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The Māori may have been going to Antarctica as early as the 7th century, researchers find

The Māori people may have been sailing through Antarctic waters and perhaps visiting the continent as early as the seventh century, according to new research published in the Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand.

The study was compiled by a team of researchers who scanned literature and integrated this with oral histories. The outcome is a compiled record of Māori presence in, and perspectives of, Antarctic narratives and exploration, which – the team states – “plays an important role” to fill knowledge gaps about both Māori and Antarctic exploration. And these stories start as far back as 1,320 years ago.

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“We find Polynesian narratives of voyaging between the islands include voyaging into Antarctic waters by Hui Te Rangiora (also known as Ūi Te Rangiora) and his crew on the vessel Te Ivi o Atea, likely in the early seventh century,” explains lead author Priscilla Wehi, from Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research the organisation which led the project, alongside researchers from Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu.

“These navigational accomplishments are widely acknowledged; and Māori navigators are described as traversing the Pacific much as Western explorers might a lake. In some narratives, Hui Te Rangiora and his crew continued south. A long way south. In so doing, they likely set eyes on Antarctic waters and perhaps the continent.”

Powdered pia (Polynesian arrowroot), to which the ice floes were compared. Photo by Forest & Kim Starr / Wikimedia Commons

Other evidence gathered includes Māori carvings, which depict both voyagers and navigational and astronomical knowledge. “As well,” Wehi says, “a ‘pou whakairo’ (translating as carved post), represents Tamarereti as protector of the southern oceans stands on the southernmost tip of the South Island of New Zealand at Bluff. Ngāi Tahu, the largest tribal group in the South Island, and other tribal groups or iwi also cherish other oral repositories of knowledge in relation to these early explorers and voyagers.”

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These Māori narratives of connections with the Antarctic were not limited to these early voyages either. Rather, voyaging and expedition was shown to continue to the present day; “but is rarely acknowledged or highlighted,” Wehi notes.

And this research, she hopes, will begin more on the path to ensure inclusion of Māori in future relationships with Antarctica. “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, as well as for future exploration of New Zealand’s obligations within the Antarctic Treaty System.”

“Growing more Māori Antarctic scientists and incorporating Māori perspectives will add depth to New Zealand’s research programmes and ultimately the protection and management of Antarctica,” Wehi adds.

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Further evidence of Māori exploration is likely to enter the public domain in future as tribal researchers partner with iwi to share these narratives, and Māori leadership in Antarctic research grows more visible, including that of the Kāhui Māori in the Antarctic Science Platform.

The article, “A short scan of Māori journeys to Antarctica,” by Priscilla M. Wehi, Nigel J. Scott, Jacinta Beckwith, Rata Pryor Rodgers and Tasman Gillies, is published in the Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand. Click here to read it.

Top Image: Photo by Christopher Michel / Flickr

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