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New Zealand's Māori may have been first humans to set eyes on Antarctica, study finds

The study said Māori participation in Antarctic voyages and expeditions has continued to the present day "but is rarely acknowledged or highlighted.”
Image: Glaciers in Half Moon Bay, Antarctica
Glaciers in Half Moon Bay, Antarctica, pictured in 2018.Alexandre Meneghini / Reuters file

New Zealand’s Māori explorers could have been the first humans to set eyes on the frozen continent as far back as the 7th century, a new study suggests, even though for the past 200 years, tales of discovering Antarctica have centered on Russian, European and American expeditions.

Polynesian stories of historic voyages include the expeditions of Hui Te Rangiora and his crew on the vessel Te Ivi o Atea into Antarctic waters, likely in the 7th century, according to the study published this month in the Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand.

In some of these stories, Hui Te Rangiora and his crew traveled far south and in so doing were likely the first people to set eyes on Antarctic waters and perhaps even the continent, according to the authors of the report.

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Evidence of how far these intrepid men potentially ventured can be found in the name they gave the frozen ocean — Te tai-uka-a-pia — which means like the arrowroot, the paper says. Arrowroot is a type of white starch that looks like snow and is obtained from scraping the stems of certain plants.

Prior to this report, Europeans widely believed that the first recorded sighting of Antarctica happened in 1820, although there is still some debate about whether it was a Russian or a British expedition that saw it.

"It is wholly unsurprising that a human community adept at seafaring and living close to the Antarctic continent might have encountered it centuries prior to European voyages to the same area," said Meera Sabaratnam, senior lecturer in international relations at the SOAS University of London.

She questioned instead why Europeans were so keen to assert their "discovery" of new lands already inhabited by or known to others.

"We know that historically, claiming to have discovered ‘virgin lands’ gave rise to legal claims for colonial occupation and ownership against other European powers," she said. "Not only was there a material benefit, but it also played ideologically into the idea of Europeans as an advanced and pioneering people who deserved to own and name these spaces."

The New Zealand study relies on literature and oral histories to better understand Māori presence and perspectives on Antarctica and its exploration. It also references Māori carvings which depict voyagers and navigational and astronomical knowledge.

The study cites a report published in 1899 that suggests Māori accounts of voyages referred to sub-Antarctic flora, fauna and physical geography.

“The monstrous seas; the female that dwells in those mountainous waves, whose tresses wave about in the water,” S. Percy Smith wrote in The Journal of the Polynesian Society in 1899, recalling Māori descriptions of past journeys, according to the study. “Other things are like rocks, whose summits pierce the skies, they are completely bare and without vegetation on them.”

Smith suggests that the account describes Southern Ocean bull kelp and icebergs among other features of life in the sub-Antarctic, the study says.

It notes that Māori participation in Antarctic voyages and expeditions has continued to the present day “but is rarely acknowledged or highlighted.”

In the European age of Antarctic exploration, Te Atu is often described as the first Māori and New Zealander to view the coast of Antarctica in 1840. He traveled on the Vincennes ship, which mapped parts of the Antarctic coastline, as part of a U.S. expedition led by Charles Wilkes.

During the so-called “heroic era” of European exploration in the late 19th century and early 20th centuries, Māori were also part of Antarctic expeditions, as they were further into the 1900s, demonstrating a broad range of skills despite a backdrop of discrimination and racism, according to the study.

Māoris have also been involved in contemporary scientific research, fishing and other relationships with the region, the paper said.

“We found connection to Antarctica and its waters have been occurring since the earliest traditional voyaging, and later through participation in European-led voyaging and exploration, contemporary scientific research, fishing, and more for centuries,” the paper’s lead author, Priscilla Wehi, said in a release put out by Manaaki Whenua — Landcare Research, a research institute focusing on biodiversity, land resources and the environment, which co-led the study.

The study says women’s participation in Antarctic exploration is somewhat harder to pin down and that Pamela Young was likely the first New Zealand woman to work in Antarctic science in the late 20th century.

The researchers said it was important Māoris are included in future relationships with the continent.

“Growing more Māori Antarctic scientists and incorporating Māori perspectives will add depth to New Zealand’s research programs and ultimately the protection and management of Antarctica,” Wehi said.