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Search For Amelia Earhart Draws Archaeologist From Eugene To South Pacific

File photo of Amelia Earhart beneath the nose of her Lockheed Model 10 Electra in Oakland, California, in March 1937.
National Portrait Gallery
Smithsonian Institution
File photo of Earhart beneath the nose of her Lockheed Model 10 Electra in Oakland, California in March 1937.

An archaeologist from Eugene has just returned from an expedition to an uninhabited South Pacific island with new clues about the possible fate of Amelia Earhart. The pioneer aviator and her navigator, Fred Noonan, disappeared 80 years ago—creating an enduring mystery and fascination.

Earhart was attempting to become the first woman to fly around the world when she took off from Papua New Guinea. The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery believes her plane went off course near the equator and crash-landed ?on a remote coral atoll, where she later died.

Credit Google Maps
Google Maps
Amelia Earhart was aiming for Howland Island when her plane disappeared in 1937.

Eugene-based consulting archaeologist and videographer Rick Pettigrew took part in a just-completed TIGHAR expedition to the island of Nikumaroro, which used forensic search dogs.

"Forensic dogs have been able to detect graves that are thousands of years old,” Pettigrew said. “So finding something 80 years old doesn't sound to me like a stretch."

Pettigrew said the dogs "alerted at the very spot" where the search organizers theorize Earhart expired, but a subsequent dig found no leftover bones. The crew collected soil samples at the site in a long shot bid to extract remnant DNA of the presumed castaway.

Pettigrew said the roughly 50-member expedition party spent "eight solid days" at Nikumaroro. He took three cameras and a drone with him to document the search. ?

Pettigrew is president of the Eugene-based nonprofit Archaeological Legacy Institute, whose chief focus is streaming archaeological videos and interviews online. He hopes to post a short piece summarizing this expedition in the next month or two, although the National Geographic Society has first rights to publicize the story. National Geographic sponsored the forensic dog team's participation. ?

"I have the raw material for an incredible story in film," Pettigrew said. “I like to solve mysteries. That was kind of the core of it for me. But there are many other parts of this that excited me as well.” ?

TIGHAR researchers have visited Nikumaroro at least eight prior times, amassing a wealth of evidence that suggests an American castaway or castaways perished on the atoll. The supporting evidence includes the recovery of U.S.-made items including a women's compact, part of a shoe, a zipper pull, remains of aircraft landing gear and a fragment of a cosmetics bottle -- all consistent with 1930s manufacture. ?

"The smoking gun eludes us," Pettigrew said. "Finding absolute proof that Amelia Earhart was on the island is a very difficult enterprise." ?

Nikumaroro was known as Gardner Island at the time of Earhart's round-the-world flight attempt in 1937. The four-and-a-half mile long islet is now part of the Republic of Kiribati. ?

This summer's expedition was organized and led by Tom King, an archaeologist, author and TIGHAR board member from Silver Spring, Maryland. Besides the dog handlers and land-based excavation, King recruited an underwater search team. ?

The expedition blog reported that the dive team confirmed the passage into the lagoon at the center of the atoll is littered with debris and wreckage, some of which may be junk or remnants of a shipwreck. ?

"Determining whether there is also airplane debris there will take a concerted effort that will have to wait for another time," the expedition's final daily report said on July 6. ?

Two competing theories hold that Earhart's plane crashed and sank in the open ocean or that she strayed off course in another direction and landed in the Marshall Islands, then under Japanese control.

The theory that Earhart and her navigator died as Japanese captives briefly surged to the fore earlier this month when the History Channel aired a much-hyped documentary.

That show relied on a rediscovered archival photo that purported to show Earhart and Noonan on Jaluit Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The grainy, black-and-white photo has since been discredited because it was published two years before Earhart disappeared.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.