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The history of Antarctica emerges from early Western theories of a vast continent, known as Terra Australis, believed to exist in the far south of the globe. The term Antarctic, referring to the opposite of the Arctic Circle, was coined by Marinus of Tyre in the 2nd century AD.

The rounding of the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn in the 15th and 16th centuries proved that Terra Australis Incognita ("Unknown Southern Land"), if it existed, was a continent in its own right. In 1773 James Cook and his crew crossed the Antarctic Circle for the first time but although they discovered nearby islands, they did not catch sight of Antarctica itself. It is believed he was as close as 150 miles from the mainland.

In 1820, several expeditions claimed to have been the first to have sighted the ice shelf or the continent. The very first was the Russian expedition led by Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen and Mikhail Lazarev. The first landing was probably just over a year later when American Captain John Davis, a sealer, set foot on the ice.

The first Norwegian expedition to Antarctica was led by Captain Carl Anton Larsen aboard the barque Jason in 1892. During the expedition he was the first to discover fossils in Antarctica, for which he received the Back Grant from the Royal Geographical Society. In December 1893 he also became the first person to ski in Antarctica where the Larsen Ice Shelf was named after him. Larsen is also considered the founder of the Antarctic whaling industry and the settlement at Grytviken, South Georgia.

Once the North Pole had been reached in 1909, several expeditions attempted to reach the South Pole. Many resulted in injury and death. Norwegian Roald Amundsen finally reached the Pole on December 14, 1911, following a dramatic race with the Englishman Robert Falcon Scott.

In the Western world, belief in a Cold Land—a vast continent located in the far south of the globe to "balance" out the northern lands of Europe, Asia and North Africa—had existed for centuries. Aristotle had postulated a symmetry of the earth, which meant that there would be equally habitable lands south of the known world. The Greeks suggested that these two hemispheres, north and south, were divided by a 'belt of fire', due to the general observation that the climate got warmer and warmer the further south someone travelled, and no Europeans had gone past the equator to see that this was not the case.

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