Once again: did the Maori discover Antarctica?

August 11, 2022 • 9:30 am

Nothing better shows the kind of “knowledge” that promoters of New Zealand’s indigenous “ways of knowing” (mātauranga Māori ) want taught in science class than the claim that the Māori—or rather, their ancestral Polynesians—discovered Antarctica in the 7th century A.D. (The Māori could not have done it at that time since their East Polynesian ancestors didn’t colonize New Zealand until the fourteenth century.) Nevertheless, as I described in two posts in January—here and here—the controversy was hashed out in three articles in the Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand (JRSNZ) and Nature Ecology & Evolution. These aren’t free online, but judicious inquiry can yield copies.

(By the way, the generally accepted date for the discovery of Antarctica, and by that I mean seeing the continent, is January 27, 1820, when a Russian expedition saw an ice shelf connected to Antarctica.)

The first paper, by advocates Wehi et al., described “evidence” that Polynesians were the first to see Antarctica in the seventh century, AD—over a thousand years before the discovery by the Russians.  They supported their claims by relying on oral legends, the “gray literature” (semi-scholarly but tendentious analyses of oral legends), and dubious interpretations of those legends. For example, the East Polynesians weren’t sailing then; the supposed boat that saw Antarctica was said to be built of human bones (and even a wooden one could not survive Antarctic waters), and the scenario relies heavily on a word almost surely translated as “the frozen sea” by the authors of the first paper below:

The first claim:

This claim was uncritically accepted by many in the press, including the credulous Guardian (click screenshot below to read):

A rebuttal (a “short communication”), written by a group including Māori scholars, was then published in the same journal. It pointed out all the problems noted above: the use of orally transmitted legends (not written down until the mid-19th century), the improbability of Polynesian sailing vessels (especially ones made of human bones) making it to Antarctic waters; the fact that East Polynesians weren’t sailing in the seventh century; that there is no archaeological evidence of their voyages, much less incursion into Antarctic waters; and the likelihood that the crucial phrase translated as “the frozen sea” probably meant “sea foam” instead. Here’s the rebuttal paper by Anderson et al.

This “rebuttal” was handled very oddly by the Royal Society of New Zealand (more on that below). The original authors then responded, but in Nature Ecology and Evolution, which also included the dubious claim of Polynesian discovery of Antarctica in its timeline below (click to read):

From Figure One of the Nature E&E paper (my emphasis, click to enlarge). Doesn’t anybody review papers any more, or are standards simply more lax when indigenous “ways of knowing” are involved? The box encloses a statement that is surely false. Come on, Nature!

Now The Listener (site of the original fight about whether mātauranga Māori should be taught in NZ science classes alongside real science) has just reprised the whole controversy and added some new comments by the authors as well as some material about how the “rebuttal” got published. That article is below, and there’s no free link.

The authors of the original paper appear to have backed off their claim about Polynesians discovering Antarctica in the seventh century, but the critics are saying that the fight is useless anyway because much of mātauranga Māori isn’t really evidence-based science, though part of it could be. (Yes, it’s confusing.)

Click to read, or make a judicious inquiry for a copy, as I can’t copy excerpts from this Listener article:

A few quotes:. In the first, one of the original authors backs off:

Dr. Priscilla Wehi said it wasn’t about which humans were in Antarctica first, but about “linkages that have gone on for many hundreds of years and will go on into the future.”

She’s not telling the truth. If you read the original paper, there’s a large section supporting the claim that Polynesians saw Antarctica first, tendered as a tribute to their endeavors and to the equality of Western and Polynesian “science”. And certainly the world press interpreted the article as meaning that!

The Listener notes that “the two papers” (original and rebuttal) “used totally different research methodologies.”  That of Wehi et al “looked at oral histories as well as ‘grey literature,’ described as ‘research, reports, technical documents, and other material published by organisations outside common academic and commercial publishing channels.” In other words, Wehi et al. used transcribed oral legends spread as a kind of conspiracy theory.

