What’s the History of Humans in the Antarctic?

Antarctica is the most inhospitable continent, and since its discovery, it has been challenging the limits of human survivability.

Apr 23, 2024By Greg Beyer, BA History & Linguistics, Journalism Diploma

history human antarctic


Covered in ice and snow with sub-zero temperatures and icy blizzards, setting foot on Antarctica is a daunting task. It has claimed the lives of countless brave explorers and challenged the limits of those courageous enough to endure its hazards.


Yet the icy continent holds many secrets that keep human beings fascinated. This drive to conquer and understand the unknown has led people there to the vast, icy wastes that form the continent.


From ancient times to the present day, this is the history of humans and their interaction with this dangerous but beautiful and intriguing place.


Old Ideas and Legends

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Map of Antarctica. Source: Library of Congress


Long before human eyes had ever set sight on Antarctica, it was theorized to exist. Aristotle surmised that since there was a North Pole covered in ice, there must be a South Pole also covered in ice. The idea of a terra australis or “southern continent” was widespread among the Romans, who gave a thought to geography.

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Contrary to popular belief, the idea that the world was discovered to be a sphere was not the result of Columbus’ journey westwards. The Greeks held the belief that the world was round as early as the fifth century BCE. In the third century BCE, Eratosthenes accurately worked out the circumference of the Earth and even its 15-degree axial tilt!


In the oral tradition of the Māori people of New Zealand, the Antarctic Ocean is mentioned; however, later historians dispute the origin of this legend, stating that it was an embellishment inspired by European journeys to the south. Scholars from the Ngāi Tahu (a Māori tribe on New Zealand’s South Island) agree that it is highly unlikely the Māori people, or any Polynesian peoples, sailed that far south. Nevertheless, research into the possibility continues.



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Captain James Cook by Nathaniel Dance, 1776. Source: Royal Museums Greenwich


It wasn’t until the 15th century that Europeans started encountering hard evidence for a great frozen land mass at the southern pole. When Bartolomeu Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1487 and encountered the chilly winds coming from the south, he proved there was an ocean between Africa and whatever land lay to the south.


In 1520, Ferdinand Magellan passed through the Straits of Magellan, disproving the theory that South America was connected to any landmass to the south. More than a century later, in 1642, Dutch explorer Abel Tasman sailed around the southern coast of Australia, proving once more that there was no land bridge to the South Pole via that geographical location either. What lay to the south was unknown, but whatever was there, it was not connected by land to anywhere else.


Various discoveries of islands were subsequently made around the Antarctic Convergence, a geographic boundary determined by where currents meet. In 1773, the Antarctic Circle was crossed for the first time by an expedition led by Captain James Cook. Whatever lay to the south, Cook concluded, would have been completely uninhabitable and of no use.


In January 1820, a Russian expedition led by Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen and Mikhail Lazarev was the first to set sight upon the Antarctic mainland. They spotted the Fimbul Ice Shelf directly south of Tristan da Cunha. Just over a day after this event, an Irish sailor who was an officer in the British Navy, Edward Bransfield, spotted Trinity Peninsula, which is the northernmost point of Antarctica, 550 miles away from Cape Horn.


Terra Firma

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The Dundee Whaling Expedition by William Gordon Burn-Murdoch. Source: Dundee Art Galleries and Museums Collection


The first person who claimed to have set foot on the Antarctic mainland was an American sealer named John Davis. He claimed to have done so on February 7, 1821. This, however, is the source of much scrutiny, and most historians in the field have dismissed it as false.


Following an expedition by the British Explorer James Clark Ross, who set out to find the South Magnetic Pole (which he did successfully find), interest in the continent waned significantly. Though he did not set foot there, he did suggest that there was absolutely nothing worth discovering further south.


Nevertheless, sealers continued to ply their trade. The first documented human foot (or boot) to touch Antarctic land was another American sealer, Mercator Hooper, who did so on January 26, 1853.


At the end of the 19th century, interest in the frozen continent would be renewed in what became known as the “heroic age” of Antarctic exploration. It started with the Dundee Whaling Expedition, which went south instead of the usual Arctic route. The Blue whales they encountered were too powerful to be caught, but the expedition was not a complete failure. They had taken a naturalist and an artist along with them. The specimens and sketches they brought back invigorated public interest in Antarctica once again.


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Aurora Glacier and Mount Erebus in Antarctica. Source: Creative Commons / Martyn Unsworth / imaggeo


Following a call for scientific expeditions around the world to be formed, the Belgians set sail first in 1897. Their ship spent over a year trapped in the Antarctic ice, and many of the explorers went insane. The first mate on this expedition was none other than Roald Amundsen, who would play a huge part later in the exploration of the continent.


Meanwhile, the British sent an expedition of their own. Departing in 1898, the Southern Cross Expedition made use of sleds and dogs in their efforts to explore.


A few years later, in 1901, Robert Falcon Scott led the Discovery Expedition, which mapped out vast areas of the continent. This expedition lasted three years, and they pushed further towards the South Pole than ever before, turning back after coming within 410 miles of it.


