15 Apr 2009

Why has Antarctica been a historical "death zone" for human beings?

It may seem like a stupid question at first but it's worth investigating exactly why, out of all the continents that humans have managed to occupy in prehistoric times, Antarctica sticks out like a sore thumb as the only strictly human-free zone. So far, there is absolutely no archaeological evidence of human habitation of Antarctica before the early 20th century.[1] It's natural to simply presume that this is because of the extreme cold.

Yet it's not the cold that's at the heart of the problem of living on this continent. Inuit peoples living at the opposite pole of the earth prove that surviving in a bitterly subzero environment of snow and ice is indeed possible and that it has been possible for numerous millennia. Siberian regions north of the Arctic Circle have apparently been occupied since up to 35,000 years before present.[2] There's no want of food in Antarctica either, at least theoretically, since the ocean has always been a veritable seafood buffet for coastal cultures and if all else fails one might try taking a bite out of the penguin population. If Australian Aborigines are suspected of voyaging to Australia by boat as much as 60,000 years ago,[3] it would almost appear that there was no barrier to stop humans from arriving to the Terra Incognita at all. We also know that the very tip of South America was occupied more than 11,000 years ago.[4] So, it might stand to reason: If humans were present in southern Chile so very long ago, how could it not be possible for humans to spread to nearby Antarctica?

Thanks to the internet and modern technology, we can peruse the relevant geographical data safely in the comfort of our own homes and understand why it would be next to impossible for a prehistoric band of people to survive the trek, let alone survive the destination. First, a flimsy handmade boat would be no match for the stormy seas and currents of the circumpolar ocean. A second consideration is the lack of terrestrial "stepping-stone islands" between even the nearest points of departure (eg. the tip of Chile) and the barren, glacial coasts of Antarctica. While South America and Antarctica may appear to be "nearby" on a standard map, they are seperated by miles and miles of open waters. Tonnes of water and nothing to drink. Thus we have a perfect recipe for an effective barrier against prehistoric human occupation on the coldest continent on Earth.

[1] Alexander/Fairbridge, Encyclopedia of Environmental Science (1999), p.21 (see link): "Unlike the Arctic, the Antarctic region has no indigenous population and no record of human habitation before the early 20th century."
[2] Hoffecker, A prehistory of the north (2005), p.81 (see link): "In fact, it is now apparent that Middle Pleniglacial settlement of the East European Plain and Siberia extended as far as the Arctic Circle (66° North) and beyond."; Foley, Anthropological linguistics (1997), p.58 (see link): "'Modern' Homo sapiens appears throughout large areas of Eurasia. Indeed, the first colonization of Siberia dates from this period (35,000-30,000 years ago) (Klein 1985) and may have even extended into the Americas (Guidon and Delibrias 1986)."
[3] Schiffer, Anthropological perspectives on technology (2001), p.196 (see link): "A deep-sea trench isolated the Australasian continent and required that ancestors of the Australian Aborigines had to have practiced overwater voyaging out of sight of land in order to reach this new land, establish viable colonies there, and return to tell about it."
[4] Moreno/Gibbons, The geology of Chile (2007), p.327 (see link): "To conclude, the data point to the arrival of Homo sapiens at the southernmost tip of the Americas between 15 200 and 11 000 yr BP in the context of abrupt climate change at the Pleistocene-Holocene boundary, although there are controversial claims of even earlier human presence."


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