There’s also this:

When you fail to produce convincing evidence, you just assert that you weren’t really making a truth claim, but simply showing how legends work their way into modern practice. One thing the advocates of mātauranga Māori love to argue is that its superiority to Western science lies in mātauranga Māori’s ability to show that everything in the Universe is connected. Well, physics shows that, too, but as Dick Lewontin once said, the troubling of a star doesn’t mean he has to take that into account when digging in his garden.

In the section below, the first author of the rebuttal makes a crucial admission (matauranga Maori isn’t the same thing as science), but also claims that sometimes we should accept historical claims from legend—presumably only when these are supported by empirical investigation—i.e., science writ large!

I’m not sure what Anderson means by saying that mātauranga Māori is a “different form of knowledge and understanding than science.” The understanding of legends may differ from how we understand science, but Anderson needs to realize that “knowledge” means the general acceptance of truth ascertained by empirical methods”—i.e., by science.

And yes, some legends may be true—but not this one. In the first paragraph above the authors show why mātauranga Māori should not be taught alongside science in New Zealand schools as an equally valid form of knowledge. Nevertheless, this is going to happen some day, all because the Woke, fearful of looking like racists, are afraid of rejecting indigenous ways of knowing as science.

The new Listener article gives more reasons why Anderson et al. find the legend of Antarctic-discovering Polynesians in conflict with empirical evidence.

Finally, there’s a bit about how the Royal Society of New Zealand treated the Wehi et al. claim and the Anderson et al. rebuttal differently. If you’ve followed my reporting on this, you’ll know that the Royal Society of New Zealand is a pack of slippery eels, trying to pretend they’re a scientific organization while at the same time trying not to offend the Māori and their claims of having “other ways of knowing.” I’m sorry, but those other ways of knowing are sometimes wrong, and the Antarctic claim is one example.

Here’s how the Listener describes the preferential treatment given to papers on mātauranga Māori as opposed to refutations of those papers:

I’m not aware of any scientific organizations that sends critiques of a paper out to the authors of that paper for review. Yes, if the critique is accepted, then the original authors may be given it and afforded a chance to respond. But that’s not how the RSNZ rolls. What they did is certainly not “a best practice” for reviewing papers. As usual, the spokesperson for the RSNZ lies, saying that they just followed what is normal. They didn’t.

The slippery behavior of the Royal Society is one reason why two of its Fellows resigned after they were “investigated” for arguing that mātauranga Māori was not the same thing as science.

42 thoughts on “Once again: did the Maori discover Antarctica?

    1. Seems to be a spectrum between myth and reality in terms of perception. One people’s myth may later be deemed fact, and often known facts are found false and relegated to myth. Sometimes I wonder if the great attraction of the mythic voyage of discovery, involving hardship, ridicule and eventual justification is all a replay of the forty years the Israelites wandered in the desert, or most likely, that too is some kind of Jungian myth.
      But it does appear the Vikings did discover Newfoundland, and maybe the Chinese Great Fleet made it round the Cape of Good Hope, but the Maori surviving the roaring forties and worse in dugouts and raftes with sails of matted palm fronds? A one way trip at best. Perhaps best filed with Professor Lindenbrock, Baron von Munchausen and Allan Quatermain.

    1. Once upon a time, it was fashionable, in some quarters, to claim that a significant knowledge of astronomy existed centuries ago amongst the Dogon people of what is now Mali.

      1. But “significant knowledge of astronomy” is found among essentially all cultures, including the Dogon. (Depending, of course, on what is meant by the vague “significant”.)
        The debate in this case has been whether the Dogon possessed astronomical knowledge that they could not have had without modern technology, i.e. telescopes, and if so, whether they had gotten it from outside (European or Arabian) contacts, or, if you listen to the loonies, from extraterrestrials.

      2. I always liked the creation myth (one of several as far asI can gather) of the Dogon: first he created the raffia straw for the skirts of the men, then he created the textile for the dress of the woman and then he created a basket to put the food in.
        One, two and three dimensions. Not bad.
        Note, I like that creation myth, not really their social norms.

      3. “Significant knowledge” – significant for what? Significant for enough calenderical understanding to plant next year’s crops at the right time for them to ripen and harvest before you staved? Or, If I remember Velikowski’s claims correctly, enough to assert that Sirius had a companion star, that it orbited Sirius, and the period (and possibly phase) of that orbit?
        Very different claims.

