01 First speculations

Antarctica is the only continent that, from the perspective of human thought, began as a sophisticated concept emerging from a series of deductions. In the sixth century bc Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras calculated that the earth was round, and about a century later Parmenides divided the world into five climatic zones not unlike those that we know empirically today. He postulated frigid zones at the poles, a torrid zone at the equator, and temperate zones separating these uninhabitable extremes of heat and cold. In the fourth century bc Aristotle suggested that the landmass of the northern hemisphere must be balanced by a large landmass in the south; later this became known as Terra Australis Incognita, “The Unknown South Land.” Aristotle gave it a name: at the time, the north lay under the constellation Arktos (the Bear), so he called the other end of the world Antarktikos (“opposite to the north”). Aristarchus, a third-century astronomer, was the first to expound that the earth rotated around the sun.

In 240 bc, Eratosthenes of Cyrene (now Egypt’s Aswan)—who coined the word “geographica”— calculated the earth’s circumference by  comparing shadow angles in two distant locations at the summer solstice. It was a simple, ingenious, and remarkably accurate method. The units he used were imprecise, but even so, he overstated the circumference by only about 15 percent. By ad 200 philosophers such as Pomponius Mela had postulated the existence of a cold continent at the southern pole of a globe roughly the size that we now know it to be, spinning around the sun. It was the nearest to the truth that anyone would be for 1,500 years.

Claudius Ptolemy, the influential Alexandrian geographer of the second century ad, added greatly to cartography with his refinement of grid lines of latitude and longitude to give every location fixed coordinates, northern orientation for maps, and various scales for different uses. However, his mistakes had an equally great effect. He agreed that there must be a southern land, but thought it linked the known continents and was fertile and inhabited. He also ignored the work of Eratosthenes, preferring that of the Greek astronomer Poseidonius, whose theories yielded a calculation of the earth at about 75 percent of its true size. Because of Ptolemy’s errors, Christopher Columbus expected to find Japan where he encountered America, and James Cook set out to find the riches of the supposedly fertile Great South Land.

But after Ptolemy and long before Columbus and Cook, an age of ignorance set in. In ad 391 a Christian mob destroyed the fabulous libraries of Alexandria and an era of dogma based on literal interpretation of the Bible began. Theological objections to the concept of an inhabited southern land proliferated. The Old Testament Book of Isaiah states: “It is He that sitteth upon the circle of the earth … that stretcheth out the heavens as a curtain, and spreadeth them out as a tent to dwell in.” It was an utterance that gave rise to a perception of the earth as a flat disk. The New Testament Gospel According to Saint Mark records God’s command to Christ’s disciples: “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.” The disciples did not go to the South Land—therefore it could not exist.

author: David McGonigal

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