Polynesians first to discover Antarctica, not news to Māori

A study by New Zealand researchers found that Polynesians may have been the first to discover the Earth’s southernmost continent, Antarctica, dating back to the seventh century.

But it comes as no shock to some iwi as this had always been known, but methods of recounting indigenous history do not receive the same recognition as western or academic literature.

“We didn’t discover this, it’s a known narrative,” lead researcher Dr Priscilla Wehi told the Herald.

“Our job was to bring together all the information [including oral tradition and grey literature] and communicating it to the world.”

Led by Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research and Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu, the research focused on Māori connections with the frozen continent.

The first recorded sighting of Antarctica was during a Russian expedition in 1820, and the first person to touch the mainland of Antarctica was an American explorer in 1821.

Now the new paper can reveal a southern voyage was conducted by Polynesian chief Hui Te Rangiora and his crew over a thousand years before the Russian expedition, and long before Māori migrated to New Zealand.

Much of Polynesian history is recorded through oral tradition and big discoveries as such are disregarded, but Māori scientists are proving it to be a reliable source of evidence.

“History tends to be told by one voice and there’s often a dominant narrative. Often indigenous history and even women’s history becomes invisible, so for me it’s about making that history visible.”

While the team explored grey literature (research, reports, technical documents, other material published outside of common academic or commercial publishing channels) co-researcher Dr Billy van Uitregt said oral tradition brought “richness to the conversation”.

“It highlights the limitations of the written narratives that we have. that I don’t think can be captured in written word”.

“I’d probably argue that [translating oral tradition into academic literature] isn’t a good thing.”

“You can lose the wairua (spirit) of the human connection to the knowledge which I think is very fundamental to mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge).”

Māori participation in Antarctic voyaging and expedition has continued to the present day although it is rarely acknowledged.

“We did go into the kaupapa thinking not many Māori would be involved but there are and have been a lot.”

Revealing the discovery of the Hui Te Rangiora voyage was only an element of a much larger project which is understanding Aotearoa’s relationship with Antarctica through a te ao Māori lens.

A number of Māori have participated in New Zealand’s Antarctic science programmes, conducting research ranging from the effects of climate change to penguin population ecology.

“One of New Zealand’s obligation to Antarctica is to monitor the fisheries and the sustainability of the marine protected area. With a project like that, it’s clear that bringing in indigenous perspectives can contribute so much,” Wehi said.

Applying mātauranga Māori and indigenous values provides an additional lens for understanding elements of guardianship or kaitiakitanga.

There are growing hopes for incorporating Māori perspectives to add depth to New Zealand’s research programmes and the protection and management of Antarctica.

The research team are made up of: Associate Professor Priscilla Wehi, Dr Billy van Uitregt, Associate Professor Krushil Watene, Nigel Scott, Rata Pryor Rodgers, Jacinta Beckwith, and Tasman Gillies.

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