    1. The language around me has already shifted beyond this. People are using the label “Western” now in NZ, proudly, as a statement of their comfort with (“Western”) science, and to distinguish it from MM. The label “Non-Western” is not much used by supporters of MM, but is more often used by defenders of “Western” traditions, lumping a range of non-western traditions together. The MM supporters are very careful to look globally for other traditions, drumming up a broad, anti-colonial “narrative”.

      I wonder if we’ll soon hear of “Western-adjacent” science in this space

      1. I don’t know where you live in NZ but no-one I know is comfortable talking about ‘western science’. Most of the country is mortified at the way NZ is allowing this postmodern woke nonsense to permeate our society. Unfortunately everyone is too scared to say anything in case they loose their jobs. So thank you to those people overseas for shining a light onto the ridiculous claims made by New Zealand academics and politicians. Please continue to embarrass us and hopefully, eventually, people over here will have the guts to stand up against it.

        1. I think their reasoning is that if “Western” represents everything the woke consider bad, then they are ready to embrace the label “Western” for science and everything else. Maybe the language is now so fraught that people are saying “go ahead and call me a racist, I don’t care anymore”?

  1. Reminds me of an online BBC article from Jan. 27, 2022, entitled “Is the Pilbara the oldest place on Earth?”

    In the first two paragraphs one reads, “Dating to around 3.6 billion years ago, the Pilbara region of Western Australia is home to the fossilised evidence of the Earth’s oldest lifeforms.

    “In recent years, science has confirmed what Aboriginal Australians, the world’s oldest continuous living culture, always knew: the Pilbara region of Western Australia is among the oldest places on Earth.”

    And further down: “The Pilbara is still revealing new secrets about early conditions on Earth and the life of the region’s first inhabitants. While new discoveries about how long the Pilbara has been continuously inhabited surprise scientists, to indigenous people, it is something they have always known.”

    Thus two completely different “ways of knowing” — to use the hip term –, not to mention what it is that is actually believed and/or known, are presented as if they were comparable, which is very misleading.

    I do think that the roots of this approach, or some of the many roots, consist of an attempt to get away from old, and indeed wrong-headed and damaging, approaches, which basically thought of “our ways” as good, scientific, rational, etc. and “their ways” as primitive, barbaric, stupid, irrational, etc. But having a great and loving respect for other cultures does not necessarily mean that they are the same on all accounts, and therein lies the primary error, in my view. I see this quite often in my own field, Ancient Near Eastern studies.

    1. Leaving aside the somewhat tendentious claim that the Pilbara is home to the oldest fossilized remains of life on Earth, I’m intrigued over this :

      my own field, Ancient Near Eastern studies.

      In your field, what proportion of cultures purport to know where the centre of the world is, where humanity originated, and where the first man and woman existed, and it’s always “just over there”. Not exactly “here” (for varying values of “here”), but not too far away, on “the mountains that you can see from the headwaters of the big river over there”, or “the other side of that desert”, or “the city of Ur of the Chaldees”, on the river the other side of this desert?
      Is it not a very common thing that societies place their myths “not quite next door, but not impossibly far away”. Delphi as the omphalos ; Odysseus inventing pinball between Mediterranean islands ; the gates of Hell being (variously) in Southern Italy or Northern Macedonia? King Arthure being based variously in Wales, Winchester, or Northern France ; the Lady of the Lake and her minions taking the wounded Arthur to rest “in the West”.
      There are very old, probable fossils from the Pilbara region, but it’s in quite specific, uncommon types of rocks. And the “title” has bounced between different outcrops on several occasions, with some of the early claimants being shown since to be pseudo-fossils, not actual fossils. Pilbara (how many Wales-worth of real estate is that?) definitely has very old rocks, “fossils” have been identified in them, and disputed. But regardless of those fossils, there are also claimants to the oldest evidence of life being from near the Pilbara’s antipode, and 200-300 million years older, preserved as “isotopic fossils” in the Akila Supracrustal group of Greenland. There, grains of graphite isolated in apatite grains formed more than 3.8 billion years ago, have a low 13-C to 12-C ratio which is normally interpreted as a sign of the carbon having been processed through the “rubisco” enzyme system that lays at the heart of photosynthesis. Which is … a challenge to the Pilbara’s claims.
      It’s a fraught area ; “if, “but”, and “maybe” are your constant companions.

