alerted on the same spot. The next day Marcy and Piper, two black-and-white collies, were brought to the site. Both dogs alerted.
The signals were clear: Someone — perhaps Earhart or Noonan — had died beneath the ren tree.
But the discovery made by the dogs — which can detect the lingering scent of human bones long after the bones themselves have decomposed — was no guarantee that the expedition’s archaeologists would unearth any visible traces of the person who died under the tree.
The excavation began in earnest on July 2 — the 80th anniversary of Earhart’s disappearance. The expedition was scheduled to depart the island on July 6.
By the second to last day, the team still hadn’t located any bones. Tom King, TIGHAR’s senior archaeologist, began considering backup plans. The first: Send soil samples from the site to a lab capable of extracting DNA.
Fred Hiebert, National Geographic’s archaeologist-in-residence, pointed out that Neanderthal DNA has been successfully extracted from soil dug from a French cave. But he acknowledged that the odds of securing DNA from a tropical environment like Nikumaroro are very long.
“If we were pushing the ticket by sending forensic dogs to this island,” said Hiebert, “we’ll really be pushing it with this DNA.”
King’s other plan was to pursue a “weird story,” as he put it, that the bones found in 1940 somehow ended up in a post office on Tarawa, Kiribati’s capital.
On the last day on the island, archaeologist Dawn Johnson and physician Kim Zimmerman donned surgical masks and gloves and filled five Ziploc bags with soil from around the ren tree. Arrangements were being made to send the samples to a DNA lab in Germany.
Perhaps in the coming weeks scientists there will confirm beyond all doubt that Amelia Earhart died a castaway on Nikumaroro.
But as the ship steamed away from the island, plans also were being hatched to send a team to Tarawa. Maybe that’s where Amelia Earhart’s bones have been hiding all along. Or maybe not.
“That’s the story of our work,” King said. “We get intriguing clues, we pursue them, and we get skunked.”
But that doesn’t stop him — and many others like him — from continuing the search.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.