The history of the Antarctic

Email This Page

From Antiquity to 18th Century

The existence of an Antarctic continent as a balance to the Arctic was evoked in Antiquity by Aristotle. This idea was then abandoned until Magellan rounded the tip of South America in 1520 and observed ice-covered land to the south. From that time onwards geographers envisaged a continent known as Terra Australis seemingly stretching from Tierra del Fuego to what is now Australia.

In 1773, James Cook was the first navigator to cross the Antarctic Circle (66°33’39”S). He was halted by ice in January 1774 at the record latitude of 71°10’S. He was also the first explorer to sail completely round the continent (but without knowing it).

19th Century

The Russian Bellingshausen was the first to catch sight of the continent. He named it Alexander I Land in January 1820. Then it was the American sealer John Davis who was the first to berth at the continent in February 1821.

In 1838, French navigators led by Dumont d’Urville set off to look for the magnetic South Pole. On 21 January 1840, they landed on the continent at a place Dumont d’Urville named Adélie Land, in honour of his wife.

In 1897-98, the Belgica commanded by Adrien de Gerlache, carried out the first overwintering on the ice sheet of the Antarctic Peninsula. The following year saw the Norwegian Borchgrevink install the first base on the continent, at Cap Adare (east of Adélie Land), where he accomplished the first land-based overwintering operation.

20th Century

The geographical South Pole was reached on 14 December 1911 by the Norwegian Roald Amundsen, 1 month before British explorer Robert Falcon Scott and his team got there (16 January 1912). The return journey cost the lives of Scott and his 4 companions in misfortune.

Model of Port Martin, offered to IPEV by the French polar expeditions.


In 1950, the Expéditions Polaires Françaises (EPF), founded by Paul-Emile Victor, built the Port-Martin station in Adélie Land. The buildings were destroyed by a fire in January 1952 and the French team set itself up on Petrel Island in the Geology Point Islands 5 km off the mainland, on the current site of the Dumont d’Urville station set up in January 1956.

During the International Geophysical Year of 1957, a large number of expeditions were run and 12 countries implanted 48 operational stations, mostly on the coasts but also some on the ice sheet (Russian Vostok base, American Amundsen-Scott base).

The Charcot base was constructed in 1957, 320 km from Dumont d’Urville and was definitively shut down in December 1959.


The Antarctic Treaty was signed on 1 December 1959 and came into force on 23 June 1961. It brought to a halt all territorial claims over the continent.