Antarctica is considered to be the last of Earth’s continents to have been conquered, with the first recorded voyages to the icy south occurring in the 1820s. Yet a new study in the Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand provides evidence that Māori exploration of Antarctica predates these European expeditions by 1,200 years, with the first vessel reaching the continent in the seventh century.
Combining traditional oral histories with “grey literature” – meaning research and reports that don’t appear in conventional academic sources – the study authors seek to piece together the long-standing history of Polynesian activities in the polar waters at the bottom of the Earth. In doing so, they note that the earliest ethnographic accounts report that a vessel called Te Ivi o Atea, captained by a man named Hui Te Rangiora (also known as Ūi Te Rangiora), arrived in Antarctica sometime in the early seventh century.
"Hui Te Rangiora's voyage and return are part of the history of the Ngāti Rārua people, and these stories appear in a number of carvings," write the authors, before noting that “Māori participation in Antarctic voyaging and expedition has continued to the present day but is rarely acknowledged or highlighted.”
Indeed, by the time the first American and European vessels reached the continent in the 19th century – and long before Scott and Amundsen embarked on their legendary race to the South Pole – Māori seafarers had already developed the skills required to successfully navigate the cold, choppy waters of the Antarctic. As such, their services were regularly sought by foreign expeditions to the icy continent.
The United States Exploring Expedition, for instance, contracted a man named Te Atu to participate in its efforts to map the Antarctic coastline in 1840, while Māori sailors, doctors, and scientists played a key role in the so-called ‘Heroic Era’ of Antarctic exploration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Among those to have participated in this period of adventure was Louis Hauiti Potaka, who acted as ship’s doctor on board Rear Admiral Richard E. Byrd’s BAE II expedition from 1934 to 1935.
“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,” explained study author Dr Priscilla Wehi in a statement.
“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,” she said.