UPDATE: Apparently the Guardian fell for this too (click on screenshot):
This one’s really bad because the paper fell for the whole story: hook, line, and sinker. Not a word of criticism do they utter, nor is there any attempt to seek out scientist-critics of this unbelievable myth.
I’m not sure whether the New Zealand Herald, where the article below was published, is a woke newspaper, but after reading the article (click on screenshot), a colleague said “It looks as if it’s both woke and asleep.” Indeed! Look at the article’s audacious title, first asserting that the Polynesians were the real discoverers of Antarctica (the first confirmed sighting of the continent was actually in January, 1820, by a Russian expedition), but also that the Polynesian discovery preceded the “western” one by over a thousand years! Further, this is apparently “not news to the Māori.”
My point in investigating this claim is because it may well be an example of mātauranga Māori, or Māori “ways of knowing” that are on their way to being taught in New Zealand (NZ) as “coequal to modern science” in secondary school and university science classes. I’ve already discussed this at length (see the several posts here), and won’t reiterate my opposition to the “coequal” proposal save to say these two things:
a. Some bits of mātauranga Māori do constitute “knowledge” and could conceivably become parts of science class, though clearly not dominating parts. Examples include how to capture animals and how to navigate the South Pacific.
b. The system of mātauranga Māori (henceforth “MM”) as a whole, however, is a mixture of legend, mythology, word of mouth, superstition (including full-blown creationism), morality, and philosophy, as well as some examples of knowledge, that would, if taught as co-equal with the “way of knowing” of modern science, destroy science education in New Zealand. Imagine a student learning both mātauranga Māori creationism and biological evolution in the very same class, and told “okay, now sort it out for yourself” (no assertion of hegemony allowed!). But since the NZ government and many schools and universities see this as acceptable, those adherents to the “coequal” system are sacrificing the education of their populace in the cause of Wokeism. Of course Kiwis should all be acquainted with the history of the Māori, their beliefs, and their oppression, but an indigenous knowledge system based largely on non-empirical criteria should not be taught as “science”.
Well, below is a piece of MM that, it seems to me, is likely to be taught in science and history classes as “truth”. However, it’s almost certainly untrue. Click the screenshot below to read it, though is larded with Māori words that make it harder to read. See whether you find the claims credible. The article is based on an original paper published by Anderson et al. in the Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand, last year, and I’m not able to obtain from my library. However, I’ve put the reference at the bottom of this post.
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.
But how did the authors know this? There was, after all, no written language to recount this epochal voyage, which, by the way, consists only of oral legend about “a southern voyage.” Traveling south is not the same as “discovering Antarctica,” and of course the Māori weren’t even in New Zealand in 650 AD, the legendary date of discovery (they began colonizing NZ around 1300 AD). To discover Antarctica, you have to either see the continent or land on it, and there’s no evidence from this article that they did either, much less made a voyage below the Antarctic Circle.
Here’s the “way of knowing” that the newspaper and the authors of the paper in Proc. Roy. Soc. NZ (Wehi et al., see below) used:
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. [JAC: Like creationism?]
“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”.
I’ve never heard of “grey literature” before, but in this case it surely must be derived from oral tradition. It may be “rich,” but is it true? Well, author of the original paper William van Uitregt says that having evidence in writing is actually inimical to finding truth:
“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).”
And there you have it: the real admission that MM is not the same thing as modern science. For empirical evidence (or archaeological evidence, not in existence in this case) is not enough to support a truth claim. Nope, you have to have the wairua, or “spirit” to have “truth” in MM. Are they now supposed to teach “spirit” in science class as a substitute for the empirical verification of modern science? It seems so.
Well enough of that palaver. I’ve ordered the original Wehi et al. article by interlibrary loan, and if it gives evidence for a Polynesian discovery of Antarctica, you’ll be the first to know. (Note the conflation of Polynesians with Māori in the headline above. Modern Māori people descend from Polynesians, but it wasn’t the Maori of New Zealand who supposedly discovered Antarctica.)
UPDATES: Here’s a recent paper,
not yet in print, that I got from a colleague in New Zealand. This one I have the pdf for, so if you want to see it, make a judicious request. The paper is now online, so click to acsess. It appears paywalled, but, as always, a judicious request may bet you the pdf.
I’ve now learned that all of the authors are Māori , so perhaps there’s some kind of internecine division among the indigenous people about what constitutes “truth”!
The paper is short—5.5 pages—and will repay reading, especially if you want to see the weakness of “traditional knowledge” going back 1300 years. It all rests on oral transmission, of course, and hinges crucially on the translation of what is orally transmitted. It rests on a seemingly mythical voyage of a Polynesian canoe constructed entirely of human bones! That alone makes it unlikely, but authors of the paper above persist in their inquiry. For example, they translate the Māori story this way:
The rocks growing out of the sea beyond Rapa Island; the monstrous waves; the female dwelling in those waves, with her hair waving and floating on the surface of the ocean; the tai-uka-a-pia [the frozen sea]; the deceitful animal seen on the sea, which dived below the surface – a very gloomy and dark place, where the sun is not seen. There is also there [a kind of] rock whose summit pierces the sky with steep bare cliffs where vegetation does not grow. Such was the work of this vessel at that time; and also to convey people to all the islands. It was this vessel, ‘Te-Ivi-o-Atea’ that discovered all these great and wonderful things on the ocean, and all the surrounding islands.
