By Tom King
Back on October 5, 2007, I reported here briefly on the 2007 expedition to Nikumaroro Island, continuing the research reported in the Altamira Press book Amelia Earhart’s Shoes. I’d like to update that report a little.
Readers will recall that our research is aimed at determining what happened to aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, when they disappeared over the Pacific in July of 1937. In a nutshell, we think they wound up on Nikumaroro, an uninhabited island in the Phoenix group of islands, part of today’s Republic of Kiribati but In those days part of the Crown Colony of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands. Our work is sponsored by The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), whose website, is the place to go for up-to-the-minute news and a wealth of background material. The 2007 expedition was our seventh to the island, and its primary focus was on the “Seven Site.” This is a location near the southeast end of the island, where colonial documents indicate a partial human skeleton was found in 1940, together with a sextant box with numbers on it, a woman’s shoe, and a few other artifacts, as well as evidence of a fire in which birds and turtles had been cooked. In 2001 we carried out fieldwork at the site, finding the remains of fires with bird, fish, and turtle bones, and a number of artifacts indicating that someone had been camping there in the late 1930s or early 1940s.
In 2007 we cleared the dense brush off a large area of the Seven Site, and found the remains of more fires. We scanned the area closely for human bones and teeth, and found none, but we did find a number of other suggestive artifacts. At the time of my October 5, 2007 report, analysis of what we brought back was just beginning. It’s been a slow process, since we’re entirely supported by volunteer work and contributed funding, but we’re at the point where I can report the following results.
- A shard of beveled glass found on the site turned out to match another shard found in 2001, and together they very closely match the size, thickness and shape of a mirror from a 1930s woman’s compact.
- Three small tabular lumps of red material found in two separate fire features have been subjected to chemical analysis; their chemistry is consistent with that of early twentieth century cosmetic rouge. The three lumps fit easily into the outline of the rouge compartment in a 1930s compact.
- A piece of a pocket knife – one end of the knife and one of the thin metal strips that forms one side of one of the blade compartments – has been identified as coming from a bone handled jackknife produced by the Imperial Cutlery Company of Providence, Rhode Island sometime between 1930 and 1945. A similar knife is in the inventory of material recorded as being on Earhart’s plane prior to her world flight, but this type of knife was extremely common during World War II. Interestingly, the piece shows evidence of having been used as an informal prying tool, after the knife itself came apart.
- Analysis of fishbone from the two fire features indicate exploitation of a broad range of easily available reef and lagoon species, with no indication of a focus on species usually favored by Pacific island populations. Moreover, whoever ate the fish did not consume the heads, which are usually regarded by Pacific Island people as delicacies. The faunal assemblage also includes a number of baby sea turtle bones, and the remains of one or more brown boobies; birdbone analysis is still underway, however.
- One of the fire features contained the fragmented remains of two partly melted bottles, both of which had apparently been standing upright in the fire. One was an amber returnable beer bottle of probable pre-World War II origin; the other was a green bottle of a size and shape consistent with medicinal or cosmetic use, with an embossed patent number dating the bottle to sometime after 1933. We think the bottles may represent an attempt to purify water by boiling.
- Both fire features contained many fragments of badly rusted ferrous metal, which appear to represent metal containers and/or cooking equipment.
- Part of a zipper – the “pull” found on the surface of the site turns out to have been manufactured by Talon, an American company, in the 1930s. It was apparently not military in origin.
- Perhaps most intriguingly, and the major focus of current research, is a fragmented lump of brown material sifted out of the excavation at one of the fire features. This turned out – to our considerable surprise – to be fecal material, and to contain human DNA. Analysis is continuing, by Molecular World, Inc. of Thunder Bay, Ontario.
Meanwhile, we’ve done further study of the numbers on the sextant box described in 1940 as having been found with the human bones, probably at the Seven Site. The box itself was lost in Fiji sometime after 1941. Comparative analysis provides strong indications that it held an early 20th century nautical sextant made by the Brandis Instrument Company and acquired by the U.S. Navy toward the end of World War I. Many such sextants were adapted by the Navy for aviation use, and were probably sold as surplus in the 1920s.
Incidentally, Google Earth now has excellent, fairly up-to-date imagery of Nikumaroro, though under its old colonial name of “Gardner Island.” You can view the Seven Site by navigating to 4o41’08.30”S, 174o29’48.34”W.
Details on the ongoing analysis will appear from time to time in TIGHAR’s newsletter, TIGHAR Tracks, and on its website. A full archaeological report and summary journal article are in preparation, pending the completion of analyses in progress. No further expeditions are planned at the moment, due to scarce finances, though there is certainly more fieldwork that could usefully be done. Nikumaroro, incidentally, is part of the Phoenix Islands Protected Area, featured last year in National Geographic. Its ecosystem is delicate, as are its archaeological sites, and it must be visited with care. Since it is very expensive to get there (by chartered ship), it has thus far not suffered too much from human use.
Tom King is the author of the Altamira Press textbooks Cultural Resource Laws and Practice, Federal Planning and Historic Places, Thinking About Cultural Resource Management, and Places That Count; he is also the co-author of Amelia Earhart’s Shoes. His latest book, elaborating on the points in this discussion, is Our Unprotected Heritage, published by Left Coast Press.