Century-old milk powder found at Ernest Shackleton's Antarctica hut

The milk powder.
The milk powder. Photo credit: Antarctic Heritage Trust/RNZ

A 100-year-old sample of milk powder from Ernest Shackletons' first solo expedition to Antarctica has been analysed by scientists, but just how different is it to today's powder?

Fonterra Research and Development Centre lead investigator and principal research scientist Dr Skelte Anema told Nights it had been an exciting time for his team.

"It takes a lot to get a scientist excited but once we heard this powder existed, we were absolutely thrilled... it was the fact that it was 100 years old, it was made in New Zealand... it was made only about 20km down the road from where we are in Bunnythorpe.

"It was effectively coming back home."

Anema said the team of scientists were able to work out the milk had come from a Fresian cow, and it was either Spring or Autumn was it was milked way back in the early 1900s.

But how did New Zealand made milk powder end up with Shackelton in the first place?

"They (Shackleton and his fellow adventurers) left England in 1907 and they planned to be there for two or three years so it was a pretty long trip and they called into New Zealand on the way through."

New Zealand company Glaxo donated about 450kg of milk powder (enough for 3500 litres of milk), some butter and cheese for the expedition.

Extremely stable and relatively light, milk powder is also very versatile, Anema said.

"From the writings that Ernest Shackleton did, he really appreciated receiving this milk powder."

In the early 2000s, during the process of preserving the Antarctica huts used by the early explorers, a can of open milk powder was found.

Once Fonterra found out it existed, Anema said it started the process to get a sample from the Antarctic Heritage Trust.

"We couldn't just go and knock on the door and say can we have a cup of milk powder please... because the whole area's a conservation area... to get something out required special approval."

Ultimately, the New Zealand foreign minister had the last sign off.

The first milk powder was made in 1904, using a roller drying process.

"So we really are talking about the pioneering days of milk powder manufacture in New Zealand.

"In 1904, this first factory that made the milk powder, they actually went through quite a rollercoaster ride because their factory burnt down in 1906 and then they rebuilt it and then it got attacked by a local rival dairy farmer who threw a stick of gel ignite into their boilers and blew it up again."

New Zealand's entire dry dairy industry started at this point, he said.

How much had the milk powder changed over the years?

"When we got down to the detail, milk hasn't really changed a lot. The protein levels are much the same, the fat composition was much the same, amino acid composition was the same and so we were actually pleasantly surprised that our milk, despite all the changes in the way that we farm, hadn't changed very much at all."