  2. The difference in the Māori “ways of knowing” seems to highlight their superior performance in “ways of colonizing.” Keep it short & simple, leave no colonizers, displace or distress no indigenous people, and modestly mention it only in legend. Now THAT’S a Colonialism we can all support!

    1. The way it’s actually done is to leave no indigenous. If someone resists your arrival you either take the hint and sail back where you came from….or you kill them until they stop resisting. Nothing to be ashamed of, it’s just Right of Conquest. Everyone’s gotta eat. If food is short where you live, you go over the next hill or you cross the ocean to grow more.

      The colonialism I support is exactly what my ancestors did, because otherwise I wouldn’t have come into existence.

      Now, if you want to claim you were not only here when the newcomers arrived but were here before anyone in all humanity arrived, you have a tougher case to make. It helps if the land you colonized really didn’t have any inhabitants. Otherwise you will have to exterminate them and eliminate every last trace of their existence so your claim to have been first cannot be refuted. Centuries later you will allow archeologists to dig on “your” land only if they will agree in advance not to find anything awkward to your legendary sense of yourselves.

  3. That Nature Ecology and Evolution paper’ Figure 1 is something else!. “These narratives are embedded in the night sky constellations”? Really?!

  4. Although Ross, Amundsen, Fridtjof Nansen, and Robert Peary are conventionally credited with arctic exploration and reaching the north pole, my own study of grey literature reveals that a Jew did so before them. This was Solomon Gursky, the sole survivor of the Franklin expedition of the 1840s. Solomon took up life among the local people, fathering a generation of Jewish Eskimos in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. His story is recounted in “Solomon Gursky Was Here” (1989), part of the tradition of Canadian legends (or matauranga maple leaf) collected by Mordecai Richler.

    1. At first I didn’t realize you were pulling our collective legs! But then I see that the book is fiction. Is it worth a read?

      1. Some consider it Richler’s best, and I guarantee it is his funniest. A brilliant takeoff on a whole
        series of cultural traditions—Jewish, Canadian, British family saga, and even (if I remember right) some Irishry.

  5. Based on their encounters with Moas in New Zealand, I would have thought that if the Maori had discovered Antarctica they would have eaten all the penguins before resorting to cannibalism.

  6. I’ve been fascinated by reading Jerry’s series on MM. I’m taken back to my college days 40 years ago, when I took a bunch of anthropology courses. One that I enjoyed very much was on the Pacific Islanders. I don’t remember hearing anything in that course about the Polynesians discovering Antarctica.
    An important lesson I learned from my study of anthropology was the distinction of emic and etic. It seems that these proponents of MM have erased the etic and are basing their “science” solely on the emic.

  7. I like @StephenB’s point about emic vs etic thinking.
    In the second article (“Transforming Antarctic management and policy”), the authors state very clearly the agenda. If they can establish a claim to the land that we now call Antarctica, they should not be excluded from discussions about how Antarctica will be managed after 2048. This reminds me of some fo the commentary I have been reading on the “primordial” nationalism that underpins Putin’s arguments that Ukraine is Russia (and counter-arguments against that). It seems to me there’s some of the same kind of primordialism at work here (“we claim we were there first, so now we get a say in how it is managed today”).
    However, the authors don’t need to go to this kind of primordialism. They argue for the right of “indigenous people” (broadly writ) to be involved in the management of Antarctica in the future. If they really believe that, it shows that they don’t need to rely on this kind of primordialism to argue for inclusion of indigenous voices in international policy and treaties.
    Wrt Antarctica, presumably, the important point is that traditional notions of sovereignty are not helpful. The ecosystem and its management is incredibly important to all of the planet and everyone has a stake in ensuring a safe and sustainable human presence in a land which never saw human presence until quite recently.

    1. OK, I’ll bite. How is the ecosystem of Antarctica incredibly important to all of the planet? We don’t hunt whales anymore and there are easier places to go for fish.

