Dec. 18, 2010— -- Three bone fragments found by a team of researchers on a deserted South Pacific island along Amelia Earhart's fateful route could provide the long-sought answer to what happened to the pioneering aviator and her navigator Fred Noonan.
Scientists at the University of Oklahoma said they hope to extract DNA from the tiny bone chips that will prove they belonged to Earhart, and indicate that she died as a castaway on the remote Nikumaroro Island, after failing in her 1937 effort to circle the globe.
The discovery could close the door on one of the most enduring mysteries of the 20th century.
"There's no guarantee," said Ric Gillespie, director of the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, or Tighar. "You only have to say you have a bone that may be human and may be linked to Earhart and people get excited.
"But it is true that, if they can get DNA, and if they can match it to Amelia Earhart's DNA, that's pretty good."
The deserted island of Nikumaroro, which lies 1,800 miles south of Hawaii, was in the line of Earhart's flight path as she flew from New Guinea to Howland Island. Experts say she only needed about 700 feet of free space to land, so there was plenty of room.
The researchers at Tighar also uncovered a mirror from a woman's compact, buttons and a zipper from a flight jacket during their $500,000 expedition in 2007. All of the found items are American-made and from the 1930's -- and all were part of Earhart's inventory.
Remnants of a campsite found on the island also suggest Earhart and Noonan may have survived the flight and lived on the island briefly.
Since 1989, Gillespie's group has made 10 trips to the island.
Scientists at the University of Oklahoma are now analyzing the bones, which could take months. They are hoping to extract DNA to compare to genetic material donated by an anonymous member of Earhart's family.
Millions of dollars have been spent in failed attempts to learn what happened to Earhart on her attempt to circumnavigate the globe. She was officially declared dead by a California court in early 1939.
How Did Amelia Earhart Die?
The official version states that Earhart and Noonan ran out of fuel and crashed at sea while flying from Lae, New Guinea, to Howland Island.
Gillespie said that Nikumaroro Island was uninhabited until 1938 -- one year after Earhart disappeared. At that time the island was under British colonial rule, so the first inhabitants were an eight-man team instructed to start clearing land for a village and coconut plantation. Then, two years later, in 1940, the island's administrator found bones, and a campsite.
"We don't know what happened to those bones," Gillespie said, explaining that the skeleton was sent to Fiji and the British lost track of it in the summer of 1941.
The most recent analysis of the bone measurements indicates they were those of a white female of northern European descent.
Ever since a drought forced out the Nikumaroro settlers in 1963, nobody else has lived on the 2.5-mile-long island.
"We have only excavated 5 percent of the campsite. There's every reason to think there's more stuff out there," Gillespie said.
But not everyone shares Gillespie's theory.
Elgen Long, 82, author of "Amelia Earhart: The Mystery Solved," said she adamantly believes that Earhart crashed in the Pacific Ocean after running out of fuel.
One of the best-known Earhart historians, Long served as a consultant for the recent movie "Amelia" starring Hilary Swank.