Maoris Credited With First Discovery of Antarctica in Latest Study
A new historical analysis has called into question the accepted story about the discovery of Antarctica. The continent was supposedly first seen by Russian and British explorers in the early 19th century. But a research study recently published in the Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand presents evidence to show that Polynesian Maori sailors reached the waters surrounding Antarctica much earlier, nearly 1,200 years earlier, to be exact.
The Discovery of Antarctica Based On Hui Te Rangiora’s Feats
For the purposes of this research project, scientists from the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand studied the oral histories, literature, relief carvings, and other relics of the Māori, the Polynesian indigenous people who’ve been living in New Zealand since the 14th century. Recorded in the Māori historical record were stories about the exploits of an ancient Polynesian explorer named Hui Te Rangiora, who is said to have made his discovery of Antarctica and the frozen sea around it many centuries before western explorers arrived.
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Hui Te Rangiora was a seventh-century AD Polynesian chief from the island of Rarotonga, which is the largest of the Cook Islands, located approximately 1,800 miles (3,000 kilometers) northeast of New Zealand. Rarotonga is about 5,000 miles (8,000 kilometers) away from Antarctica, which could have been reached by Raratongan sailing ships on long-distance voyages heading due south. These ships may have used the two main islands of New Zealand as stopover points, before sailing further south in search of new lands.
Stories of Hui Te Rangiora’s travels are specific in detail and vivid in imagery. They say he was the captain of a ship known as Te Ivi o Atea, the lead vessel in a fleet that left on an epic voyage to the south sometime around the year 650 AD. After some time had passed, they entered a frigid area of the ocean that they named Te tai-uka-a-pia, which means the equivalent of “frozen ocean that looks like arrowroot.” The latter reference is to a tropical plant that when scraped creates a fluffy white substance that resembles snow. From here, the sprawling coastline of Antarctica would have been easy to spot.
Hui Te Rangiora’s discovery of Antarctica would have relied on the great Maori “war canoes” like those shown here, which were measured to be 70 feet long by Augustus Earle in 1827-1828. (Earle, Augustus, 1793-1838 / Public domain)
The first individual from a western nation to extensively catalog the traditions of the Māori was Stephenson Percy Smith, an ethnologist from New Zealand who began his work with his nation’s indigenous people in the late 19th century.
In an 1899 article that appeared in the Journal of the Polynesian Society, Smith translated the following vivid description of the Antarctic oceanic region, as related in the Māori version of Hui Te Rangiora’s adventures:
“… 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.”
Smith concluded that this evocative mythological imagery was referring to bull kelp (“tresses that float on monstrous waves”), large marine mammals of some type (whales?), and finally to glaciers that would have looked like barren rocks to Hui Te Rangiora and his comrades.
There is nothing to suggest that Hui Te Rangiora landed his ships on the Antarctic mainland. But it is a possibility that can’t be ruled out, given how curious they must have been about the land that lay on the horizon ahead.
A 1769 drawing of a Maori war canoe fitted with a single sail, which was likely the exact type of boat that the Maoris used when they sailed south and discovered Antarctica nearly 1,200 years before Western European explorers. (British Museum / Public domain)
The Conventional History of the Discovery of Antarctica
Up to now, the story of Hui Te Rangiora’s travels has remained unacknowledged by academics interested in Antarctica.
The current consensus history lists Russian explorer Fabian Von Bellingshausen as the first to spot the frozen continent, on January 27, 1820. British Naval Officer Edward Bransfield, who saw Antarctica from his ship three days later, was originally said to have been the first person to see it. But a modern translation of Von Bellingshausen’s journal proved he had gotten there earlier.
The captain of an American sealing ship, John Davis, was given credit for being the first individual to set foot on the continent. This occurred a little over a year after Von Bellingshausen’s sighting, when Davis’s ship landed at Hughes Bay on Antarctica’s northern tip briefly during a hunting trip.
In the 19th century, scholars were largely unfamiliar with the oral traditions and literature of the Māori and their Polynesian ancestors. But even if stories about Hui Te Rangiora's adventures had been known, it is unclear whether those accounts would have been taken seriously by European historians.
Ice floes off the northern edge of Antarctica (in the background) reveal how difficult it must have been for any sailing peoples to discover Antarctica. (michael clarke stuff / CC BY-SA 2.0)
Now The Initial Discovery of Antarctica Is A Maori Victory
The University of Otago research project was led by conservation biologist Dr. Priscilla Wehi. Her project was designed to correct the historical record, which often excludes narratives from under-represented groups (the Māori and their ancestors in this instance) who may have made significant contributions to world history.
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In addition to reporting on the exploits of Hui Te Rangiora, the study authors also noted the contributions of other Māori explorers, historians, students, and scientists who’ve been involved in surveys and studies of Antarctica and its surrounding environment over the past two hundred years.
“European narratives of Antarctic history, effort and policy remain dominant in the conceptualization, communication, and science of Antarctica globally,” she and her colleagues wrote in the conclusion of their Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand article. “However, Māori (and Polynesian) connection to Antarctica and its waters have been part of the Antarctic story since c. seventh century, from traditional voyaging to participation in European-led voyaging and exploration, contemporary scientific research, fishing and more.”
The discoveries of the University of Otago team are being presented as something new. But as the researchers themselves point out, Stephenson Percy Smith and other early 20th century scholars knew about the story of Hui Te Rangiora and had written about it in various publications long ago. Only now, it would seem, is the world of academia finally ready to take this report seriously.
Top image: A Crabeater seal, native to the waters of the Earth's southernmost continent, may have been the “first witness” of the discovery of Antarctica by the Polynesian Maoris, nearly 1,200 years before Western European explorers. Source: Silver / Adobe Stock
By Nathan Falde