In the footsteps of explorers
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Since the beginning of humanity, people have been finding and exploring new lands. But have you ever imagined following the voyages by Polynesians through the tropical islands of Oceania or Amundsen and Scott's routes to the South Pole? Or the routes of Phoenician traders around the Mediterranean?
This article presents an incomplete list of some of humanity's explorers and places where you can learn about their history.
Anthropologists believe that Homo sapiens developed in the Rift Valley in Africa, and spread out from there; see Paleontology. Biblical literalists believe that humanity springs forth from the people who survived the Great Flood on Noah's Ark, which some believe landed on Mount Ararat in modern-day Turkey. Mount Ararat is the most sacred site in the world to ethnic Armenians, who regard it as the cradle of their civilization. Other cultures have other origin stories for humanity.
Out of Africa
What we know about the early human migrations from our origins in Africa into Europe and Asia is mainly through paleontology, though there are few enough fossils that some aspects of the story are unclear, and the experts fairly often differ on interpretation of what evidence there is.
The first group to reach the Middle East were Homo erectus, about 1.75 million years ago. They spread far to the east; Peking Man and Java Man are the best-known examples.
Homo heidelbergensis came about half a million years ago:
|“||the oldest definite control of fire and use of wooden spears, and it was the first early human species to routinely hunt large animals. ... the first species to build shelters, creating simple dwellings out of wood and rock.||”|
They seem to have been the last common ancestor of Neanderthals, Denisovans and modern man. The museums of Heidelberg have exhibits related to them, as do the Smithsonian, the Australian Museum and others.
Somewhat later the Neanderthals and the Denisovans, arrived. The Neanderthals first moved into the Middle East, then spread into Europe, where they became quite well established, and both groups spread across much of Asia. Like Heidelberg man, these were your stereotypic "cave man" with heavy brow ridges and a flatter skull than modern man, but with brains as large or larger. They had no metals, pottery, domesticated animals, or agriculture, but they did have fire, woven baskets, tanned leather and stone tools.
Starting around 125,000 BCE modern man, Homo sapiens, arrived via similar routes. By about 40,000 BCE the earlier species were both extinct. However, many of today's humans have some Neanderthal or Denisovan DNA.
- See also: Prehistoric Europe
It is not known exactly when or by what route the first humans reached Australia; the usual suggestion is around 60–65,000 BCE via Southeast Asia. Other experts suggest that they arrived in Australia by sea directly from Africa.
While Australia was the only continent that did not develop urban settlements before the modern era, the Aboriginal people developed a deep bond and understanding with their land over thousands of years, adapting to live in what is still one of the world's harshest climates. Today, visitors to Australia can find many sites linked to Aboriginal culture, and purchase of Aboriginal art in particular remains popular among visitors.
Linguistically and ethnically related groups, called Melanesians, migrated into areas north of Australia at about the same time. In some areas — such as New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, the Torres Strait Islands and Maluku in Indonesia — their descendants are still a majority of the population. In other regions, such as the Philippines, they are a small minority and were mostly driven into the hills as later migrants took the coastal areas.
Melanesians have more Denisovan DNA than any other modern ethnic group. This provides a fairly strong argument that they arrived via Asia, not directly from Africa.
- See also: Indigenous Australian culture
Discovering the Americas
Thousands of years before Europeans "discovered" the Americas, people had settled these two continents. Anthropologists believe that the settlement began when Paleolithic hunter-gatherers crossed the Beringia land bridge, formed because the sea level fell during the last ice age, from the North Asian Mammoth steppe into North America. The Bering Land Bridge National Preserve in Alaska and Beringia National Park in Far Eastern Russia preserve remnants of the land bridge.
According to a widely accepted theory, the groups who crossed the land bridge expanded south and spread rapidly throughout the Americas by about 14,000 years ago, and these people were the ancestors of the modern Indigenous peoples of the Americas. Many Indigenous people reject this theory and believe in traditional origin stories.
Discovering the Pacific islands
About 3000 BCE, speakers of the Austronesian languages mastered the art of long-distance canoe travel and spread south to the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia and east to the islands of Micronesia and Melanesia, with some going west instead and settling on the island of Madagascar off the eastern coast of Africa.
