When we think of Antarctic exploration, most of the time we are talking about members of the white race. The first confirmed observation of the Antarctic mainland was attributed to a Russian expedition in 1820, and the first landing on the mainland is attributed to an American explorer in 1821.
Now, new work by New Zealand researchers suggests that the indigenous population of mainland New Zealand – the Maori – has a much longer history of familiarity with the southernmost continent of the Earth.
The research team, led by biologist Priscilla Vehey of Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research, examined oral histories as well as studies, reports, technical papers and other materials published in scientific and trade publications.
The researchers first drew attention to the journey of the Polynesian chief Hui Te Rangiora and his crew southward in the early seventh century. This probably made them the first people to see Antarctic waters, more than a thousand years before the Russian expedition and even long before the supposed relocation of Polynesian settlers to New Zealand.
The Polynesians are a group of kindred peoples inhabiting the islands of Polynesia in the Pacific Ocean.
“In some accounts Hui Te Rangiora and his crew continued south. Far to the south. In doing so, they were probably the first people to enter Antarctic waters and possibly the continent,” the scientists write.
“Hui Te Rangiora’s journey and return is part of the history of the Ngāti Rārua people, and these stories are reflected in a number of rock paintings.
Maori who have been telling these legends for generations, but scholars have ignored these stories, academic scholarship still has a long way to go to explore this wealth of knowledge.
But the voyage of Hui Te Rangiora was definitely not the last time Maori and their ancestors traveled to Antarctica.
Te Atu, a member of the Ngapuhi people, has been called the first Maori and the first New Zealander to see the coast of Antarctica in 1840 as part of the U.S. Exploration Expedition.
The Maori were also part of the “heroic era of Antarctic exploration” in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, helping European explorers with medicine, building materials, scientific knowledge and more as they traveled to Antarctica.
“Maori participation in Antarctic voyages and expeditions continues to this day, but is rarely acknowledged or reported,” the researchers write.
Recently, many Maori have participated or are participating in New Zealand’s scientific programs in Antarctica, conducting research on everything from the effects of climate change to the ecology of penguin populations, and the team that produced this latest paper hopes to see their numbers grow.
The study was published in the Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand.