Similarly, the researchers were not the first to learn that Maori voyagers may have reached Antarctica so long ago; the feat was known in certain communities, such as those near Bluff, the southernmost town in New Zealand, Dr. Watene said. She and her colleagues relied on the archive of oral tradition to understand the early connection between Maori and Antarctica.
“People have very clear transmission roots of the knowledge and very sure methods for passing on information,” Dr. Wehi said, pushing back on the notion among some historians that oral tradition is an unreliable source.
“Why wouldn’t we find a continent if we found the most isolated islands in the world?” asked Keolu Fox, a genetic researcher at the University of California, San Diego, who is Native Hawaiian and was not involved with the studies. Native Hawaiians and the Maori are both Polynesian peoples.
Dr. Fox pointed to a traditional double-hulled voyaging canoe built in 1975 that has sailed around the world using traditional Polynesian way-finding techniques. “Do we literally need to saddle up Hokulea to prove it to you?”
In the fall of 2020, the authors held a series of virtual seminars to bring together researchers and the Maori community to discuss this history. (The coronavirus pandemic derailed their original plan to meet in person.) Participants shared stories that expanded the team’s knowledge of existing narratives, like that of Hui Te Rangiora, and revealed numerous new ones to the participants, Dr. Watene said.
The team also consulted traditional carvings, some of which depict Hui Te Rangiora’s voyage and the presence of the southern oceans in early Polynesian seafarers’ navigational maps of the sky. And archaeologists have observed ovens, middens and stone tools on subantarctic islands dating back as early as the 14th century, suggesting that Polynesian people lived in the region for at least one summer.
The researchers found many more connections than expected in more recent history. In 1840, the Maori sailor Te Atu became the first New Zealander to sight the Antarctic Coast while aboard a United States expedition in the southern oceans. Near the turn of the 20th century, Maori sailors were recruited onto whaling expeditions for their harpooning expertise. And from the 1950s onward, three Maori men joined the New Zealand Antarctic Program as a foreman, a seaman and a diesel engineer. The engineer, Robert Sopp, carved a figurehead, inscribed with a proverb about friends, to present to McMurdo Station, one of the United States’ Antarctic outposts.