Published On: Thu, May 14th, 2020

Antarctica: Why 200-year-old ‘remarkable’ find could ‘shape future’ for political conquest | Science | News

In 1985, Chilean biologist Dr Daniel Torres discovered human remains lying on Yamana Beach at Cape Shirreff in Antarctica’s South Shetland Islands. It belonged to an indigenous woman from southern Chile in her early 20s, thought to have died between 1819 and 1825 and is the oldest known human remains ever found in Antarctica. The discovery baffled scientists, as there are no surviving documents explaining how or why a young woman came to be in Antarctica during this era, but its find was significant.

Dr Torres detailed his finding to journalist Alex Last on the BBC’s “Witness History” podcast in February.

He said: “On the afternoon of January 7, 1985, I was doing a census of mammals and also collecting marine refuse on Cape Shirreff, Livingston Island.

“On the beach, I saw a big plastic container and an enormous plastic orange buoy.

“I went to the buoy first to collect it and as I headed along the beach, I noticed that among the very dark volcanic stones, there was one very white stone.

The discovery in Antarctica could shape its future

The discovery in Antarctica could shape its future (Image: GETTY)

The discovery was made at Cape Shirreff in Antarctica’s South Shetland Islands

The discovery was made at Cape Shirreff in Antarctica’s South Shetland Islands (Image: WIKI)

“But when I got closer, I saw that on the surface of this stone there were a series of lines that looked like a human skull.

“Obviously I stopped and went up closer, and I was able to establish that it was a human cranium, half-buried in this very thick volcanic sand, 40 metres away from the shore.

“I started very slowly separating the pebbles until I could pull out the top part of the cranium and as the upper jawbones were missing, I looked for the other remains until I found them.”

Mr Last explained how Dr Torres took the remains back to his colleagues to study them but soon discovered he had come across something huge.

He said: “That day he was on Livingston Island, one of the chains of islands just off the mainland, some 1,000km from Chile.

“Dr Torres carefully gathered up the skull and took it back to the Chilean Antarctic Institute for Study, where he and a colleague studied the remains, their findings were remarkable.

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The scientist found human remains

The scientist found human remains (Image: GETTY)

“Dr Torres thinks her story could be linked to the arrival of sailing ships from Europe and North America, which came to the region to hunt whales and seals and used their blubber to make valuable oil.”

Dr Torres detailed how his findings showed that the woman had come from Chile around 200 years ago.

He said: “From the study, we established that she was female, not a man as assumed and her skull was quite small compared to an adult – she was a young woman, 21 at most.

“She would have been short judging by the remains, like most indigenous women in the south of Chile.

“At the time she was found, the remains were about 175 years old.”

His discovery is not only significant for archaeology, though, as it could be proof that Chile made the first known landings on Antarctica.

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The find could be monumental for the future

The find could be monumental for the future (Image: GETTY)

Many countries are interested in mining Antarctica

Many countries are interested in mining Antarctica (Image: GETTY)

The Antarctic Treaty System was first signed in 1959 but, in 1998 a protocol on environmental protection was added.

It states 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 this is not set in stone forever and in 2048 – 50 years after it was signed – this part of the treaty could come under review.

That is the date when the prohibition on mining and resource extraction could be altered or done away with.

Klaus Dodds, professor of geopolitics at Royal Holloway University of London, told the BBC in 2018: “Lots of people just don’t understand that there’s a darker side to Antarctica.

“What we’re seeing is great power politics play out in a space that a lot of people think of as just frozen wastes.

“The reason 2048 looms large is 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.”

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 holds 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, but Professor Dodds says many nations are already planning ahead.

He added: “The big players, usually China and Russia, are thinking about this particular episode around 2048 and planning ahead.”

Claims made in Antarctica

Claims made in Antarctica (Image: GETTY)

“When remains or objects are found in the ice, I could see straight away it would inflate territorial nationalism,

“Archaeology has always been really important for national politics.”

Other events, such as historic shipwrecks, could play a similar role as the Yamana skull.

In 1819, the Spanish frigate San Telmo was wrecked in the Drake Passage, which separates the tip of Chile from the Antarctic Peninsula.

Archaeologists have searched the Antarctic islands for signs of whether any crew made it alive to the shore.

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