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 (Tara’Are 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):
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.
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.
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.