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Polynesian seafarers sighted Antarctica a thousand years before Europeans: Study

Saturday, June 19th 2021, 7:01 am - The researchers analysed Māori traditions and oral histories that they say refer to Antarctic landscapes, flora and fauna.

Antarctica has long featured in Western history as the site of the last golden age of exploration, but new research suggests Polynesian seafarers may have beaten Europeans to the punch by more than a thousand years.

“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,” research lead Dr. Priscilla Wehi said in a release from New Zealand’s Manaaki Whenua research institute.

Western sources typically credit a Russian voyage from 1820 as being the first to sight the Antarctic coast, ushering in two centuries of scientific and exploratory expeditions from various nations.

But the new research, published in the Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand earlier this month, reviews Māori sources, such as oral traditions, and found references that likely relate to the frozen continent dating back from a particular expedition led by legendary Māori seafarer Hui Te Rangiora. Also known as Ūi Te Rangiora, he and his crew sailed aboard the vessel Te Ivi o Atea, likely in the early seventh century.

The researchers say there are references in that voyage to animals and vegetation largely found in the Antarctic, as well as a description of the continent’s jagged coast that suggests they may at least have sighted it:

“...the rocks that grow out of the sea, in the space beyond Rapa; 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; and 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 “frozen sea of pia” line the researchers cite refers to arrowroot, which “when scraped looks like snow” – possibly a reference to the frozen Southern Ocean around Antarctica, or at least to icebergs.

Aside from the suggestion that the Māori were familiar with Antarctica since possibly the early 600s, the researchers note they have continued to be involved in the explorations of recent centuries. The first documented Māori involvement on those expeditions was as early as 1840, and was extensive during the “golden age” of Antarctic exploration in the late 19th Century and early 20th Century – though, as the researchers point out, amidst a backdrop of discrimination.

The scientists say more research is needed not only to fill in knowledge gaps, but also to ensure the Māori are included in future operations in the continent.

“Taking account of responsibilities to under-represented groups, and particularly Māori as Treaty partners, is important for both contemporary and future programmes of Antarctic research, as well as for future exploration of New Zealand‘s obligations within the Antarctic Treaty System,” Wehi said.

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