The exact origins of the group and their early migration routes are controversial among historians. It is generally accepted that Taiwan was involved, since both genetic and linguistic evidence show that the indigenous Taiwanese people are Austronesians. But was their original home East China's Liangzhu Culture? Or Southern China? Did they reach Malaya by sea or mainly by overland migration?
The maritime jade route had extensive trade between the Austronesian peoples of Southeast Asia from before 2000 BCE to after 500 CE.
The Polynesians branched off and occupied Polynesia to the east, taking with them their dogs, pigs, chickens and "canoe plants": taro, breadfruit, noni, bamboo, bananas, hibiscus, rice, ginger et cetera. They seem to have started from the Bismarck Archipelago, and gone east past Fiji to Samoa and Tonga about 1500 BCE. By 100 CE they were in the Marquesas Islands and 300-800 in Tahiti, Easter Island, and Hawaii, which is far to the north and distant from other islands.
Far to the southwest, New Zealand was reached about 1250.
- 1 Te Papa Museum, Wellington, New Zealand. It has an excellent exhibition on Polynesian exploration.
The Polynesians certainly had contact with the Americas by about 1100 CE, and perhaps earlier. There is DNA evidence, and the South American sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas) was a "canoe plant".
- See also: Maori culture
Exploring the Mediterranean
The Phoenicians were a maritime civilisation based in what are now Lebanon, Syria and Israel, roughly 2500-100BCE with their peak 1200-800BCE.
They developed sea routes around the entire Mediterranean with colonies or trading posts on islands such as Cyprus, Sicily and Sardinia and on the European mainland at Marseilles and Genoa. They also went into the Black Sea and the Atlantic, reaching England by sailing along the western European coast, mainly to trade for tin.
- 2 Tyre (South Lebanon). This was originally a Phoenician city. In the 4th century BCE it was besieged and taken by Alexander the Great. Later it was an important city under the Romans. Today it is Lebanon's fourth largest city, a UNESCO World Heritage Site known for well-preserved Roman architecture, including the largest and best-preserved example of a Roman Hippodrome, and for fine beaches.
- 3 Sidon. Another important Phoenician port, possibly the oldest. Mentioned by Homer, and in the Bible as Jezebel's home town. Today it is Lebanon's third largest city, and the main tourist attraction is a crusader castle.
- 4 Byblos (35km north of Beirut). Another ancient port city with a crusader castle, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is one of the world's oldest cities, continuously inhabited since at least 5000 BCE.
- 5 Malta. This archipelago was a Phoenician colony.
- 6 Cádiz, Spain. Said to be the oldest city in western Europe, it was founded by Phoenician sailors about 3,000 years ago. The Museum of Cádiz has a collection of Phoenician artefacts.
- 7 Carthage (near modern Tunis, Tunisia). Originally a Phoenician colony, this city became the capital of a small empire and fought several wars against the Roman Empire. The Romans destroyed it and later rebuilt it; most of today's remains are Roman, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
See Ferries in the Mediterranean for ways to travel some of these routes today.
Exploring the North Atlantic
- Main article: Vikings and the Old Norse
The Vikings, a Norse people from southern Scandinavia, explored westwards to Iceland, Greenland, and Vinland (now Newfoundland) around 1000 CE.
- 8 L'Anse aux Meadows (near the northern tip of Newfoundland). The only confirmed Viking site in North America.
A few Viking artifacts have been found some distance south along the American coast and inland along the St. Lawrence and Great Lakes waterways. It is not clear whether these were brought by visiting Vikings or by trade among the indigenous tribes.
From the late 8th to late 11th centuries, the Vikings raided and traded across wide areas of Europe, founding 1 Kievan Rus and raiding as far as the Mediterranean.
European exploration of the East
Marco Polo was a Venetian traveller who went far to the East, following some of the many branches of the Silk Road. He left in 1271 and returned about 1295. His book about his travels was a best-seller then and is still well-known 700 years later. He travelled extensively through Turkey, central Asia, Tibet, China, Southeast Asia, and the Indian sub-continent. There were - both in his time and in the modern era - doubts on the veracity of his accounts, but his descriptions of incredible riches in the east were among the motivating factors for later European conquerors and explorers.
