The battle continues over whether Polynesians discovered Antarctica (hint: they didn’t)

December 18, 2022 • 11:30 am

A new article in the widely-read New Zealand website Stuff (click screenshot below), also appearing in the Christchurch Press, revives a controversy which seemed to me to be dead—but is still very much alive in the minds of boosters of Māori “ways of knowing”. It’s also alive for the Royal Society of New Zealand, which gave the author of a certainly false claim a huge grant to pursue a narrative disproven over a year ago.

First, the new article from Stuff:

Let’s review the history, though. First, last year the Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand published the article below recounting the history of Polynesian association with Antarctica, beginning with the claim that the Polynesians “likely” went into Antarctic waters and actually saw Antarctica in the early seventh century. The claim was a bit hedged in the paper below:

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 (TaraAre 2000; but see Hiroa 1964, p. 118). These navigational accomplishments are widely acknowledged; Best (1923) described Māori navigators 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 were likely the first humans to set eyes on Antarctic waters and perhaps the continent.

If you can’t download the paper below (which makes the claim) or other papers, judicious inquiry will help. The first author, and prime mover of this nonsense, is Priscilla Wehi, an associate professor at the University of Otago.

Despite its problems, this claim was picked up worldwide, including by the New York Times and the Guardian.  Wehi et al. also published the claim in Nature Ecology & Evolution—this time without hedging—putting it in a figure showing Polynesian discovery of Antarctica around 650 A.D. (see red box below):

You can see my original posts on this issue here and here.

Unfortunately, the claim, based purely on oral tradition, is dubious at best. Actually, it simply cannot be true. In fact, history tells us that the first documented sighting of Antarctica was by a Russian expedition on January 27, 1820: 1200 years after the claim of Wehi et al. Another group of Maori scholars called out Wehi et al. on numerous grounds, also in a paper in the Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand (apparently accepted only after great difficulty), and the debunking continued in another paper in the British Polar Record (second screenshot below), which was accepted more easily. Both of the debunking papers are just below

 

The Wehi et al. claim is dubious on many grounds, including the part of the legend that the ships were made of bones, the improbability of Polynesian canoes making it that far south, and on a mistranslation of the “legend” by an English scholar , Stephenson Percy Smith, at the end of the 19th century. Here are some of the problems with Wehi et al.’s uncritical acceptance of oral legend, as given in the Stuff story:

The Hui Te Rangiora story was a Rarotongan tradition translated by ethnologist Stephenson Percy Smith​ near the end of the 19th century and debunked by Te Rangi Hīroa​ (Sir Peter Buck​) who wrote that “so much post-European information has been included in the native text” he could no longer accept the traditions as accurate and ancient.

This means O’Regan, Tau and the others were in the position of repeating work Te Rangi Hīroa did nearly a century ago.

But look at this! (Bolding is mine.)

The authors [Anderson et al.] noted that Wehi and her co-authors downplayed the more fantastical aspects of the original story, such as that Hui Te Rangiora’s canoe was made of men’s bones, presumably in the interests of plausibility. They wrote that what Smith translated as “frozen sea” was really foamy sea, as Rarotongans had no words for ice, snow or frozen. They also deduced that the later Tamarēreti story was mythical.

Putting aside the oral traditions and mythology, they stressed the obvious difficulty of pre-European canoes making the long return voyage in freezing conditions. Archaeological evidence shows that Polynesians spent at least one summer on Enderby Island​, the northernmost of the Auckland Islands, in the 13th century, but there is no evidence they went further south.

“Overall, it is most unlikely that Antarctic history began with pre-European voyaging,” they said.

Here’s Enderby Island, nowhere near Antarctica:

Such are the perils of relying on tradition as “empirical evidence”. But despite the wonky story, the debunking Wehi et al. was either ignored or downplayed by the very same media that promoted the claims in the first place.  Not only that, but now Wehi has a huge grant to continue studying this dubious claim (click below; I believe the figure is in New Zealand dollars, and the amount is equivalent to about $320,000 U.S. dollars):

 

But remember that Anderson et al. are Māori scholars, so it’s not true that all “indigenous” people are as credulous as Wehi, who as far as I can determine has no Māori ancestry. And Anderson et al. have been vociferous in continuing to oppose the claims of Wehi et al., insisting on solid, empirical evidence for claims of historical fact, and decrying the allotment of big bucks to insane indigenous initiatives. Quotes below are from the new Stuff article.

This one is from Tau, Anderson, and Stevens (my bolding):

The historians argued that if Te Rangi Hīroa were alive today, he would likely have some “difficulties with how institutional biculturalism and ‘cultural awareness’ has unfolded within the Royal Society, and for that matter, New Zealand’s universities.