There is some consideration of the term “the frozen sea”, which Anderson et. al say is more likely to mean “sea foam”, but they add this:
Except for the rocks beyond Rapa, the things mentioned in it have no particular geographic provenance. They are anonymous rocky reefs, large waves, marine mammals, mountainous islands, bare cliffs etc., and the long-haired sea-woman is typical of the numerous oddities such as floating islands and canoe-swallowing clams, that inhabited the mythical Polynesian ocean. The list was interpreted imaginatively by Smith (1899, pp. 10–11). He thought the female tresses were bull-kelp, the deceitful animal was ‘the walrus [sic] or the sea-lion or the elephant seal’, and by combining the ‘frozen sea’ with rocks growing out of the sea, he created ice-bergs.
Finally, the authors consider whether Polynesian vessels of that era would even have survived such a voyage, and consider it very unlikely. They tender these conclusions at the end of their paper:
(1) Wehi et al. (2021a, 2021b), use unexamined traditional narratives, and stories based on those, to argue that there is a pre-European history of Antarctic exploration by Polynesians. Analysis of the origin and content of these sources does not support that conclusion. In particular ‘uka-tai’ refers most probably to a foaming rather than frozen sea.
(2) It is implausible that pre-European Polynesian canoes and their crews could have survived passages through the circumpolar westerlies or a sojourn in Antarctic conditions. Insofar as there is material evidence of Polynesian voyaging, it did not go beyond the northern islands of the subantarctic zone.
(3) Overall, it is most unlikely that Antarctic history began with pre-European voyaging.
That last bit won’t make MM advocates happy! But I want to add a digression of sorts that Anderson et al. offer about using this voyage to contrast MM with modern science:
These [traditional] stories, presented without nuance, qualification or critique, make extraordinary claims without offering commensurable evidence. Here, it is contended that they must be evaluated critically. In doing so, they prove debatable on key points of interpretation and plausibility. As this approach bears on the question of how mātauranga Māori – ‘Māori knowledge and all that underpins it, as well as Māori ways of knowing’ (Broughton and McBreen 2015, p. 83) – is handled in scholarly publication, a brief comment is pertinent.
. . .Although widely discussed in positive terms, notably in environmental sciences (e.g. Hikuroa 2017; McAllister et al. 2019), the collaborative enterprise of bringing together parallel or intersecting interests in mātauranga and ‘western’ scholarship involves epistemological differences. Mātauranga emphasises integration over separation of knowledge categories, received over hypothesised interpretations and experiential over experimental practice. Exposing traditional knowledge, as received, to scholarly critique thus confronts the intrinsic contradiction of regarding mātauranga with ‘a sense of critical distance and objectivity’ while it is, ‘simultaneously a way of Being and a way of Knowing’ (Smith et al. 2016, p. 152).
There is no simple solution to this dilemma. Aspects of mātauranga that are implausible or irrational to western scholarship cannot be simply ignored and dissecting them out risks discarding contexts that disclose original meanings. Historical scholarship, at least, has to contend with the whole story, but critically
. . .The contrasting approach of Wehi et al. (2021a, 2021b), places unexamined traditional accounts of early Polynesian voyaging, or stories based on them, alongside archival records of historical Antarctic voyaging as if the two sources have the same historiographical status, i.e. as if traditional stories can be regarded without qualification as historical records. This is the method, comprehensively criticised (e.g. Sorrenson 1979), of Percy Smith and Elsdon Best more than a century ago. An analytical approach (Tau 2003, pp. 15–20), taken here, considers the same accounts in terms of their origins, content and interpretation.
And that, my best beloved, is why no MM should be taught as coequal to science unless the empirical claims of MM have been verified using the methods of science. Here a scholarly analysis of an unlikely claim shows that claim to be what it seemed to be from the outset: bogus.
And remember it was Māori scholars who were largely responsible for debunking the Māori myths.
Finally, for the short read, here’s the bit about the Māori discovery of Antarctica from the Wikipedia article on “History of Antarctica“:
According to Māori oral history in New Zealand, Hui Te Rangiora (also known as ‘Ui Te Rangiora) and his crew explored Antarctic waters in the early seventh century on the vessel Te Ivi o Atea. Accounts name the area Te tai-uka-a-pia, which describes a ‘frozen ocean’ and ‘arrowroot’, which resembles fresh snow when scraped. However, this interpretation of the original account is disputed by Te Rangi Hīroa (Sir Peter Henry Buck) who lists evidence for his belief that ‘later historians embellished the tales by adding details learned from European whalers and teachers’. This interpretation of oral history and the probability of such a voyage have likewise been dismissed more recently by Ngāi Tahu scholars, who agree that ‘it is very unlikely that Māori or other Polynesian voyaging reached the Antarctic’.
I fear that it’s too late for New Zealand to get back on the rails and teach science as science in school, because Wokeness, once it gets started, is very hard to stop. And that’s what the coequality of MM with science is about: an attempt to valorize an oppressed minority by arguing that their very myths are the same thing as modern science. There are better ways to emphasize the Māori contributions to New Zealand without destroying science education in that country.
Wehi PM, Scott NJ, Beckwith J, Rodgers RP, Gillies T, van Uitregt W., and Watene K. 2021. A short scan of Māori journey to Antarctica. Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand. doi:10.1080/ 03036758.2021.1917633.
Anderson, A., T O’Regan, P. Parata-Goodall, M. Stevens, and T. M. Tau. 2021. On the improbability of pre-European Polynesian voyages to Antarctica: a response to Priscilla Wehi and colleagues Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand, in press.