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The Discovery Expedition. February 3, 1903. Source: Royal Museums Greenwich


By this time, other nations had also sent forth expeditions to map the unknown regions of Antarctica. Germany, Sweden, and France made significant headway in Antarctic discovery at this time.


In 1907, the second British Antarctic Expedition led by Ernest Shackleton set sail. In January 1909, Shackleton and his team came within 97 miles of the South Pole but realized they would probably die from exposure and exhaustion if they went any further. Their return journey almost cost them their lives.


Explorers Amundsen and Scott

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Roald Amundsen. Source: Public Domain / Wikipedia


In 1910, the race to the South Pole was on. Roald Amundsen led the Norwegian expedition, while Robert Scott led the British one. Amundsen had originally not intended to attempt for the South Pole and informed his crew only after they set sail. While stopping in Melbourne, Scott discovered Amundsen’s intentions via a telegram and realized he was in a race.


The going was tough, and when Scott finally reached the South Pole on January 18, 1912, he was dismayed to find Amundsen had arrived first.


On December 15, 1911, Roald Amundsen was the first man to reach the South Pole.


The journey back for Scott and his team met with severe storms and misfortune. They perished mere miles away from safety and entered the British conscience as heroes who are remembered to this day for their intrepid attempt and sad end.


Further Expeditions

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Mountains in Antarctica. Source: Creative Commons, Wilfried Bauer / Wikipedia


The extreme danger the Antarctic posed had proven itself. This continent was utterly inhospitable. Yet the expeditions continued. In 1914, Ernest Shackleton launched an expedition to cross the Antarctic but was greeted with misfortune when his ship got crushed in pack ice. The rescue attempt took many long months to carry out, but miraculously, everyone survived. The second part of the expedition, making preparations on the other side of the continent, was not as lucky. They were stranded when their ship broke free from its frozen moorings, and the icy continent claimed another three victims before the team could be rescued.


The first flight across the Antarctic occurred in 1929. Expedition leader Richard Byrd, pilot Bernt Balchen, co-pilot Harold June, and radio operator Ashley McKinley completed their journey on November 29.


The first woman to set foot on Antarctica was Danish-Norwegian explorer Caroline Mikkelsen in 1935, although it is disputed whether she set foot on an island or on the mainland. In the case of the former, the honor would then go to Norwegian Ingrid Christensen, who did so on January 30, 1937.


Exploration and Settlement

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Book cover of Ranulph Fiennes’ Cold: Extreme Adventure at the Lowest Temperatures on Earth. Source: Simon & Schuster


During the Second World War, the British set up several bases on the Antarctic mainland as part of Operation Tabarin, an effort designed to provide safe shipping to Allied vessels in the South Atlantic and also to enforce British territorial claims over the Falklands, which were a target for Axis forces.


After the war, and with the threat gone, these bases were slowly turned over to the scientific community and became part of the British Antarctic Survey.


Attempting to do what Shackleton had failed to do over three decades earlier, the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition successfully crossed the continent in 1958. It was an international endeavor supported by many countries, including the UK, the US, New Zealand, South Africa, and Australia.


In 1959, with the Cold War in full swing, it became clear that the Antarctic had serious potential to negatively impact the course of history if it was used for military purposes. With this in mind, the Antarctic Treaty was drawn up and came into effect in 1961. All those with claims to portions of the continent signed the treaty, which forbids the use of Antarctica for military purposes. Later additions to the treaty have ensured that the Antarctic is not used for any purpose that would harm the environment and wildlife.


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South Africa’s SANAE-IV base. Source: Antarctic Infrastructure


On January 7, 1978, Emilio Marcos des Palma made history by being the first person born on Antarctica. He was immediately given Argentine citizenship as both his parents were Argentinian.


From 1992 to 1993, another first was made when English explorers Sir Ranulph Fiennes and Dr. Mike Stroud crossed the continent on foot without any external support and without the help of pre-positioned depots of supplies. By the end of their journey, they were frost-bitten and close to starvation, but they re-ignited the flame of interest in the continent as a place where the limits of human beings can be tested.


In addition to all the expeditions and discoveries, human presence is growing in Antarctica, although none of it is permanent. Today, there are over 80 bases on the continent, but the population at its peak is only around 1,200 individuals.


The Antarctic has become a haven for scientific research, free from the trappings of politics. Cooperation and mutual agreements are observed with civility despite the antagonistic nature between some countries outside of the continent. In this, the Antarctic represents a place where human beings are at their best, working side by side in their quest for knowledge and understanding.


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Germany’s Neumayer-Station. Source: Alfred Wegener Institute


Antarctica is a mysterious place. It is bleak and inhospitable and will quickly dispatch anyone foolhardy enough to take its dangers lightly. It holds secrets that we cannot imagine, and as the years go by, scientists are beginning to go beyond scratching the tip of the metaphorical (and literal) iceberg. What they discover is sure to generate much debate and will redefine our understanding of the world’s southern frontier.

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By Greg BeyerBA History & Linguistics, Journalism DiplomaGreg specializes in African History. He holds a BA in History & Linguistics and a Journalism Diploma from the University of Cape Town. A former English teacher, he now excels in academic writing and pursues his passion for art through drawing and painting in his free time.