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Māori may have been first to discover Antarctica, researchers say

Māori were probably the first people to set eyes on Antarctica and its waters, says University of Otago associate professor Priscilla Wehi.

A group of Adélie penguins at the Antarctic Peninsula. Source: istock.com

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

The project lead, conservation biologist Dr Wehi, said Māori links with the icy continent went back to the seventh century.

"Right from the early voyages of Hui Te Rangiora and Tamarereti and others, right through to the 19th century when Māori participated in whaling and other voyages to Antarctica, right through to today, with scientists going down to the ice every year - (there's) an amazing connection that we didn't really expect," Wehi said.

The researchers studied oral history - which Wehi said had often been overlooked - as well as written literature to uncover Māori ties to the ice.

"One of the exciting things coming out of this work is it shows how oral tradition can really be considered as a reliable source of evidence, along with archeological and paleoecological data," Wehi said.

Describing Māori connections with Antarctica helped create a platform for wider conversations about New Zealand relationships with the continent, Wehi wrote in a paper called A Short Scan of Māori Journeys to Antarctica.

"More than this, however, we create space for other under-represented groups and peoples to articulate their narratives of connection to the southern land and sea-scapes.

"We provide significant first steps for uncovering the rich and varied ways in which Antarctica features in the lives and futures of indigenous and other under-represented communities."

Wehi hopes to be able to pin down a date for the first sightings of Antarctica, with the help of iwi, who may hold more stories.

rnz.co.nz