Antarctica today is covered permanently by thick layers of ice, making it extremely inhospitable to humans. And, unlike the Arctic regions, it had no indigenous population of humans when modern man arrived there. (Presumably because unlike the Arctic regions, getting to Antarctica involves a danger-fraught journey over the open ocean, and once you're there, it's just as hard to get back.) See: Antarctica has no indigenous population

What do we know about possible ancient (or at least not modern) human settlement in Antarctica - perhaps during pockets of time when there was less ice, or people somehow settling in the ice - human extremophiles, as it were? Or, to expand the possibilities somewhat, settlement by some of the pre-human hominids in very ancient times, when there was perhaps less ice? Are there myths and legends suggesting such a possibility? Any archaeological finds that might indicate such a thing? Maybe at least along the coastlines which are not continually buried in ice? Do those exploring Antarctica today concern themselves at all with such a possibility?

We do know that there were periods in Earth's history when Antarctica was not covered by ice and would have been quite habitable, (see Lennart Regebro's citation: A forest grows in Antarctica) so it does have some history of habitability, but that history dates at minimum to 3 million years ago based on that source, long before hominids capable of settling in Antarctica arose. So that period would not be relevant to the discussion. Also see: Antarctica was not always cold, dry and covered in ice sheets..

I have no 'conspiracy theory' agenda here - I am not suggesting, as some 'unorthodox...' (pseudo) researchers have, that there is some hidden secret civilization existing today in Antarctica that is the source of UFO's etc. That is nothing but science fiction IMO. I ask this question simply because it seems rather incredible to me, that although humans had already reached virtually every place on earth in prehistoric times, a whole continent existed that humans never reached. In recent times, we have learned so much about the scope and ingenuity of human life in ancient times and far flung corners of the earth, and so I wonder: Have we perhaps learned something about humans in Antarctica?

Can we say with a degree of certainty (i.e. barring some sudden, spectacular revolutionary discovery) that Antarctica is an entire continent untouched by humans until modern man arrived there in the early 19th century? See: The first documented landing on mainland Antarctica was by the American sealer John Davis in West Antarctica on 7 February 1821,

(I am looking for more than just additional references to the wiki page which I already read - we can all find things in wiki - my hope is that on this site we can delve deeper and further. IMO wiki should not have the final word in all our historical inquiries.)

  • I think I already asked something similar.
    – Anixx
    Commented Aug 17, 2013 at 9:44
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    @Anixx: pls provide the link for your similar question to this one.
    – fortytwo
    Commented Aug 17, 2013 at 9:51
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    It's amazing to consider, but it seems that we might know more about the Moon and Mars than we do about Antarctica.
    – user2590
    Commented Aug 17, 2013 at 9:52
  • somthing similar - history.stackexchange.com/questions/7393/…
    – fortytwo
    Commented Aug 21, 2013 at 7:18

5 Answers 5


We can be fairly certain that humans did not live on Antarctica, the continent, before the 20th century.

Since about 15 Ma, the continent has been mostly covered with ice.

Ref: Trewby, Mary, ed. Antarctica: An Encyclopedia from Abbott Ice Shelf to Zooplankton. Firefly Books. ISBN 1-55297-590-8.

Intermittent warm periods allowed Nothofagus shrubs to cling to the Sirius group in the Dominion Range as late as 3-4 Ma. After that the Pleistocene ice-age covered the whole continent and destroyed all major plant life on it.

Ref: Stefi Weisburd, "A forest grows in Antarctica". Science News.

Since the earliest member of the Genus Homo is younger than that (c:a 2.3Ma) Humans can not have been living there at that point. So earlier hotter periods are not a possibility for human settlements.

Humans also got the technology for reliable oceanic travel at the earliest around two thousand years ago, so a prehistoric settlement would not have been possible, and a settlement in the last thousand or so years would likely have been accompanied by legends, like the Norse settlements in Greenland.

Also, the cultures that colonized Greenland had a much less extreme climate to deal with than the antarctic climate, and perhaps more importantly, they could develop the technology for that gradually, while moving further north. A culture that settled Antarctica would have to go from at worst a climate where winters average around freezing, to a climate where winters average -10C to -30C. This a gradual development of tools to survive in that climate would not have been possible, which means settlements would not have been possible.

It is possible that it would have been reached by sailors in prehistory, but making a viable settlement in Antarctica is highly unlikely because of the forbidding climate.

As such we can be fairly certain that the first human to set foot on Antarctica did this in the 19th century, although exactly who it was is disputed.

  • I accept this answer, though I disagree with some of its contentions: Even if Heyerdahl was right, difficulties getting to Antarctica would have been insurmountable-the brutal weather and ice would have been impenetrable barriers. Even today, getting there by sea is not simple. Only the airplane has opened that continent to us-still only to a limited extent. But in spite of your point re gradual adaptation, I would not rule out entirely the possibility of some sort of settlement after they had learned to adapt somewhere else, or some window of luck allowed them to tough it out for a while.
    – user2590
    Commented Aug 18, 2013 at 15:28
  • The comments are out of order because I consolidated them.
    – user2590
    Commented Aug 18, 2013 at 15:29
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    Of course, there is the claim that the Chinese went there in the 15th century (by Gavin Menzies). But his works are deemed of non-historical studies quality (which is certainly true). en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gavin_Menzies. As said elsewhere, it is doubtful that a journey (coming back) reached such a place before the 18th century (the KonTiki experiment showed long journeys were possible with primitive maritime technology, but not in such dire conditions). Accidental landings in the 18th century by lost boats might have existed, but they left no written traces. Commented Aug 22, 2013 at 14:08
  • @Jean-ChristopheDubacq: Yeah, Menzies is simply making things up and then putting a reference on it that doesn't support the claim. His books are, at best, fiction. Commented Aug 22, 2013 at 15:03

For reference, here is the official classification from Wikipedia of the conditions necessary for a "pleasant" Antarctic day:

Condition 3
Windspeed below 48 knots (55 miles per hour)
Visibility greater than 1/4 of a mile (402 meters)
Wind chill above −75 °F (−60 °C)
Description: Pleasant conditions; all outside travel is permitted.