Ibn Battuta was a Moroccan traveler who made the Hajj pilgrimage and went further east. He covered much of the same ground as Polo about half a century later and, like Polo, wrote a book about it.
Exploring the Indian Ocean
- Main article: Voyages of Zheng He
Zheng He was a Chinese mariner, explorer, diplomat, and fleet admiral during the early Ming dynasty. His fleets sailed to Southeast Asia, the Indian Subcontinent, Western Asia, and East Africa from 1405 to 1433. His larger ships carried hundreds of sailors on four decks and were almost twice as long as any other wooden ship ever recorded.
The Age of Discovery
- Main article: Age of Discovery
The period from the 15th century to the late 18th, when Europeans set sail to discover and explore other lands, also marked the beginning of European colonialism and mercantilism, as well as the beginning of globalization. It is commonly known as the Age of Discovery, or the Age of Exploration. The Age of Discovery is generally considered to end with the late 18th-century explorations of the Pacific by Tasman, Cook, Vancouver and Flinders.
While the European explorers did discover many uninhabited islands, for the most part they were exploring lands that had been discovered and settled by other people thousands of years before. The widely-used term "Age of Discovery" reflects the Eurocentric view of the world that existed at the time.
Today The Ocean Race is a prestigious event; participants circumnavigate the globe in a sailboat, eastwards around both the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn.
- See also: Cape Route, Voyages of Columbus, Magellan-Elcano circumnavigation, Voyages of James Cook, Voyages of George Vancouver, Voyages of Matthew Flinders
The Chinese civilization started around the Yellow River basin, and its first historically confirmed dynasty, the Shang Dynasty (c. 1700-1027 BCE) only ruled that area. It would then expand southward into the Yangtze River basin during the Zhou Dynasty (c. 1027-256 BCE), before expanding further southward into what is today Fujian and Guangdong, as well as parts of what is today Northern Vietnam during the Qin (221-206 BCE) and Han (206 BCE-220 CE) dynasties. The Han Dynasty also expanded westward into what is today Xinjiang during the reign of Emperor Wu (reigned 165-87 BCE), ushering the beginning of the Silk Road. Although the Chinese would lose control of Xinjiang after the fall of the Han Dynasty, it would return to Chinese control during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) under the reign of Emperor Taizong (reigned 626-649); this led to the revival and expansion of the Silk Road.
During the Tang Dynasty the Chinese Buddhist monk Xuanzang made a pilgrimage to India to collect Buddhist scriptures. This journey was greatly romanticised in the Ming Dynasty novel Journey to the West, with numerous mythological elements thrown in. In modern times, the novel has been adapted into numerous popular television shows. Most of the sites Xuanzang visited on his journey are in modern-day India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, including Bamiyan and the Buddhist learning centres of Taxila and Nalanda. After returning to China, Xuanzang dedicated the rest of his life to translating the Buddhist scriptures he had brought back with him from Sanskrit to Chinese.
Today, cities along the Silk Road are major tourist sites in China, including the Longmen Grottoes. The city of Kashgar in Xinjiang was also along the old Silk Road; today, it is an Uyghur-majority city with a distinctly Central Asian character, known for its production of Uyghur carpets, and considered by most people to be the main centre of Uyghur culture.
- See also: Imperial China, Silk Road
North American fur traders
The first Europeans to explore much of western Canada and the western US were the voyageurs, French-speaking fur traders working out of Montreal starting in the 16th century. By the 17th century they had English-speaking competitors, mainly Scots working for the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC). There were also Dutch and later American traders, mostly working out of New York, and later other traders working from the Pacific coast.
There are traces of this exploration in place names all over the continent; see voyageurs for some of the French ones. Several Canadian rivers, such as the Mackenzie, the Fraser and the Thompson, are named for HBC explorers and some modern towns such as Edmonton developed from HBC trading posts.
