A photograph that a recent History Channel documentary proclaimed as lost evidence that could solve the mystery of Amelia Earhart's disappearance appears to have been published nearly two years before the aviator vanished in July 1937.
The pre-WWII photograph features a throng of people on a dock in Jaluit Atoll, one of the Marshall Islands. In the documentary Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence, filmmakers claim that two Caucasian people in the photograph—a man standing next to a post, and a person of indeterminate sex squatting on the dock's edge—are Earhart's navigator Fred Noonan and Earhart herself, in the custody of the Japanese military in 1937.
However, new evidence indicates that the photograph was published in a 1935 Japanese-language travelogue about the islands of the South Pacific. As Japanese military history blogger Kota Yamano noted in a July 9 post, he found the book after searching the National Diet Library, Japan's national library, using the term "Jaluit Atoll," the location featured in the photograph.
“The photo was the 10th item that came up,” he said in an interview with The Guardian. “I was really happy when I saw it. I find it strange that the documentary makers didn’t confirm the date of the photograph or the publication in which it originally appeared. That’s the first thing they should have done.”
His search query turned up the travelogue, The Ocean's "Lifeline": The Condition of Our South Seas, which features the "Earhart" photograph on page 44. One translation of the caption describes a lively port that regularly hosted schooner races—with no mention of Earhart or Noonan to be found. Page 113 of the book indicates that the travelogue was published in October 1935.
Yamano's evidence, which he says he obtained in 30 minutes, undercuts the History Channel's claim that the famed aviator crash-landed in the Marshall Islands and became a prisoner of the Japanese military. Residents of the Marshall Islands and some Earhart enthusiasts have long touted this scenario, but many Earhart enthusiasts consider it outlandish. (Learn more about the competing theories for Earhart's disappearance.)
The official U.S. position is that Earhart and Noonan ran out of fuel and were lost at sea on their way to Howland Island, a tiny island in the central Pacific just north of the Equator. The island was the pair's planned pit stop between Papua New Guinea and Hawaii.
One alternate hypothesis proposes that the pair crash-landed on Nikumaroro Island, a small island 350 nautical miles away from Howland, where 1930s-era artifacts have been found. (An ongoing expedition sponsored by the National Geographic Society recently sent forensic dogs, trained to sniff out human remains, to Nikumaroro. They may have found Amelia Earhart's final resting place.)
Skepticism and Confusion Intensify
In the leadup to the documentary's July 9 premiere, the History Channel touted the photograph, which it obtained from the U.S. National Archives, as potentially transformative evidence dating to before World War II, possibly to 1937. But ever since news of the documentary broke last week, outside experts have expressed various levels of skepticism, which has only intensified in the last 24 hours.
For its part, the U.S. National Archives notes that the photograph used by the filmmakers is not marked with a date. "The materials gathered in the report support a geographical-type study or survey of the Pacific Islands," National Archives Director of Public and Media Communications James Pratchett said in a statement emailed to National Geographic.
Tom King, the chief archaeologist for TIGHAR, the chief group investigating the possibility of Earhart crash-landing on Nikumaroro, says that he has known of the photograph for years and never took it seriously as evidence.
"We looked at it and said, 'Well, it's a man and a woman on a dock looking out in the other direction—it's basically a meaningless piece of information,'" he says in a phone interview from an ongoing TIGHAR expedition in Fiji. "You can read things into it like you can read faces on the moon." (King's current expedition was co-sponsored by the National Geographic Society.)
And in the wake of Yamano's evidence, the History Channel and the documentary's on-screen personalities have expressed various forms of concern and disbelief.
"I don't know what to say," says Kent Gibson, the facial-recognition expert that the History Channel hired to analyze the photograph for Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence. "I don't have an explanation for why [the photograph] would show up two years early."
In the documentary, Gibson said that based on the facial and body proportions of the two Caucasians, he said it was "very likely" that the photograph contained Earhart and Noonan.
In a phone interview with National Geographic, Gibson added that since the documentary filmed, he has acquired new facial-recognition software that signals a match between the photograph's Caucasian man and Fred Noonan. His previous software had indicated that there were too few pixels in the photograph to successfully perform the analysis. (In a follow-up email, Gibson declined additional comment.)
In a statement emailed to National Geographic and separately posted to Twitter, the History Channel said that it has a team of investigators "exploring the latest developments about Amelia Earhart," promising transparency in their findings.
"Ultimately historical accuracy is most important to us and our viewers," the channel said.
Editor's Note: This story has been updated to include a translation of the travelogue's title, as well as hyperlinks that directly link to specific pages in the travelogue. Mari Robinson provided assistance with translation.