“In short, uncritical acceptance of Māori knowledge is arguably just as patronising as its earlier blanket rejection.”

Referring back to the Waitaha controversy, they wrote, “What can we conclude from this? Above all else, that in 2022, as in 1991, the state continues to invest significant amounts of taxpayer money into Māori-themed scholarship of questionable quality.

. . .More than 30 years after the lecture, O’Regan told Hill there is still “rather loopy thinking going on” and he referred to “a bit of a tussle recently” involving “those who, without any real historical analysis or content, have managed to give new birth to the idea that Māori discovered Antarctica and went there and landed there, all on the basis of some translations of Rarotongan traditions that were imported into New Zealand by Stephenson Percy Smith”.

As with Waitaha, research money came from the government to pursue these ideas, but “we can’t get it so readily for much more serious research”, O’Regan noted.

and

In early 2022, when interviewed by Kim Hill​ on RNZ, O’Regan raised the matter again. He talked about the duty to protect proper scholarship, which had been the focus of his famous 1991 lecture, titled Old Myths and New Politics, delivered when Pākehā researcher Barry Brailsford​ had expanded Ngāi Tahu history into new age mythology about the ancient Waitaha​ people.

In that lecture, O’Regan emphasised the need for serious scholarship. He contrasted the “mysticism” of the Waitaha stories with “the hard, grinding business of producing solid evidence about our past and the development of a disciplined scholarship of Māori”.

He saw “the mundane business of applying scholarly standards to Māori tradition and history” as “the only weapon we have to defend the integrity of the Māori memory”.

He concluded that “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”.

Remember, these are Māori speaking, not enthusiasts. Wehi’s response was, well, a non-response:

A brief statement attributable to Wehi was emailed by a University of Otago spokesperson.

“I will respond to the points raised in the future,” Wehi says. “However, I will not be doing this via the media.”

I’ll be curious to see her response about the mistranslation, or about Polynesian canoes made of human bones.

The lessons:

A.) Māori scholars like Anderson, O’Regan, Parta-Goodall, Stevens, and Tau should be supported in their critical attitude towards indigenous “truth”.

B.) The public (and international media) should stop being so credulous about unevidenced legends or the virtue of Matauranga Māori (Māori “ways of knowing”). Empirical claims require empirical support, and the stronger the claim, the more extensive the necessary support. The one about Antarctica requires VERY strong evidence, but there is none at all. Claims advanced by indigenous people don’t have inherently more truth value than claims made by “colonials” or anybody else.

C.) The Royal Society of New Zealand should stop handing out huge sums of money (there are other grants) just because the request is a Māori one.

D). The Royal Society of New Zealand is a joke, unworthy of its name. If you want to see how screwed up it is, read this piece in the Times Higher Education Supplement.

32 thoughts on “The battle continues over whether Polynesians discovered Antarctica (hint: they didn’t)

  1. A charming tale of the Snoqualmie tribe tells how two sisters visited the Sky Country to
    marry men found there. The elder sister gave birth to a little boy, Moon, who later in life created the geography of the Puget Sound region, and then took over the job of shining light on it at night. Eventually, the two sisters found a hole in the Sky and dug their way back to earth.
    This example of Matauranga Salish is clear evidence that members of the northwest’
    First Nations traveled to outer space long ago, at least visiting the moon and possibly such other locations as Mars and Venus. I plan to apply for grant funding from NSF to investigate this history of Salish space exploration. Needless to say, our research project will be strong on Diversity, and will not only Include stories of this kind but in fact enforce Equity between them and western Astronomy.

    1. If you are not Salish, expect to be vilified for the cultural appropriation of even discussing the story, much less investigating it.

      And if they did let you go ahead, the Salish would forbid you to publish “their” evidence unless it supported their stories. The knowledge belongs to the band, not to the scientific community or to the larger society.

  2. One side benefit of that grant money is that Wehi can now afford to actually go to Antarctica on a ship and get a direct sense of how unlikely it is that an open canoe could cross the roaring forties and get within sight (<<100 km depending on the height of the landscape and the visibility of the air) of Antarctica itself. IDK anything about the design or function of those canoes, they look cool, and they could tack into the wind, but not into the winds of the Southern Ocean. How could such a boat sail south from New Zealand and avoid being swept east toward the Antarctic Peninsula? Maybe it's possible – anyone know?

    1. Or, even better, she can do a Heyerdal and actually try to reach the Antarctic in a canoe. That should put an end to the discussion, one way or the other.

