The Dark Side of Antarctica –Mystery of a 175-Year Old Skull Could Shape the Continent’s Future


“Lots of people just don’t understand that there’s a darker side to Antarctica,” says Klaus Dodds, professor of geopolitics at Royal Holloway University of London. “What we’re seeing is great power politics play out in a space that a lot of people think of as just frozen wastes.”

In 1985, a woman’s skull -the oldest known human remains ever found in Antarctica- was discovered lying on Yamana Beach at Cape Shirreff in Antarctica’s South Shetland Islands. Thought to align with the beginning of the first known landings on Antarctica, it belonged to an indigenous female from southern Chile in her early 20s, thought to have died between 1819 and 1825 at a beach camp made by sealers near remnants of her femur bone, although female sealers were unheard of at the time.

No surviving documents explaining how or why a young woman came to be in Antarctica during this era have been found. By the terms of the Antarctic Treaty System in 30 years’ time, reports the BBC, bones such as these may come into play in territorial claims for Antarctica’s pristine wilderness as nations are preparing to stake their rights as the owners of swathes of the nearly uninhabitable land.

In 1998 a protocol on environmental protection was added, stating that Antarctica is to be a “natural reserve, devoted to peace and science,” and prohibits all activities relating to Antarctic mineral resources, except as is necessary for scientific research. But, the BBC points out, “this is not set in stone forever.” In 2048 – 50 years after the protocol was created – this protocol could come under review. That is the date when the prohibition on mining and resource extraction could be altered or done away with.

2048 looms large because if certain countries feel that the prohibition on mineral exploitation is no longer to be respected, people worry that the whole thing could unravel. “Environmental protection is one of the key headlines of the treaty,” says Dodds.



Seven nations laid overlapping claims on Antarctic land when the treaty was adopted: Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway and the UK. The treaty held all these claims in place and prohibited any new ones from being established. The treaty also puts any expansions to territorial claims to Antarctica on hold – officially.

“The claimant states, in a sense, keep their claims in a box, if you like, with a lid on it. But that box will never be thrown away,” says Jill Barrett, an international law consultant and visiting reader in international law at Queen Mary University of London.

Many nations, however, are engaging in ‘doublethink’ about this part of the agreement, says Dodds. “The big players, usually China and Russia, are thinking about this particular episode around 2048 and planning ahead.”
Many countries are sending feelers out to Antarctica in a number of ways, such as financing scientific research, historical investigation, and building research bases far and wide around the continent. “It’s a very clear message to the wider world: we’re in the whole space,” says Dodds.

Archaeology is one of the most important activities, says Michael Pearson, an Antarctic heritage consultant and former deputy executive director of the Australian Heritage Commission. “It establishes an interest, if not a stake, in future discussions about territorial claims or commercial exploitation.”

While archaeological finds like the discovery of the Yamana Beach skull carry no legal weight – the woman was more likely to have been a sealer than an official – they might just challenge the known timeline of the continent’s history. If Chile can demonstrate that it had people living in Antarctica earlier than other nations staking land claims, then they have a stronger hand in negotiations.

Archaeological discoveries can also boost political support for a case back home. “When remains or objects are found in the ice, I could see straight away it would inflate territorial nationalism,” says Dodds. “Archaeology has always been really important for national politics.”

“Shipwreck remains were found there washed up on the South Shetlands,” says Pearson. “Quite possibly some of the crew survived on the floating wreckage.” If there were survivors, they would have beaten the British to be the first in Antarctica.

The Daily Galaxy via BBC Future

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