      And how is it important that human presence be safe and sustainable there? To this, it would be better for the first if human presence can not be sustained in such a cold, fragile place so far from re-supply points. Diesel soot from exploration and tourism constitute much of what little pollution there is on the land. Fortunately it’s highly local and would eventually wash away once travel there ends. Indeed, from Jerry’s recent trip to the very edges of the place, it seems that many efforts to sustain human presence in even those more temperate zones have been abandoned. That’s the best definition, paradoxically, of sustainability!

      1. We don’t hunt whales anymore

        Except that “we” do, (including the Japanese government as members of the human species – which raises all sorts of other challenges) but it’s just called “population research”. What is more meaningful, hopefully, is that they’re starting to have problems getting the Japanese public to buy the stuff, after they’ve “researched” it.

        [Diesel soot] Fortunately it’s highly local and would eventually wash away

        Ummm, no, it will wash off the surface snow into multi-year ice (or firn) and then eventually out into the sea where it will settle onto the seabed, there to continue to wreak it’s PAH-ic damage on organisms in an otherwise extremely homogeneous environment.
        There is no such place as “away”, to where you can send pollution to not be a problem ever again. There never has been, but these decades increasing numbers of people seem to understand that.
        Small – 1/10th to 1/100 mm – grains of soot and charcoal are ubiquitous in sedimentary rocks laid down more recently than about 350 million years ago. From where they get broken into finer grains (micro-charcoal, to coin a phrase riffing on “microplastics”) and returned into the sedimentary cycle. If those have unpleasant chemicals adsorbed into their crystal structures, they’re going to be re-released into the environment.

        1. And here I thought the solution to pollution was dilution. Then all the better reason to stop going to Antarctica at all if the soot never goes “away”.

          My point was that soot pollution in Antarctica is local, traced to local combustion by scientists and tourists and quantitatively dominates over what is deposited there from burning coal, diesel, and jet fuel in the far-distant populated parts of the world. At least that’s what The Guardian said, after you clicked past the headline. So giving up on trying to make human incursions into Antarctica sustainable would be a desirable policy goal because it would directly benefit that fragile environment, on the snow and on the sea bed, while doing minimal harm to the global economy. We talk about low-hanging fruit. Surely this qualifies.

          We should keep our soot to ourselves, where we emit it at least for the noble purpose of keeping our supply chains running and the lights on.

  8. Professor Anderson is on the side of the angels, although he does not always make himself entirely clear. There is a good short feature on him here:


    and a recent article by him on the general topic of Polynesian ocean voyaging is here:


    He does claim that Maori oral history, if treated cautiously and according to normal scientific and historical standards, can provide , or at least confirm, some historical information. He has an excellent discussion of the issue of oral history in Chapter 2 of his short book “The First Migration” (extracted from the much longer “Tangata Whenua”):

    He distinguishes different components in the oral histories, some clearly mythical, but others practical:
    “History mattered for Māori and Moriori, both philosophically as a duty toward the ancestors and pragmatically as a means of contemporary advantage in gaining and holding status and property. In both respects it needed to be reliable, and reliability followed a principle readily predictable in the oral traditions of a chiefly society: it correlated positively with status.”

    His whole discussion is interesting and cautious in what it claims, and well worth a read if you can get hold of it – members of Auckland public libraries can read it free online.

  9. Of course Maori did not reach Antarctica first and I imagine that the majority of Maori known to me would not go along with that notion. But everywhere these days we see a degree of political correctness that I believe is, for the most part, well-intended (e.g. empowering minorities and atoning for past injustices) but has reached dangerous levels of stupidity, especially in education, where there are moves to teach indigenous knowledge as science. Also very worrying is the current lobbying to resource traditional knowledge equally to “western science”.

    In addition to those with the good intentions, there is quite a lot of virtue-signaling and organizations pushing indigenous knowledge and language at the rest of us. Stand up to it and lose your job!
    The treatment of the seven Auckland professors highlighted a worrying connection between political correctness and bullying, though the international reaction to the issue may have imported some common sense. Possibly, the New Zealand establishment, and establishments in other countries, have learned that when we stray beyond political correctness into the domain of blind stupidity, then the world will bring us to heel and we emerge with egg on our faces.