  3. So like this one time 1370 years ago a Maori took a boat south and saw a big piece of ice down there. Then like 600 years later another one did that too. 500 years after that some Europeans came and started catching whales and writing things down and making maps and all that stuff. Cool story bro.

    1. Dear Mr Gerrard,
      I’m happy to inform you that the senate of the University of Auckland has awarded you the degree of Bachelor of Arts in History, First Class for your detailed and thoughtful thesis. And may I say, it is the best piece of work I have seen come out of this university during my long career.
      I do hope you will be returning to us, as I can see a fast-track doctorate in your future.
      I remain, Sir,

      Porangi Nui (Professor of Hamuti)

  4. The Royal Society of New Zealand is a joke, unworthy of its name.

    Sadly, this is true – and there is actual evidence showing it, too. They should be ashamed.

    1. Is there anything happening yet around the RSNZ addressing these problems? All is silent. Even many Fellows seem to know nothing about any developments. It would be sad if the matter gets dropped — the RSNZ needs to be steered back to an honourable path.

      It is interesting in the 17-Dec-2022 Stuff article to see Ngai Tahu trying, again, to turn public discussion back to scholarship and away from the silly nonsense. Is that perhaps the long-awaited beginning of an alternative to the nonsense?

    2. Many thanks Jez. Horrifying.

      The Wikipedia article on the RSNZ points out that its ‘Royal’ prefix (and the explicit association with the original RS) was graciously granted by King George V in 1933: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/EP19330518.2.137 This was on the advice of the then Governor General, no doubt supported by the British Government at the time.

      It would be a very long shot, but it might be possible to get a sympathetic MP to put down a motion in Parliament to petition the King to remove the NZ Institute’s Royal status. It would have no chance of passing, but it might flag the issue more widely.

      1. A very long shot. Nobody is going to want to put the King in such a difficult position. Furthermore, if it was left up to Charles to make the decision, he’d probably be on the other side.

  5. Wiki tells us: “In 2021 Wehi was awarded the Hill Tinsley Medal with the New Zealand Association of Scientists recognising Wehi’s “pioneering innovative research at the intersection of science and indigenous knowledge”.[17] In short, the pathway Dr. Wehi has discovered leads both to grant funding and awards, largely independent of western style empirical testing (e.g., the Heyerdahl type of re-enactment). But of course, mere white empiricism is but one of the Ways of Knowing, and there are others….

  6. Skip over the technical details of the boat. What did they supposedly do for clothing against weather they could not have anticipated, and further, what did they do for a source of Vitamin C, for an excursion that would have taken an eternity.

  7. Do human bones make good boats? That’ll need to be tested, there are plenty of graveyards here we can pillage for construction material.

    1. Bones, calcium, porous, heavy. Doubt they’d make good boats. And you’d need a lot of specific long bones. I ain’t buying that one, would even consider wasting the time. Bones are denser than water and sink. Case closed? I guess steel is too, but no leakage, there. No way, I say.

        1. The problem there is Moas only existed down here and this guy saw Antartica before the Māori settled here.
          Sure Australia, Madagascar, South America and Africa also had big flightless birds of some shape or form though.

    2. But buoyed up by the spirits of the ancestors who once lived in them, they’d float pretty good I suppose. Thing is, if you were a skeptical scientist who just built a boat of random bones from a graveyard, it wouldn’t be imbued with the spirits and would obstinately sink. If you inveigled a Maori elder into building one using his ways of knowing, the spirits would sense the skepticism and decline to cooperate. Which the elder would tell you even before it sank.

      1. Or we could challenge him to do it saying I’m on the fence about it and if he could make one, show me it floats and then allow me to look it over while on the water I’d believe him.

        1. But he wouldn’t, you see. Because he would know it wouldn’t float, no matter what traditional knowledge he put into it. They don’t believe their own con. They know it’s bollocks because they invented it themselves. The important thing it that the paheka can be strong-armed into offering obeisance, even if the paheka don’t believe it either. But you do need some crutch for credulousness.
          So he would offer an excuse in advance to keep Toto from tearing down the curtain hiding the wizard. It’s part of the stagecraft.

          Now if you let him build the boat in secret where you couldn’t tell that he filled those bones with Styrofoam….

          For my money, I suspect the idea of a boat made of bones is a mistranslation of a Maori or Polynesian legend word that meant something else entirely but it sounded heroic. Just as Cinderella’s “glass slipper” is absurd. It was probably “fur” that sounds like the French word, verre for “glass”.

