Even though Antarctica has been present on the world for a long time now, the continent doesn’t cease to surprise us. There are still a lot of secrets to be discovered in its icy guts and they’re not all pleasant surprises. Scientists are always trying to understand the continent better than their predecessors and sometimes, that actually leads to very interesting new information. A new paper, called ‘A Short Scan of Māori Journeys to Antarctica’ and published in the Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand, reveals how the Māori probably already discovered Antartica in the seventh century.
Let’s start with a quick history and geography lesson. Antarctica is located in the Southern Ocean and is the fifth largest continent in the world. It’s also the least populated, with 5.000 inhabitants during summer and 1.000 during the winter months. More or less 98% of the continent is covered by a big layer of ice, with an average thickness of 1,9 kilometers. With a temperature record of -89,2°C, that shouldn’t come as a surprise. Not surprising either is the fact that Antarctica was the latest continent to be discovered.
Since the time of Ptolemy in the first century, people believed in the exitence of a large continent in the South. That land was seen as a way to balance the continents in the North. European maps mentioned the presence of this hypothetical land for a long time and referred to it as Terra Australis. In the end, this name was given to Australia, as a lot of people didn’t believe there would be anything else more southwards. James Cook’s ships, HMS Resolution and Adventure, crossed the Antarctic Circle in the late eighteenth century and probably came within a radius of 120 kilometers from the Antarctic coast. They didn’t go any further because of the ice, yet Cook called the existence of a continent “probable”.
It was the Russian expedition of Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen and Mikhail Lazarev on Vostok and Mirny which sighted the Fimbul ice shelf for the first time in 1820. Twenty years later, in 1840, the United States Exploring Expedition, under Lieut. Charles Wilkes, and the French expedition under Jules Dumont d’Urville almost simultaneously discovered land for the first time on Antarctica.
1. Oral histories of Māori tribal groups Ngāti Rārua and Te Āti Awa
For a long time, it was thought that Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen and Mikhail Lazarev were the first humans to lay their eye on Antarctica. There was no proof to think otherwise. Yet that has now changed. ‘A Short Scan of Māori Journeys to Antarctica’ combined oral histories and literature to show that it were in fact the Māori who discovered the continent, a whopping 1.300 years before the Russian expedition. Although they very probably didn’t set foot on Antarctica, they did explore the waters surrounding the continent and they also caught a glimpse of the never-ending ice mass.
If we were to believe the oral histories of Māori tribal groups Ngāti Rārua and Te Āti Awa, it was the Polynesian explorer Hui Te Rangiora who first travelled to the Antarctic. “Polynesian narratives of voyaging between the islands include voyaging into Antarctic waters by Hui Te Rangiora … and his crew on the vessel Te Ivi o Atea, likely in the early seventh century”, the writers of the paper state. They named the ocean surrounding the continent the Te tai-uka-a-pia, which means as much as ‘the frozen ocean’. Pia is actually a reference to arrowroot, well-known by the Māori and white when scraped – the closest thing to snow they could find.
2. Monstrous seas and deceitful animals
It’s SP Smith who recorded the oral histories in 1899 and who wrote them down. His accounts read as follows: “The monstrous seas; the female that dwells in those mountainous waves, whose tresses wave about in the water and on the surface of the sea, the frozen sea of pia, with the deceitful animal of the sea who dives to great depths – a foggy, misty, and dark place not seen by the sun. Other things are like rocks, whose summits pierce the skies, they are completely bare and without vegetation on them.” The “tresses” most likely describe the Southern Ocean bull-kelp, while the “deceitful animal” refers to the marine mammals, and the “rocks” are probably icebergs.
In the release of the paper, project lead Dr Priscilla Wehi states the following: “We found connection to Antarctica and its waters have been occurring since the earliest traditional voyaging. Taking account of responsibilities to under-represented groups, and particularly Māori … is important for both contemporary and future programs of Antarctic research.”