In 1870 the HBC's territory, known as Rupert's Land, was turned over to the British Crown and then to the Canadian government. Parts of it became the three prairie provinces — Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta.
Today the Hudson's Bay Company is a major department store chain in Canada and has some stores in the US. Items that recall the fur trade days, like parkas or their brightly-striped blankets, are popular with foreign visitors as distinctly Canadian souvenirs.
Henry Hudson was an Englishman who led several expeditions under the British flag seeking the Northwest Passage. He also explored areas further south for the Dutch East India Company, leading to that company founding "New Amsterdam" which later became New York City. Both Hudson's Bay and the Hudson River are named after him.
American westward expansion
- Main article: Old West
Once the various colonial powers established bases on the east coasts of the two American continents, they all sent out explorers who went further west. Wikivoyage covers some of this in an article on the North American Old West.
- Lewis and Clark. This expedition explored much of the American West, following the Missouri River before traveling across the Rocky Mountains to the Columbia River and ultimately 9 Fort Clatsop where the Columbia reaches the Pacific Ocean.
Their journey (1804-1806) marked the beginning of the pioneer era of American exploration and settlement in the Indigenous lands of the western U.S., but is also known for its in-depth study and drawings of the plant and animal life of the region that the expedition explored.
- Oregon Trail. This was a major route for settlers of the American Northwest.
- 2 Santa Fe Trail. This was a major route for settlers of the American Southwest.
- Main article: Russian Empire
The Grand Duchy of Moscow, which later became the Tsardom of Russia, became independent of the Golden Horde (a remnant of the Mongol Empire) in 1480 and began expanding, at first mainly by annexing neighbouring states. Then, starting in the late 1500s, they explored Siberia and colonized much of it.
Starting about 1785 they also expanded into the Caucasus and Central Asia; in the 18th and 19th centuries they fought wars against the Persian and Ottoman Empires, the latter over the Crimea. The Great Game was an intense 19th century geopolitical competition between the Russian Empire and the British Empire for influence in Central Asia and Afghanistan.
The area around Vladivostok was ceded to Russia by China's Qing Dynasty in 1858, and Vladivostok became the first Russian naval base on the Pacific; today it is still a major naval base, but also the most important city of its region and a tourist destination. Russia also had large influence in Manchuria, and a naval base at Port Arthur (now Dalian), until their defeat in the 1905 Russo-Japanese War.
Russia also did some maritime exploration and from the 1740s to 1867 had an overseas colony in Alaska.
The polar regions were explored mainly in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
In the North, a major objective was to find the Northwest Passage, a sea route from Europe to the Orient that would be shorter than then-known routes. The search began with John Davis in the 1580s but no-one made it all the way through until Amundsen in 1906.
The southern voyages of Scott, Shackleton and Amundsen are often called the "Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration".
Sir John Franklin
- Main article: Voyages of John Franklin
Franklin (1786-1847) was a British Royal Navy officer and explorer of Arctic North America. He led three expeditions between 1819 and 1845, disappearing on his last, an attempt to chart and navigate the Northwest Passage on Erebus and Terror. A long search for him, prompted by his wife and the Admiralty's offer of a finder's reward, led to the precise mapping of North American waters. The wrecks were located in the 2010s.
Robert Edwin Peary
Peary was an American explorer and United States Navy officer who made several expeditions to the Arctic in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He is best known for claiming to have reached the geographic North Pole with his expedition in 1909.
- 10 The Peary–MacMillan Arctic Museum, Brunswick, Maine, USA. Artifacts include Peary's expedition equipment, anthropological objects, Inuit art, films, archival papers, publications, and natural history specimens.
- 11 Fort Conger, Lady Franklin Bay (about 100 km south of Alert, Nunavut). In the period 1880–1884, the US Army Signal Corps chose this site for a base camp to make an attempt to reach the North Pole. A party of 25 military men, led by First Lieutenant Adolphus W. Greely as acting signal officer, was successfully landed by the USS Proteus in August 1881. A large frame structure was built on the northwest shore. This home base camp, named Fort Conger, was later occupied by Robert Peary during some of his Arctic expeditions. In 1991, some of the structures at Fort Conger were designated as Classified Federal Heritage Buildings.
