For decades, historians and scientists believed Antarctica was first discovered by Europeans and Americans. But according to a new study, it may have been New Zealand’s indigenous Maori people who first laid eyes on the icy landscape.
Maori voyages to the southernmost continent may have dated as far back as the 7th century – long before Europeans made their way there in the early 19th century, according to research published this week in the Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand.
The first confirmed sighting of mainland Antarctica has long been attributed to a Russian expedition in 1820, and the first record of a person stepping onto Antarctica is credited to an American explorer in 1821.
But Polynesian navigators’ excursions into the Antarctic waters date further back to around 1,320 years ago – a rich history that has been overshadowed by that of European exploration, the study said.
“We find 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 7th century,” said lead researcher and conservation biologist Priscilla Wehi.
The study draws on oral traditions and narratives shared within the Maori community, and Maori carvings, which researchers say depict both voyagers and navigational and astronomical knowledge.
Researchers also found a large amount of existing “gray literature” – research done outside of traditional academic and commercial channels – that hadn’t been properly examined.
“When you put it together, it’s really clear, there’s a very long history of connection to Antarctica,” Wehi said. “Maori participated in many different roles and many different ways in terms of Antarctica.”
The study challenges commonly held preconceptions surrounding Maori knowledge about Antarctica, both past and present, said co-author Billy van Uitregt.
“There are lots of Maori working in Antarctica as researchers, participating in New Zealand fishing vessels in the Southern Ocean,” he said. “Lots of Maori have this kind of lived and physical experience of Antarctic land and seascapes.”
According to Wehi, looking at the past through different perspectives shows history is “multi-dimensional.”
“The contribution of many underrepresented groups, from indigenous peoples right through to women, become visible – and that certainly being the case with Antarctic history,” she said.