          1. I know, I’m just simply funny and laid back enough to let him have a go at it, though as you said I doubt he would.

  8. “Fact or Fantasy?…”

    Well, postmodern historians generally reject the view that there is a globally valid scientific historiography whose “narratives” or “stories” are epistemically superior to and more authoritative than alternative ones such as the oral histories of indigenous peoples. You cannot have a meaningful discussion about historical facts with someone who radically rejects the very idea of (objective) historical facts and regards modern Geschichtswissenschaft (science of history) relativistically as just one “story-teller” among many others.

    “The basic idea of postmodern theory of historiography is the denial that historical writing refers to an actual historical past. Thus Roland Barthes and Hayden White asserted that historiography does not differ from fiction but is a form of it. Accordingly White tried to demonstrate…that there are no criteria of truth in historical narratives.”

    (Iggers, Georg G. Historiography in the Twentieth Century: From Scientific Objectivity to the Postmodern Challenge. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1997. p. 118)

    “But in general there has been a reluctance to consider historical narratives as what they most manifestly are: verbal fictions, the contents of which are as much /invented/ as /found/ and the forms of which have more in common with their counterparts in literature than they have with those in the sciences.”

    (White, Hayden. “The Historical Text as Literary Artifact.” In Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism, 81-100. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 1978. p. 82)

    1. I agree with your point at the beginning and have known people who thought exactly like that. But “as much invented as found” is a fitting, if somewhat overblown description of much of traditional narrative historiography and of current events journalism. Which parts of reality to highlight, which to leave out, how to frame the whole, how to evaluate is very subjective. Even debunked falsehoods get repeated over and over again if they fit the currently received worldview, like the supposed massacre of students on Tiananmen Square that in reality never happened (it was a journalist’s honest mistake that became “history”), the 20 000 victims of the nuclear catastrophe at the Fukushima plant, or the supposed large public debt of the defunct German Democratic Republic (hardly any debt at all, far less than Western democracies of its day).

  9. Let me add a note of gloom about the prospects of science not only in Aotearoa but in the Anglosphere generally, particularly in Canada and the US. It is by Lawrence Krauss at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SEHqk5CoUX0 . Krauss’ very detailed summary of the inroads wokery has made in the sociology and infrastructure of STEM reinforces my
    deep feeling of emeritus relief.

    1. The best book on postmodernism in social science I know is this one:

      * Susen, Simon. The ‘Postmodern Turn’ in the Social Sciences. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

  10. It’s amusing to me to watch the “noble savage” fetish cycle through history.

    Rousseau is widely viewed as the thinker most responsible for the archetype of a “pure” human in nature, a reaction in part against the failures of “civilization” and odious religion.

    But then, for a bit, the “noble savage” trope was viewed as an offensive stereotype, with good reason. Anyone who spends time with any human, of whatever stripe, realizes that we’re all flawed animals and no group or identity is superior to any other.

    Now, evidently, we’re back to “noble savagery,” as progressives crawl and scrape and stomp all over each other like soccer fans pressed against a fence after a big win just to prove how morally superior they are by mounting idiotic arguments about the inherent superiority of “indigenous peoples.”

    Indigenous people themselves know all too well that they are not superior, because, y’know, they have neighbors.

    Perhaps worth noting that every iteration of the “noble savage” trope, whether currently embraced or reviled, is always, and entirely, done through the lens of—natch—white people of European descent.

  11. I’m pleased I tipped you off about this story, Jerry. It’s another nail in the coffin of the Royal Society of NZ. A few reflections: 1. I’m not surprised it’s much easier to publish in the excellent Polar Record than it is in the Royal Society Journal. NZ/Oz journals can be very parochial – I had an article rejected which I then published in two forms, one in the Burlington Magazine and one in Country Life. Say no more. 2. Nobody is going to do anything about the RSNZ until there’s a change of govt and even then it would be some way down the list of priorities. 3. Agree with Dr Tau about the Antarctica fallacy but not about the Magnificent Seven who drew the RSNZ’s ire over Maori science [sic].. But one out of two ain’t bad, to paraphrase Meatloaf. 4. Your currency conversion is all wrong, the 660k that the nutty researchers got is more like 420k USD. Season’s Greetings!

  12. Even if there is some truth to the oral tradition of Maori explorers encountering a “sea of ice,” there are far more mundane explanations. Huge icebergs have been known to make it as far as 42 degrees South – that is closer to the equator than to the pole. Southern New Zealand is also subject to winter snowstorms, occasionally severe.

    Surely the more mundane, and believable, explanation is that ancient explorers encounted a blizzard or iceberg. And that is assuming we accept the truth of the semi-mythical oral tradition.

    “When you hear hoofbeats, look for horses – not zebras.”

  13. “…Wehi, who as far as I can determine has no Māori ancestry…”

    It looks like you are correct. On her personal web page she self-identifies as Pakeha (White). Her husband is Maori.

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