This picture, taken on the Marshall Islands, may prove that Amelia Earhart was captured by the Japanese. It was found recently in the US National Archives.
What happened to aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart?

That question has captivated generations ever since Earhart’s plane vanished over the Pacific Ocean in 1937 as she attempted to become the first female pilot to fly around the world.

Now, investigators believe they have discovered the “smoking gun” that would support a decades-old theory that Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, were captured by the Japanese: a newly unearthed photograph from the National Archives that purportedly shows Earhart and Noonan - and plane - on an atoll in the Marshall Islands.

“I was sceptical until we could get the photo authenticated,” said Shawn Henry, a former FBI director who is now helping privately investigate their disappearance.

“That it came out of the National Archives as opposed to somebody’s basement gave it a lot more credibility.”

The photo was rediscovered a few years ago in a mislabelled file at the National Archives by a former US Treasury agent named Les Kinney, who began looking into Earhart’s disappearance after he retired.

The 20cmx25cm black-and-white photo went ignored in a stack of 20 or 30 others until Kinney took a closer look a few months later, Henry said.

In the photo, a figure with Earhart’s haircut and approximate body type sits on the dock, facing away from the camera, Henry points out. Toward the left is a man they believe is Noonan. On the far right is a barge with a plane on it, supposedly Earhart’s.

Henry said two different photo experts analysed the picture to ensure it had not been manipulated. It had not, they found. The experts also compared the facial features and body proportions of the two in the photo with pictures of Earhart and Noonan.

For the man, “the hairline is the most distinctive characteristic”, Ken Gibson, a facial recognition expert, said. “It’s a sharp receding hairline. The nose is very prominent This is very convincing evidence that this is probably Noonan.”

The seated figure is wearing pants, much like Earhart did, Henry noted. “I’m looking at her sitting on the dock and thinking, ‘This is her’."

Though they can’t be sure when the photo was taken, there is no record of Earhart being in the Marshall Islands, he added.

Henry travelled there and interviewed the son of a man whose father repeatedly told others he had witnessed Earhart’s plane land at Mili Atoll in 1937. He also spoke to the last living person who claimed to have seen the pair after an emergency landing.

“But again, those things are all suspect until you have that photo, which corroborates she was there. To me, that’s proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

“What happened to her? Was there a cover up? Did the US government know? What did the Japanese government know? This opens up a whole new line of questioning.”

Henry said he wasn’t bothered by other explanations for Earhart’s disappearance. “I’ve listened to some competing theories. When you look at the totality of what we put together and then hold that photo that is as close to a smoking gun as you’re going to have in a cold case that’s 80 years old.”