Travel topics > Cultural attractions > Historical travel > In the footsteps of explorers
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. 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 Armenia. Other cultures have other origin stories for humanity.
Humans have been present for a long time in Australia, and the first humans to arrive in Australia are believed to have done so around 63,000 to 48,000 BC. While the settlement route continues to be disputed, the most popular theory is that they arrived via Southeast Asia. Another theory is 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 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.
- See also: Indigenous Australian culture
Discovering the Americas
Thousands of years before Europeans "discovered" the Americas, people had discovered and settled these two continents. Anthropologists believe that the settlement of the Americas 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.
- See the articles on Indigenous cultures of South America and Indigenous cultures of North America for more information.
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 Taiwanese aboriginal people are Austronesians. But did they come to Taiwan from East China's Liangzhu Culture? Or from Southern China, perhaps reaching Malaya and Indonesia mainly by overland migration?
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, went east past Fiji to Samoa and Tonga about 1500 BCE. By 100 CE they were in the Marquesas Islands and 300-800 CE 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 AD. The fact that the South American sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas) was a "canoe plant" implies that they may have reached the Americas or, conversely, that people from the Americas may have reached Polynesia.
- 1 Te Papa Museum, Wellington, New Zealand. It has an excellent exhibition on Polynesian exploration.
See also Maori culture.
Exploring the Mediterranean
Around 600 BCE, while the islands of the Pacific were being explored, Phoenicians developed sea routes around the entire Mediterranean and into the Atlantic, reached England by sailing along the western European coast, and possibly even sailed all the way around Africa.
- 2 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.
- 3 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.
See also Ferries in the Mediterranean.
Exploring the North Atlantic
The Vikings, a Norse people from southern Scandinavia, from the late 8th to late 11th centuries, raided and traded from their Northern European homelands across wide areas of Europe, and explored westwards to Iceland, Greenland, and Vinland (now Newfoundland). While it was long believed that they did not attempt settlement west of Greenland, L'Anse aux Meadows is now commonly identified as a Viking site in the Americas.
- See the article on Vikings and the Old Norse for more information.
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.
- See the article on On the trail of Marco Polo for more information.
- Ibn Battuta. 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
Zheng He was a Chinese mariner, explorer, diplomat, and fleet admiral during China's early Ming dynasty. He was born as Ma He in a Muslim family, and later adopted the surname Zheng conferred by Emperor Yongle. Zheng He commanded expeditionary treasure voyages to Southeast Asia, the Indian Subcontinent, Western Asia, and East Africa from 1405 to 1433. According to legend, his larger ships carried hundreds of sailors on four decks and were almost twice as long as any other wooden ship ever recorded.
- See the article on the Voyages of Zheng He for more information.
The 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.
- See the main article on the Age of Discovery for more information and Age of Discovery#Explorers for a list of explorers.
- See also the articles on Voyages of Columbus, Magellan-Elcano circumnavigation, the Cape Route, Voyages of James Cook and Voyages of George Vancouver
Later maritime explorers
In modern times, the most prestigious race to circumnavigate the globe in a sailboat is The Ocean Race, which requires all participants to sail around both the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn in an easterly direction.
Fabian von Bellingshausen
Bellingshausen was a Russian naval officer, cartographer and explorer of Baltic German extraction, who participated in the First Russian circumnavigation of the globe (1803-06). A great admirer of Cook's voyages, Bellingshausen was one of the officers of the vessel Nadezhda ("Hope"), commanded by Adam Johann von Krusenstern.
Bellingshausen was appointed to command the second Russian circumnavigation of the globe (1819–1821), intended to explore the Southern Ocean and to find land in the proximity of the South Pole. Mikhail Lazarev prepared the expedition and was made Bellingshausen's second-in-command and the captain of the sloop Mirny, while Bellingshausen himself commanded the sloop Vostok. During this expedition Bellingshausen and Lazarev became the first explorers to see the land of Antarctica, on 27 January 1820. They circumnavigated the continent twice and never lost each other from view. Thus they disproved Captain Cook's assertion that it was impossible to find land in the southern icefields.
Returning to Kronstadt, the naval base at the approaches of St Petersburg, on 4 August 1821, Bellingshausen was made counter admiral. He fought in the Russo-Turkish War of 1828–1829 and attained the rank of vice admiral in 1830. In 1831 he published his book on his Antarctic travel, and in 1839 became the military governor of Kronstadt, where he died in 25 January 1852, and was buried with full military honors.
- 4 Kunstkamera, St. Petersburg, Russia. It houses collections of artifacts from Russian circumnavigations of the world, including Bellingshausen's.
- 5 Statue of Bellingshausen, Sovetskaya ulitsa, Ekaterinskii Park, Kronstadt.
- 6 Kronstadt Lutheran Cemetery. Bellingshausen's tomb has a statue of him in dress uniform, erected in 1870, and is the highlight of this place.
Sir 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.
- See the Voyages of John Franklin for more information.
North American fur traders
The voyageurs were French-speaking fur traders working out of Montreal, starting in the 16th century. They were the first Europeans to explore much of western Canada and the western US. 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.
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.
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.
Lewis and Clark
The Lewis and Clark expedition explored much of the American West, following the Missouri River before traveling across the Rocky Mountains to the Columbia River and ultimately 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 in which Lewis, Clark and their expedition explored.
- The expedition eventually reached 7 Fort Clatsop where the Columbia River reaches the Pacific Ocean.
- See Lewis and Clark Trail for more information.
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.
- 8 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.
- 9 Fort Conger, Lady Franklin Bay (about 100 km south of Alert, Nunavut). In the period 1880–1884, the US Army Signal Corps chose and specified that 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 led a party of five which reached the South Pole less than five weeks after Amundsen's South Pole expedition. Scott and the rest of the party died on the return trip.
- 10 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.
- 11 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
Robert Scott's Irish second-in-command in 1901-1904 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 these expeditions did not really accomplish their goals, they also 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.
- 12 Norwegian Anglican Church (Whalers Church), Grytviken, South Georgia. Site of Ernest Shackleton's grave.
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 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.
Amundsen and his contemporaries are often called the prime examples of the "Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration".
- See the article Voyages of Roald Amundsen for more information.
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.
- See also: Seven Summits
Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay
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. Mountaineers can climb Mount Everest from either the Nepali or Chinese side, though permits are required in order to do so. 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 in order to climb 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: 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, Cruise ships now run along much of Cook and Vancouver's routes along the Canadian and Alaskan coast, and so on.
Others remain extremely dangerous; some are nearly suicidal if attempted without adequate training and equipment, and risky even with those. Examples include climbing Everest (which has about 200 corpses), travelling in Antarctica and going through the Straits of Magellan, even in a modern boat.