A recently discovered photo suggests that legendary US pilot Amelia Earhart may have died in a Japanese internment camp rather than in a plane crash in the Pacific Ocean.

The fate of the first female pilot to fly solo across the Atlantic and her navigator Fred Noonan has baffled historians for almost 100 years. Her plane vanished in 1937 during a flight across the Pacific and has never been found. Their disappearance remains one of the biggest mysteries in aviation history – but the new photo may finally solve the riddle.

The photograph, which was found in the vaults of the US National Archives, appears to show two figures, believed to be Earhart and Noonan, on the Marshall Islands, which were occupied by the Japanese at the time.

Experts say that the hairline of the man standing on the far left in the photograph matches the description of Noonan and that the short-haired woman sitting on the dock is Earhart.

They also claim that a blurry form in the background can be identified as the plane the pair were travelling in. The image would corroborate the accounts of eyewitnesses who claim that they saw the aircraft land and the pair being taken into custody.

But other historians are sceptical about the 'breakthrough'.

Amelia Earhart
A new photo suggests that Amelia Earhart may have died in a Japanese custody rather than in a plane crash in the Pacific Getty images

"I don't believe there is legitimacy to this," Richard Gillespie of The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) told CNN.

"We believe she died as a castaway. All evidence points to that. We have a photo that forensic analysts have looked at - a photo taken three months after Earhart's disappearance - and we can't say for sure but it appears to be her landing gear...that matches the records of the flight."

Meanwhile, the Smithsonian Institution holds the view that Earhart and Noonan had communication problems and were unable to locate Howland Island in the middle of the Pacific. They are thought to have run out of fuel and crashed in the ocean.

The photo was released ahead of a new History Channel documentary 'Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence' which will air on Sunday (9 July).