Aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart may have survived her ill-fated final flight only to die on a tiny island in the Western Pacific Ocean, according to new analysis comparing photos of the pilot to skeletal remains found on a remote coral atoll.

The remains were recovered from Nikumaroro (a.k.a. Gardner Island) in 1940, and were initially judged to have belonged to a man. But a new study by forensic anthropology professor Richard Jantz, of the University of Tennessee, suggests the methods used to evaluate the bones were flawed. Jantz says the doctor who measured the bones wasn’t fully schooled in modern forensics, and that the measurements actually have more similarity to Earhart’s body than 99 per cent of individuals in the Forensic Anthropology Data Bank.

“In the case of the Nikumaroro bones, the only documented person to whom they may belong is Amelia Earhart,” Jantz writes in the study, which is published in the latest edition of the Forensic Anthropology journal.

Earhart disappeared along with navigator Fred Noonan in 1937 en route to Howland Island in the Pacific Ocean, during an attempt to fly around the world In a Lockheed Electra aircraft. Her fate has remained a mystery and source of speculation for decades, with some suggesting she may have survived the flight and taken refuge on one of the tiny islands in the Pacific.

Nikumaroro is approximately 650 kilometres south-south east of Howland Island, and has been scoured multiple times as part of the search for Earhart and Noonan.

The bones found on the island were originally examined by Dr. D.W. Hoodless, principal of the Central Medical School in Fiji in 1940. He recorded four skull measurements and three long bone measurements, and concluded that the remains likely belonged to a stocky male standing just over 5-foot-5 in height.

However, there has been some back-and-forth over the interpretation of those measurements in recent decades, especially since the bones themselves have been lost. A study from 1998 suggested Hoodless’ conclusion was wrong, and that the bones actually belonged to a female of European ancestry, between 5-foot-6 and 5-foot-8. Another study from 2015 defended Hoodless’ initial conclusions, arguing that he was qualified to accurately examine the remains, and that Earhart’s body was too “linear and gracile” to be confused with a stocky male body.

“Both of these arguments turn on the accuracy of Hoodless’ assessment,” Jantz says in his paper, adding that Hoodless was not specifically trained as a modern forensic anthropologist. He also suggests that the methods used for evaluating bone measurements at the time were “inadequate to the task” of determining height and sex.

Jantz says Earhart stood approximately 5-foot-7 to 5-foot-8, based on photographic evidence and a study of the clothing she left behind. “Her height is entirely consistent with the bones,” Jantz says. He also suggests that her above-average height for a woman might have fooled the “inexperienced eye” into thinking her body was male, based on the angle of certain hip bones recovered from the island. “The bones are entirely consistent with Earhart in all respects we know or can reasonably infer,” he says.

Jantz adds that a 100 per cent match in his analysis would be ideal, but he attributes the 1 per cent variance to potential errors in Hoodless’ measurements.

Previous studies have already ruled out the possibility that the remains might have belonged to Noonan, who was over six feet tall.

The island

Settlers initially found a skull on Nikumororo in 1940, prompting a more thorough search that unearthed more remains, including a humerus, radius, tibia, fibula and both femora, according to Jantz. The search team also found the remains of a woman’s shoe, a bottle of herbal liqueur called Benedictine and the box for an American-made sextant, an instrument used to measure distances, from 1918.

A shipwreck on a nearby reef in 1929 resulted in the death of 11 men, including seven whose bodies were never found. “This number included two British and five Yemeni that were unaccounted for, but we have no documentation on them and there is no evidence that any survived to die as a castaway,” Jantz says. He also suggests that the woman’s shoe and the American sextant box likely would not have belonged to any of those missing men, nor would it have been found with a castaway Islander.

There are many theories surrounding the fate of Earhart and Noonan, including some that suggest they became lost on their way to Howland Island and opted to land on another island in the area. Nikumororo has been considered as one of those possible landing spots. One expedition to the island in 2012 set out to determine exactly whether that was the case, based on photos suggesting there might be pieces of the aircraft in the area. However, no concrete evidence was found to prove Earhart’s Electra had gone down in the area.

Another theory suggests the pair might have ended up in the Japanese-held Marshall Islands, where they might have been taken prisoner by the Japanese military. A History channel documentary from last year added some weight to that theory with analysis of a photo taken in the Marshall Islands after July 2, 1937, when Earhart and Noonan disappeared. The documentary suggested Earhart could be seen in the photo, although a history blogger disputed the claim by arguing that the photo was taken two years prior to Earhart’s last flight.

Still others suggest Earhart’s plane simply ran out of gas, crashed into the ocean and sank beneath the waves, never to be seen again.