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USF researcher joins search for Amelia Earhart

DNA from a skull found in 1940 could prove whether the famous aviator has been found.

TAMPA — A forensic anthropologist who found the unmarked graves of students at an infamous boys school in Florida is now working to solve a global mystery — whether human remains discovered 80 years ago in the South Pacific belong to Amelia Earhart.

The efforts of University of South Florida professor Erin Kimmerle will be showcased in the National Geographic documentary Expedition Amelia that will premiere October 20 at 8 p.m.

“I am very honored to be a part of this,” Kimmerle said. “Amelia Earhart was a pioneer in aviation and in speaking out for women’s roles in the work place."

Earhart disappeared in July 1937 over the Pacific Ocean during an attempt to fly around the world.

Three years later, workers were clearing trees for a coconut plantation on the South Pacific island of Nikumaroro when they discovered about a dozen bones, National Geographic archaeologist Fredrik Hiebert said.

“That means more than 190 are left somewhere,” he said.

It was initially thought the bones belonged to Earhart, but a British physician stationed in Fiji shot down that notion. The doctor said the remains were from a male, Kimmerle said, and “probably Polynesian. The remains were then lost to time and history."

The British doctor’s report has since been questioned, Kimmerle said. Those bones could belong to a woman of European descent.

“The bottom line is they never should have dismissed the chance it was Amelia Earhart,” Kimmerle said.

National Geographic’s Hiebert began looking for the lost bones in 2017. His search eventually brought him to the city of Tarawa in the western Pacific country of Kiribati. Most of the British Empire’s records for that region were sent there in the 1970s.

Hiebert found what he was looking for earlier this year inside the island’s one-room Umwanibong Museum and Cultural Centre.

“They were in an unlabeled box on a shelf behind an administrative box,” Hiebert said.

He then asked Kimmerle to help identify whether the bones could be from a female and date back to 1937.

“She is a leader in her field," Hiebert said.

Kimmerle is the executive director of the Florida Institute for Forensic Anthropology and Applied Sciences and an associate professor of anthropology. She gained considerable notoriety in recent years when she uncovered the graves of students on the Marianna campus of the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, a state-run reform school shuttered in 2011.

Kimmerle went to Tarawa in August to examine the remains.

“They had one skull and a couple of bones,” she said. “The skull was fragmented so I had to reconstruct it.”

That work was performed at USF.

“We then sent it off for DNA testing," Kimmerle said.

The DNA was matched against DNA from the daughter of Earhart’s sister.

“The maternal side is exactly the type of sample you want,” Kimmerle said. “That makes it very possible.”

Neither Kimmerle nor Hiebert would disclose the results and spoil the documentary.

“You’ll have to wait until the end of the two-hour film,” Hiebert said. “Then you’ll find out what happened.”