Condition 3 is apparently the best forecast they give for most Antarctic stations, partly because of the great speed in which conditions can change. Note particularly the temperature requirement. Northern Quebec and Alberta never approached those temperatures in the 6 years I lived there.

Even with all our modern technology, it is difficult to maintain an Antarctic station through the long winter.

The notion that a pre0historic settlement could have somehow transported sufficient fuel from (not Patagonia as it doesn't have trees; The Falklands maybe, or the Cape, or Tasmania) in order to survive even one winter I find absurd. Only our technology provides us with the luxury, and means, for such research.

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    That's the south pole though, so it's the most extreme. But yes, the antarctic has a much more extreme climate than Greenland. @Vector Inuits could adapt to that climate gradually, which you can't do with Antarctica. Commented Aug 18, 2013 at 8:10
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    @Vector: I truly believe you have no concept of the conditions. 1) If you sweat, you are dead. No if's and's or second chances, because you will lose all your body heat in minutes. The moisture of your sweat fills the air gaps in your clothing, destroys its insulating effect, and then freezes next to your skin.2) The caloric requirements to keep your body warm are 2-3 times that of a temperate climate (6000+ calories a day, up to 11,000 in some instances).: bbc.co.uk/news/health-17371543. Commented Aug 18, 2013 at 15:19
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    @Vector: Note that the reporter gets one detail wrong in that story: it's not the sledge-hauling that burns up the extra calories, but the cold. Since one cannot sweat, one cannot exert oneself. It is imperative to NOT SWEAT, so all actions must be performed at a very measured pace. None-the less, the body defends itself from the cold by, conceptually (Not literally, because the mechanics are a bit different), going into a type of permanent shiver. Commented Aug 18, 2013 at 15:23
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    @Vector: Thermodynamics is life. Do you know the Gambler's version of the three Laws of Thermodynamics: (1) You cannot win. (Conservation of Energy) (2) You cannot tie. (Entropy always increases) (3) You must play the game. (No heat-sinks at absolute zero). Learn them like that and you will always remember which is which. Commented Aug 18, 2013 at 15:43
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    To chip in a biological perspective: Humans evolved to have one of the most effective cooling mechanisms of any mammal; something we forget in our air-conditioned lives. Put us in any desert with a big brain to find water and catch things and we can thrive. A sub-zero climate though... we do better than a cold blooded animal but we still need an energy source. Not a lot of trees or sea cows in Antarctica. Commented Oct 19, 2013 at 5:06

In addition to the other answers I would add that Antarctica is well protected by the Westerlies, a zone of westerly winds surrounding it from 30-60° S. These bands are named "Roaring Forties", "Howling Fifties" and "Screaming Sixties", try to guess why. Apart from mostly bad weather with regular storms of hurricane force and freak waves you must cross the oceans with continously decreasing temperatures and fields of pack ice. The only land near this regions is Patagonia in South America which is also quite inhospitable.

Under these circumstances it may be not so surprising that Antarctica was untouched until the l9th century.


Patagonians reached the Falklands and Maoris settled Sub-Antartic Islands thus in one sense humans did reach the periphery of Antartica.

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    I'm not sure about the Falklands being 'ant-arctic'... Is there a source that they are considered so?
    – CGCampbell
    Commented Jul 11, 2015 at 13:26
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    @CGCampbell The Falklands are not considered sub - Antarctic. South Georgia might be, but that wasn't reached until a lot later. Commented Aug 8, 2015 at 21:55
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    "There are remains of a Polynesian settlement dating back to the 13th century on Enderby Island in the Auckland Islands.[4][5][6][7] According to ancient legends, around the year 650 the Polynesian traveler Ui-te-Rangiora led a fleet of Waka Tīwai south until they reached "a place of bitter cold where rock-like structures rose from a solid sea".[8] A shard of undated, unidentified pottery, reported as found in 1886 in the Antipodes Islands, has been associated with this expedition.[9]" Commented Mar 9, 2017 at 10:28
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    @RayKerkhove could you provide a reference to the quotation in your comment and add that reference to your answer?
    – user100487
    Commented Jan 1, 2018 at 0:33

If Antarctica had no ice 1.5 million years ago or 500,000 years ago, perhaps there were humans on Antarctica then. NASA Imaging over Antarctica has a story to tell. Read it dudes. Maybe humans migrated north to South America and later into N America, from Antarctica before they froze to death at onset of Antarctic glaciation. There was also migrations going on over Beringia, as enough evidence for that these days. Oh, a fossil swimming reptile has been found recently in of all places ,,Antarctica. Was there some evolution going on down at South Pole before Ice Ages set in there

  • Speculating that people could survive there is one thing. How did you imagine humans getting to Antarctica in the first place?
    – Semaphore
    Commented Dec 29, 2017 at 7:32
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    Sources would improve this answer; this is merely speculation without evidence.
    – MCW
    Commented Dec 29, 2017 at 10:59
  • Current thinking is that the human species has only existed for around 200,000 years. More importantly, the oldest known boat is around 10,000 years old, and it was a dugout canoe that obviously couldn't have gotten anywhere near Antarctica.
    – user15620
    Commented Dec 29, 2017 at 16:23