    I have had a connection with the Royal Society of New Zealand that goes back several decades. As a partial defense of them, the people mean well and feel that past wrongs to Maori must be admitted and redressed somehow. The issue may originate in a confusion between science as the most widely-accepted description and explanation of the universe devised by humans and the traditional knowledge of groups of people across different parts of the world. This traditional knowledge is relevant to their descendants and of great interest to modern humanity, but should not be confused with science, particularly in education.

    We remember the motto of The Royal Society – Nullius in verba – which translates as “Take nobody’s word for it“. As such, the motto excludes traditional knowledge as science until it has been tested by the methods of science.
    David Lillis

    1. According to Google Translate, the RS Latin motto translates as “Kaore he kupu a tetahi” in Maori. Maybe they could learn something from some dead, white dudes after all?

    2. David, I fear that it may have gone well beyond just “moves to teach indigenous knowledge as science.” In some respects it seems to be already here. For example, from the NCEA Chemistry & Biology Curriculum: “Mauri is present in all matter. All particles have their own mauri and presence as part of a larger whole, for example within a molecule, polymer, salt, or metal.” Very few people seem even to find this sort of thing in any way problematic

      Equal status for mātauranga Māori, or “Mana ōrite mō te mātauranga Māori” is now an explicit goal, with its own website and supporting materials: https://www.manaorite.ac.nz

      1. Hi Jumbo.
        Was well aware of it (intrusion of MM into science curricula). For the record – for twenty years I worked in the New Zealand government as a statistician and quantitative researcher and spent several years in the education space. Political correctness wasn’t so pronounced then but has become worse as time has passed.

        However, the bullying was off-the-scale, often administered by unqualified people promoted to management. Oh dear! Most of the top people are OK but we also have people reaching senior positions of leadership and influence but who had minimal or no qualifications and sometimes who had little or no background in education.

        They got these positions though pushing others around, mastering the relevant jargonese (“policy landscape”, “strategic this and strategic that”, “blueprints and roadmaps for this and that but not the other”, “this rubric and that rubric”) and currying favor with the top executives. Issues are “managed’ rather than attended to or addressed etc etc. Now they are busy cementing their positions by doing Government’s bidding in relation to political correctness and traditional knowledge. Of course, within our Government ministries the more sensible of them have little choice. Many are not grounded in either science, research or education.

        However, we can make progress. There’s enough people of common-sense around to fight successfully against the current irrationality.


      2. Re “Mauri is present in all matter. All particles have their own mauri and presence as part of a larger whole, for example within a molecule, polymer, salt, or metal.”
        Does anyone define or explain what this actually means?

        1. Like jazz, “If you have to ask, you’ll never know!”
          (attribution added in edit, but a version appears in a Harry Potter book, too.)

  10. And at the risk of breaking Da Roolz, I do really like this quote from Sir Tipene O’Regan, one of the co-authors on that rebuttal paper:

    “If a stupid public wants to insist that it be duped into the misuse of its funds to sustain and promulgate fantasy and misconstruction, then we must have defences. By defences I mean mechanisms which prevent them from destroying our culture by the public adoption of Maori content which cannot be sustained, or is not able to be exposed to the ordinary standards of scholarly rigour. I have no objection to someone talking to the stones, I have no objections to the stones talking back — what I do object to is that public funds should ever be brought to the support of taking the respective messages to our children.

  11. Indeed, it behoves us to mount a strong defense against any degrading of the education of our learners, but also against reasonable free speech and against bullying.

    This article was originally published here:






    David Lillis

  12. Sure the Maori discovered Antarctica.

    And indigenous Americans are descended from the Hebrews or the ten lost tribes, per Mormon tradition, despite there being zero evidence for this from Western science.

    And we should take it as true the events of Exodus, despite zero evidence for this from Western science.

    I don’t understand why we don’t just agree with all religious traditions, rather than just privileging the Maori traditions.

    I mean, this science stuff sure seems hard, what with all of this gathering of evidence and testing and thinking and whatnot. Just go with the oral traditions and call it a day bruh.

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