That Time Humans Discovered Antarctica
At the southern edge of Earth, on November 17, 1820, Nathaniel B. Palmer “discovered” Antarctica from the European version of history, but he may not have been the first human explorer to the little island.
It is yet so little we know about Antarctica, and it may be a long time before we can prove other theories about who may have visited the mysterious landmass.
For an island, Antarctica is no small paradise. At 5.4-thousand square miles, it’s the fifth largest continent on the planet; twice the size of Australia. The key difference between the two is that Antarctica is about 98 percent ice and snow.
How and when exactly humans discovered Antartica is a worthy debate, but we have enough information to give due credit to those whose actions made Antarctica what it is today. Were they the first humans on the land? Probably not…
When European travelers cut below the southern capes, the Cape of Good Hope on the African continent, and Cape Horn in South America, many of them suspected there might be something further south. But, cold, you know?
Captain James Cook, in 1772, saw evidence in the icebergs floating about the southern seas. He didn’t know it, but he’d crossed the Antarctic Circle, the 67º Latitude. Cook, however, also wasn’t the first to get close. Probably not.
Many historians suspect that the Polynesians, known for their sailing game, may have landed long before Cook’s ancestors were zygotes. Stories told in the Pacific oral history tell of a landing somewhere around 650 CE. It’s possible, even probable, but unproven.
Captain James Cook had something none of the rest had: money. The British had backed Cook’s exploration of the southern pole.
For three years he circumnavigated the contentment, but never saw land. He did spot tons of whales and seals, which inspired whalers and sealers to head south. They would pillage those waters for the liquid gold found in whale and seal blubber.
Pre-electric Europe thrived on the oil derived from these creatures to fuel their street lamps and home lighting.
Cook was hardly the only explorer to get close enough to see evidence of Antarctica. As early as the 16th century, European explorers cited evidence for what humans once knew as Terra Australis.
What Cook did was drive more boats southward. British explorers, the Enderby Brothers, discovered the Auckland Islands.
In 1810, Australian sealer Frederick Hasselberg discovered Macquarie Island, but it was a U.S. sealer, Nathaniel Palmer who finally confirmed the South Shetland Islands of Antarctica. That island sits somewhat ironically on the northern tip of the peninsula.
History gets a little ugly in the south around this time. Whalers and sealers exercised nefarious means of possession for what each believed was rightfully his. Everyone wanted to corner the market.
The effect on the environment from the slaughter was unthinkable. Estimates reach into the millions of seals killed in the 1820s. The words humane and slaughter never went together well, but one can imagine that the 19th-century slaughter of these animals was the furthest thing from humane.
By the 1840s, the Brits and Yanks both sent exploration parties to Antarctica.
The first modern human resident of the island was Norwegian whalers, Carsten Borchgrevink. He braved the winter of 1899 at Cape Adare.
While a few explorers unwittingly spent winters on the island, and others rang bells like “first to the pole,” and “first to cross such-and-such route,” the first bases didn’t pop up until after World War Two.
Australia was number one, but the U.S. and the Soviets followed quickly. For the first time in history, multiple nations lived in close proximity removed from the political climates of their home countries.
Today, seven nations claim territory on Antarctica, Australia, New Zealand, France, Norway, the United Kingdom, Argentina, and Chile.
In 1959, the seven nations plus the United States and the USSR signed the Antarctic Treaty. To date, 53 countries total have signed the treaty. It established the continent as a scientific preserve. Military and arms are not allowed on the island.