When Amelia Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, stepped into her twin-engine plane in Miami on June 1, 1937, they were embarking on an adventure of a grand sort. The two hoped to fly around the world, following the Equator. For four weeks, people across the globe eagerly awaited the latest news of her historic adventure.
However, on July 2, after completing nearly two-thirds of the flight—more than 22,000 miles of a 29,000-mile journey—the plane vanished somewhere over tiny Howland Island. She was never heard from again.
Earhart’s undertaking involved all of the best that adventure offers: suspense, mystery and—according to my Merriam-Webster—“unknown risks.” Soon, however, the “mystery” part of that equation regarding Earhart’s adventure may be removed by two, very small items: a bone fragment recently discovered on the South Pacific island of Nikumaroro and saliva from a licked envelope.
Return to sender
In 2009, researchers with the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery found a bone fragment on Nikumaroro, which they believe might be from one of Earhart’s fingers. Proof was unattainable, however, since no one has been able to extract DNA from any of Earhart’s other remains or possessions.
That is, until now. Dongya Yang, a genetic archaeologist at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, Canada, is heading a brand-new Earhart DNA project. Yang hopes to harvest DNA from envelopes Earhart once licked shut. From there, Yang and his team will compile a genetic profile of Amelia Earhart, which will then be used to test the bone fragment.
Sorting through more than 400 letters between Earhart and various people, the researchers have chosen four sent to her family—deemed the most likely to have been written and sealed by Earhart herself—for analysis. To ensure that the DNA extracted from the letters is, indeed, Earhart’s, the team will compare it to DNA from her still-living relatives and that taken from another letter, written by Earhart’s sister. To get at the DNA-containing saliva, a geneticist will first carefully steam the seals open.
A body of evidence
If the project is successful, a genetic profile of Earhart could be completed in a couple of months. It’s now quite possible that the mystery surrounding her great adventure will be solved.
If that happens, I know that I’ll feel like I did when I read about mountain climber George Mallory’s body being found on Mount Everest after more than 70 years. In the 1999 book by Conrad Anker and David Roberts titled The Lost Explorer, the authors describe how Anker happened upon his frozen remains.
On June 8, 1924, George Leigh Mallory and Andrew “Sandy” Irvine were last spotted climbing toward the summit of Everest, on a rock ledge called the “Second Step.” Clouds soon closed around them, and they disappeared into history. Ever since then, mountaineers have wondered whether Mallory and Irvine actually reached the summit 29 years before Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, in 1953.
On May 1, 1999, while climbing at 27,000 feet on Everest’s north face, Conrad Anker discovered a body lying facedown, frozen into the scree and naturally mummified. The condition of the body, fragments of clothing and surrounding artifacts—including goggles, an altimeter and a carefully wrapped bundle of personal letters—proved the body was Mallory’s.
Seventeen days later, Anker free-climbed to the summit from the Second Step, a 90-foot, sheer cliff that is the single hardest obstacle on the north ridge. The first expedition known to have conquered the Second Step was a Chinese team in 1975. That team had tied a ladder to the cliff, leaving unanswered the question of whether Mallory could have climbed it in 1924. Anker’s free climb was the first test since Mallory’s of the cliff’s true difficulty. Anker came to the conclusion that Mallory and Irvine failed to make the summit, but he expressed his awe at Mallory’s achievement, given the primitive gear he had to work with.
While the book was fascinating to read, it made me wish Anker had never found Mallory. I wanted to believe that his adventure was still open-ended; that he was still there, somewhere on the summit.
Leaving without one word
Much like Earhart’s followers in 1937, I’ll be anxiously awaiting any new news of her still-open adventure. My hope, though, is that the bone fragment isn’t hers, but that of a turtle. Because with regards to that Merriam-Webster definition of adventure, I think I’d end it one word shorter: adventure should involve just the “unknown.”
Here’s to your adventures, in whatever corner of the world you find them,