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New Zealand Maori reached Antarctica a thousand years before Europeans

Antarctica discovery Maori

The history of contact with the frozen continent can hardly be explained without taking into account the arrival of the Maori from New Zealand.

The first people to set foot on Antarctica were not Europeans. Unlike to what colonialist historiography tells us, new information gathered by the Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand reveals that it was the New Zealand Maori who successfully traveled to the frozen continent in the 7th century, more than a millennium before European explorers.

A very long history of connection with the frozen continent

A very long history of connection with the frozen continent
Adélie penguins in Antarctica on top of iceberg, Photo: getty Images

It was maritime expeditions that took the Maori from New Zealand to Antarctica. For centuries academic research has dismissed this information in favor of the narrative of the European powers, although historical evidence has always existed. Much of it is preserved in the oral tradition of this city, as well as in carved records and textile art.

These records are referred to as “gray literature,” according to coverage from Smithsonian Magazine. According to information gathered for the study, this was not an expedition to the Pole, but a “very long history of association with Antarctica,” says lead author Priscilla Wehi, a conservation biologist at the New Zealand Government Research Institute.

Traditional Maori stories show that exploration of Antarctica took place much earlier than previously thought. Oral epics of the Ngāti Rārua and Te Āti Awa ethnic groups tell of the adventures of their hero explorers who reached “a hazy and dark place that the sun did not see”.

It wasn’t a coincidence

Penguins relax on a small iceberg, Antarctica. Photo: Getty Images

With these accounts and New Zealand precedents, it is clear that the arrival of Europeans in Antarctica in the 19th century was comparatively late. While British explorers proclaimed ownership of this ice territory in 1820, the Maori had already integrated it into their cosmogonic development.

This is no coincidence, according to Meera Sabaratnam, an international relations academic at SOAS University in London who was not involved in the study:

“It is not surprising that a human community skilled in navigation and living near the Antarctic continent may have found it centuries before European voyages to the same area,” the expert says.

According to research, the New Zealand Maori, Polynesians and New Guineans have been sailing these waters since 1500 BC. And not only that. In addition to the scientific advances required to reach these latitudes, the narrative and cultural network that connected these peoples to Antarctica is noteworthy.

In this regard, Wehi points out that research is not only breaking with the European historical construct, but “[…] also begins to build a richer and more inclusive image of Antarctica’s relationship with humanity,” that could hardly be achieved from the Old Continent’s exclusive perspective.”

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