Robert Falcon Scott
Scott was a British Royal Navy officer and explorer who led two expeditions to the Antarctic regions in 1901–1904 and 1910–1913. On the first expedition, he set a new southern record by marching to latitude 82°S and discovered the Antarctic Plateau, on which the South Pole is located.
On the second venture, Scott followed a better route which Shackleton had discovered and, unlike Shackleton who turned back when he thought continuing would be too risky, made it all the way to the pole. Scott led a party of five, which reached the South Pole less than five weeks after Amundsen's South Pole expedition; they all died on the return trip.
- 12 Scott Polar Research Institute Museum, Cambridge, UK. The exhibition on the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration includes the last letters of Scott, and a folding camera used by Scott at the South Pole.
- 13 National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, UK. Its collections hold objects from Scott's final and tragic Antarctic expedition, including his overshoes, sledging goggles, book bag, and the theodolite he used navigating through unfamiliar Antarctic landscapes.
Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton
Shackleton was an Irishman, second-in-command to Scott in 1901-1904. He went on to lead three British expeditions of his own to the Antarctic (Nimrod expedition 1907–1909, Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition 1914–1917, Shackleton–Rowett Expedition 1921). Although he did not reach the pole he discovered the route Scott later used to do so, and he never lost a man under his command.
In 1921, he died of a heart attack while his ship was still moored in South Georgia; at his wife's request, he was buried there.
- 14 Norwegian Anglican Church (Whalers Church), Grytviken, South Georgia. Site of Ernest Shackleton's grave.
- Main article: Voyages of Roald Amundsen
Amundsen was a Norwegian explorer of polar regions. He led the first expedition to traverse the Northwest Passage by sea, from 1903 to 1906. He also led the first expedition to reach the South Pole in 1911. Amundsen led the first expedition proven to have reached the North Pole in a dirigible in 1926, and disappeared while taking part in a rescue mission for the airship Italia in 1928.
Mountaineering on well-travelled routes is mainly a recreation, but some mountaineers go to places no-one has been before and can be counted as explorers.
The Explorers Grand Slam is said to have been completed when someone completes expeditions to both poles, and successfully scales the Seven Summits, the highest mountains on each continent.
Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay
- Main article: Mount Everest
Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were New Zealander and Nepali Sherpa mountaineers respectively, and became the first humans to reach the summit of Mount Everest, the highest point in the world, on the Himalayan border between Nepal and China, in 1953. Today, the Everest Base Camp Trek is quite popular with visitors to Nepal; it gives superb views of the mountain and is reasonably safe though perhaps too strenuous for some.
Actually climbing Everest is considerably more difficult and dangerous, not to be considered except by expert mountaineers with good guides and equipment. The terrain, weather and altitude sickness kill climbers rather often; there are about 200 corpses on the mountain.
Mountaineers can climb Mount Everest from either the Nepali or Chinese side, though permits are required in either case. As the Chinese face of the mountain (to the north, considered harder by climbers) is actually in Tibet, you will need to arrange for a Tibet Entry Permit just to get near it. Norgay and Hillary ascended the Nepali face (to the south, easier), regarded as safer, as do the vast majority of mountaineers, but there are also unique views to be had on the Chinese side.
All the explorers mentioned were brave men and the journeys they undertook were quite dangerous at the time. One historian has claimed that making Magellan's round-the-world trip with 16th-century technology was riskier than going to the moon with 20th-century technology.
Some of these are far safer today. For example, the battlefield where Magellan was killed is now within a few km of both a major airport and several luxury hotels; people routinely follow the Lewis and Clark Trail by car; and cruise ships now run along parts of Cook and Vancouver's routes along the Canadian and Alaskan coast.
Others remain extremely dangerous; some are nearly suicidal if attempted without adequate planning, skills and equipment, and risky even with those. Examples include climbing Everest, travelling in Antarctica, and sailing south of South America — via either the Straits of Magellan or the Drake Passage — even in a modern boat.