650. The Memory of A Woman I Never Knew

from BBC Future I noticed a special story in the article “A frozen graveyard: The sad tales of Antarctica’s deaths”. About the oldest human remains found in Antarctica.

It was a young woman – a native of Southern Chile. She got to Antarctica and died there only a few years after the first explorers had set foot on the continent.

So what happened? Who was she? How did she die?

There is a great resonance in stories about forgotten deaths, for me. In a sense we are all in risk of dying lonely and forgotten, whether in some hospital in between a few relatives’ visits or as a drunkard or beggar in a back alley somewhere.

Not dramatic stuff, like going down with a plane over the Atlantic and disappearing, just … normal ways to die. But still ways who are forgotten, largely. They are nothing special. We may even be a lone.

Maybe only a few people knew us. In life.

But still we had a life.

A whole little universe of a life.

As did this young woman.

Who collapsed on a frozen beach somewhere after having escaped the whalers who kidnapped her?

Or was abandoned? After she had … fulfilled her purpose.

Or beaten down and left unconscious and then she woke up and was all alone in the loneliest place on Earth?

Who knows …

But she was found, over 150 years later, and left for us to wonder.

About her, and all others who are forgotten. In life or death.

Here is the story.

At Livingston Island, among the South Shetlands off the Antarctic Peninsula, a human skull and femur have been lying near the shore for 175 years. They are the oldest human remains ever found in Antarctica.

The bones were discovered on the beach in the 1980s. Chilean researchers found that they belonged to a woman who died when she was about 21 years old. She was an indigenous person from southern Chile, 1,000km (620 miles) away.

Analysis of the bones suggested that she died between 1819 and 1825. The earlier end of that range would put her among the very first people to have been in Antarctica.

The question is, how did she get there? The traditional canoes of the indigenous Chileans couldn’t have supported her on such a long voyage through what can be incredibly rough seas.

Analysis of the bones suggested that she died between 1819 and 1825

“There’s no evidence for an independent Amerindian presence in the South Shetlands,” says Michael Pearson, an Antarctic heritage consultant and independent researcher. “It’s not a journey you’d make in a bark canoe.”

The original interpretation by the Chilean researchers was that she was an indigenous guide to the sealers travelling from the northern hemisphere to the Antarctic islands that had been newly discovered by William Smith in 1819. But women taking part in expeditions to the far south in those early days was virtually unheard of.

Sealers did have a close relationship with the indigenous people of southern Chile, says Melisa Salerno, an archaeologist of the Argentinean Scientific and Technical Research Council (Conicet). Sometimes they would exchange seal skins with each other. It’s not out of the question that they traded expertise and knowledge, too. But the two cultures’ interactions weren’t always friendly.

“Sometimes it was a violent situation,” says Salerno. “The sealers could just take a woman from one beach and later leave her far away on another.”

A lack of surviving logs and journals from the early ships sailing south to Antarctica makes it even more difficult to trace this woman’s history.

Her story is unique among the early human presence in Antarctica. A woman who, by all the usual accounts, shouldn’t have been there – but somehow she was. Her bones mark the start of human activity on Antarctica, and the unavoidable loss of life that comes with trying to occupy this inhospitable continent.