For someplace so cold, Antarctica sure is a hotbed of scientific endeavors, from geology and meteorology to astronomy and archaeology.
That’s right. Even in one of the most desolate places on Earth, archaeologists have conducted research on the ice, although not in the way that you might think.
The Mystery Beneath the Ice
Here, we have to acknowledge that, among a subset of pop-culture theorists and conspiracy buffs, it’s a popular pastime to imagine that somewhere beneath the Antarctic ice sit remnants of ancient civilizations — possibly far more advanced than our modern society, perhaps even extraterrestrial in influence or origin.
Outlandish stuff, but even speculation of a more mundane sort — that prehistoric humans could have lived in Antarctica at a time when the continent was not covered in ice, but was a veritable Garden of Eden — is an idea that has gained traction in some circles.
Typically, when any of these wild theories are advanced (and you won’t have to search long on the web to find them), it’s often darkly hinted that some secret cabal of scientists, corporations or governments (or all three) are keeping these “discoveries” hush-hush for various (but inadequately explained) reasons.
While scientists seldom like to say that something is impossible, these particular notions about Antarctica are so preposterous that otherwise respectable science outlets sometimes run the occasional April Fool’s story to poke fun at them.
This is exactly how it should be, because pseudoscience and conspiracy theories significantly undermine the impact of true scientific endeavors, throwing out a lot of quasi-intellectual chaff that obscures the work of real archaeologists and other scientists who have spent decades studying humanity’s recent past. And make no mistake: Antarctica’s waters and lands teem with real, legitimate, historical remains left by humans. It isn’t all that ancient, but that doesn’t make it any less fascinating or worthy of study.
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Some of the most intriguing discoveries in Antarctica aren’t artifacts from ancient civilizations, but from our own, dating to a time as recently as a century ago, sometimes less. The sailors and explorers of those times were plumbing the depths of a harsh and largely unknown country, using the best knowledge and equipment of the day.
What they left behind, whether it was a ship crushed by ice, a cache of supplies left during a failed expedition, or the remnants of an abandoned outpost, has much to teach us and future generations. Here’s what science has found above and below the ice.
Did Ancient Humans Ever Live in Antarctica?
To be clear, Antarctica has never had an Indigenous human population. It would be awesome if that was the case, but it just isn’t possible. Apart from there being no land bridge or other obvious points of transit for prehistoric humans, the last time that Antarctica was habitable without the aid of modern technology — that is to say, had a climate that early humans could have considered remotely temperate or survivable — was at least 35 million years ago.
Granted, at that time, and for many millions of years prior, Antarctica was downright balmy, an ancient rainforest that would be hard to envision on the dry, ice-swept land that we know today. However, considering that Homo sapiens weren’t around until about 350,000 years ago and that one of our closest ancestors, Homo erectus, dates back only to about 2 million years, it is implausible, to put it mildly, to suggest that any human-like creature could have reached, let alone survived, Antarctica back in the day.
In fact, humans didn’t even conceive of a giant landmass at the bottom of the planet until about 350 B.C., when the Greeks — specifically Aristotle — were among the earliest recorded Western minds to theorize the existence of the continent of Antarctica (or Antarktikos, as they called it). Admittedly, they didn’t have proof that it really was there, nor did they go looking for it, let alone try to inhabit it.
Compelling evidence has suggested that humans first encountered Antarctica around 600 A.D. when Polynesian people likely stumbled upon the icy continent. These findings are based on a careful study of the oral histories of the Maori and other related cultures, which describe encounters with a land to the south that probably was Antarctica.
When Did Modern Explorers Discover Antarctica?
Europeans came along several hundred years later, with explorers from many nations — the great Captain Cook among them — searching for, but never quite finding, the actual Antarctic mainland. Antarctica’s “discovery” is usually noted as occurring around 1820 (although even the history books cannot agree on who precisely spotted the continent first).
The first reported landing on Antarctica came in 1821 when an intrepid sea captain named John Davis claimed to have put his crew ashore briefly to hunt for seals. By the late 1890s, other, better-documented landings had occurred, and ships began to spend the winter — often involuntarily — on Antarctic ice. Humans have been a presence of one kind or another in the region ever since.
In short order, the so-called Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration was underway, with daring adventurers and scientists embarking on punishing and sometimes fatal expeditions onto the continent at the dawn of the 20th century. One of the earliest bases in the region was established in 1903 on Laurie Island and is the oldest such outpost still in operation. It wasn’t until 1944 that the first long-term mainland bases were established, with more scientific bases, and more scientific cooperation between nations, following in the 1950s.
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What Have Archaeologists Discovered in Antarctica?
In the decades since, scientists have discovered amazing things on and below the Antarctic ice: more than 45,000 meteorites, including rocks that came from the Moon and even Mars; secret ecosystems teeming with unexpected creatures; stunningly durable plant life that can live beneath the ice with almost no light, and much more.
This includes archaeological endeavors. Entire books have been written on Antarctic archaeology, mainly in pursuit of the study and conservation of late 19th- and 20th-century artifacts from the Heroic Age. Such research includes the study and preservation of early sealing and whaling stations; huts established in support of Robert Falcon Scott’s multiple (and ultimately ill-fated) expeditions to penetrate to the center of Antarctica; the last resting place of the Endurance, the famous ship lost during the 1914-15 expedition of Sir Ernest Shackleton; and even the exploration of mid-century “ghost” stations long abandoned by earlier researchers and explorers.
With such rich recent history to examine and preserve, it seems a shame that so much online energy and excitement should be devoted to the pseudoscientific ideas and fanciful notions about supposed Antarctic civilizations — for which, to be clear, there is not a shred of proof.
Meanwhile, the recent historical record speaks volumes of the courage and intrepidity of real human heroes and scientists whose efforts and sacrifices are truly worthy of note. Let’s celebrate them, and leave spurious myths and legends to cool forever on the ice.