Photo from the Marshall Islands that may depict Amelia Earhart (photo courtesy U.S. National Archives, Records of the Office of Naval Intelligence, Pacific Ocean Area Monograph Files)

Whatever happened to Amelia Earhart 80 years ago, when she disappeared over the Pacific Ocean while attempting to circumnavigate the world? A newfound photo recently spotlighted by the History Channel has people abuzz about the famous pilot’s mysterious fate. Long believed by many to have perished after her plane ran out of fuel and plunged into the waters, Earhart may actually have survived, investigators now claim — before being taken captive by the Japanese and held prisoner until her death on the island of Saipan.

Detail of photo from the Marshall Islands that may depict Amelia Earhart (photo courtesy U.S. National Archives, Records of the Office of Naval Intelligence, Pacific Ocean Area Monograph Files)

Their clue to her survival is a small, literally fuzzy one: an old, black-and-white image of a woman sitting on a dock. Surrounded by a vast view of water and boats and a group of people, she’s easy to overlook — we can’t even see her face, as her back is towards us. But as explains, retired federal agent Les Kinney, who had found the photograph while digging through the National Archives, saw enough reason to believe that the figure is Earhart, and believes to have identified one of her companions, her navigator Fred Noonan. The 44-year-old aviator may possibly be the man standing on the far left edge of the dock, his face turned directly towards us.

The photograph’s caption notes the location as “Marshall Islands, Jaluit Atoll, Jaluit Island, Jaluit Harbor”; Kinney dates the photo to before 1943, since the US conducted over 30 bombing runs on the island. He also believes that a plane, towed by a barge in the background, is her Lockheed 10-E Electra aircraft, as it appears to be the same length as that lost jet. The vessel, according to this theory, would have been the Japanese military vessel known as the Koshu Maru that may have captured the unfortunate American pair.

The image is circulating in advance of a new History Channel program, Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence, which premieres this Sunday. Other investigators involved in decoding the photograph include facial recognition expert Ken Gibson, who told NBC News that he believed the man on the dock was Noonan because the “hairline is the most distinctive characteristic … It’s a very sharp receding hairline. The nose is very prominent.” That claim seems like a stretch, seeing that the man’s face is half-hidden in shadows, but the individual is definitely a middle-aged man (Noonan was 44 when he died) who looks like he’s spent lots of time out in the sun. As for the alleged Earhart, she has short hair and wears pants — two traits that link her to the aviation pioneer, who favored trousers. But that’s really about it.

While the discovery certainly makes for a tantalizing History channel segment (promoted, of course, with the above dramatic trailer), other experts find its evidence a little dubious. Smithsonian Magazine got in touch with a curator at the National Air and Space Museum, who described the image as “kind of a blurry photograph.

“I can’t really comment definitively on the photograph, and I don’t think [History investigators] can either,” Dorothy Cochrane told Smithsonian. “We really have to be sure of what we’re saying is evidence, and saying what is real. We have to go with what we see the facts are, and that’s what the Coast Guard reported.” According to those reports, Earhart was close to her destination of Howland Island, but veered off course and flew until they exhausted their fuel supply. The Coast Guard cutter known as Itasca was helping guide the flight, but Earhart and Noonan had lost contact with it.

The theory that the Japanese captured Earhart isn’t new: as NBC News reported, some locals on the Marshall Islands have insisted they saw Earhart crash before being taken prisoner. The island republic even issued a set of four commemorative stamps in 1987 to further circulate this narrative. They depict her takeoff in New Guinea, her crash landing at Mili Atoll, and her plane’s recovery by the Koshu Maru. Of course, this is also but one theory of many: a book published last year by W.C. Jameson argues that she was a spy for the US government, which led to her being shot down by the Japanese. Meanwhile, the aviation foundation International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery believes that she crashed on the island of Nikumaroro, where she died as a castaway. One author has even claimed that Earhart ended up in New Jersey to live out her days as a housewife. His publisher, as USA Today reported, ended up pulling his books off shelves following a lawsuit filed by the real New Jersey woman who denied any connection to the pilot.

Update, 7/11, 4:34 pm: The answer to the question proposed in this story’s headline is likely “no.” As NPR reported, a Japanese military history blogger known on Twitter as @baron_yamaneko found a copy of the photograph in a digitized book that dates it to 1935 — two years before Earhart vanished. The History Channel is reportedly investigating these developments.

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Claire Voon

Claire Voon is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Singapore, she grew up near Washington, D.C. and is now based in Chicago. Her work has also appeared in New York Magazine, VICE,...