Saturday, 11 January 2014

Geographic Exploration

Geographic Exploration, process of conscious discovery by human beings of the world around them. The human species is highly mobile, migrating and traveling to every corner of the globe. In this, we are not unique. What sets human beings apart from other living creatures is our ability to discover. Many other creatures share humankind’s curiosity, but we alone can communicate our discoveries. Human societies acquire a collective awareness of their known world, and the most adventurous have the urge to discover what lies beyond and to return to describe their findings: These are the explorers.
This article deals with the exploration of Earth’s surface. For information on the exploration of regions beyond Earth, see Space Exploration.
The exploration of Earth, and now the space beyond it, has proceeded from many different sources and perspectives. Chinese, Europeans, Africans, Polynesians, and Native Americans all explored the frontiers of the regions they knew. The pace of this exploration has been uneven: extraordinarily quick in some periods, with long intervals when little has happened.
Some cultures have felt the need to explore, others appear to have deliberately turned inward. Some perhaps did explore but never recorded their findings. Some societies lacked the necessary technology, and others seem to have been so highly adapted to their environment that they remained within it. An unusual case of a “nonexploring” society was Japan. Early contact with the outside world was limited to an occasional embassy to China and trips by pilgrims to the mainland. As late as 1500 the Japanese had not yet fully explored the northern island of Hokkaidō, part of the main Japanese archipelago. The reasons for this lack of interest are not clear, but as time passed the closed attitude became formalized when Japanese people were forbidden to travel abroad, and by government edict Japanese ships were limited in size and had to be built to designs only suitable to sail close inshore.
Still other cultures made great bursts of exploration, and then abandoned the quest. In the first quarter of the 15th century, the emperor of China repeatedly sent out his courtier Zheng He to explore the world. After seven unprecedented voyages throughout the South China Sea and Indian Ocean, the Chinese administration abruptly cancelled all further trips, and the country reverted to its traditional policy of seclusion. Some societies lost the ability to explore. Many island cultures of the Pacific Ocean eventually lost the technological know-how to construct vessels capable of the transoceanic travel that originally brought their ancestors there. These peoples thus became confined to their islands.
Why explore? The driving forces for exploration are complex, and have changed in response to social and historical circumstance, as well as the advances of enabling technology.
A Migration by Land and Sea
We can only surmise that the very earliest explorations by preliterate peoples were driven by the need to tap new resources—such as hunting and fishing grounds, or pastures when the old ones became inadequate or exhausted—or in response to social pressures. Groups of people may have been forced to explore after being pushed out of their homeland by warfare or overpopulation within a region.
To these early peoples climatic change could have opened up new regions or closed off others. A severe drought in an area on the margin of a desert might cause people to move. A very cold winter might create strong enough sea ice for people to cross a hitherto unbridgeable gulf. These early motives can be characterized as primarily of necessity and, less often, of opportunity. This original exploration distributed people into different corners of the earth, separating them. It is the reverse process, when the settled and different cultures began to get in touch again, or find uninhabited lands, that is now thought of as exploration.
The furthest journeys of exploration have been by sea, as water was the easiest medium for long-distance travel and water covers most of the globe. Maritime cultures thus had an inherent advantage in having an open horizon towards the sea. The earliest known long-distance sailor-explorers are, not surprisingly, associated with the greatest body of water, the Pacific Ocean.
By 1000 bc the ancestors of the Polynesian people had reached the Pacific island of Tonga and the Samoa Islands from southeastern Asia. Their descendants then made voyages of exploration surpassing anything achieved in the West until modern times—by ad 1200 they had reached New Zealand, Hawaii, and Easter Island. One motive for the great Polynesian voyages was the need to find new land for settlement.
To set out into the Pacific required superb boats—which the Polynesians had in their double-hulled voyaging canoes—but above all it needed self-confidence in seafaring and navigation, and an outward-looking view of their environment. The Polynesians were able to postulate the existence of other islands based on observation of natural phenomena such as clouds, currents, and the migration paths of birds, and they had the confidence to launch upon the ocean.
B Faith and Chance
A similar outlook was found among two Atlantic Ocean peoples—the early Irish and the Vikings. Irish sailors of the 4th to 8th centuries, many of them Christian monks, launched into the difficult waters of the North Atlantic in very small boats, sometimes made of leather. For these Christian explorers, setting out in such fragile crafts was an act of trust in God, and they traveled in anticipation of seeing the wonders of a divinely created world. Their attitude, which might be described as fatalistic, brought them to the northern parts of Scotland, the Faroe Islands, and Iceland. Here their field of exploration overlapped with the Vikings who, using more sophisticated seagoing vessels, also had a risk-taking attitude to seafaring and exploration. Viking exploration went even farther into the Atlantic Ocean and reached North America around the end of the 10th century. They had confidence in their own seamanship and considered that successful exploration brought honor, as well as worldly wealth.
Chance has also played its part in the story of exploration. According to an Icelandic saga, a prolonged gale at sea in 986 drove Icelandic trader Bjarni Herjólfsson off his course for Greenland until he accidentally glimpsed the coast of North America, the first European to do so. The Spanish explorer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca was obliged by a catastrophic shipwreck on the Texas coast in 1528 to walk, with three other survivors, across what is now the southern United States to reach his compatriots in Spanish Mexico. Many of the “explorers” from the closed society of 19th-century Japan were shipwrecked fishermen picked up by foreign vessels, who subsequently found their way home.
C Commerce, Religion, and Myth
The commercial reason for exploration has been a consistent driving force. In 1492 the great navigator Christopher Columbus sailed west across the Atlantic Ocean seeking a new, shorter, and cheaper route to reach the riches of East Asia, and Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama circumnavigated Africa for much the same reason. Yet similar investigations of the profitable eastern trade had already been made by Arab sailors. Arab trading ships were sailing from the Arabian Sea to southeastern Asia probably as early as the 7th century, and had reached China by the 9th century. Both Columbus and da Gama acknowledged the priority of the Arabs. Columbus set out with Arabic-speaking interpreters on board, expecting this to be the trade language of Asia. On the eastern coast of Africa, da Gama hired an Arab pilot, believing the navigator’s claim that he could guide the Portuguese flotilla to the coast of India.
The religion of Islam helped to shape the Arab attitude towards travel and exploration as a normal activity. Muslims are expected to perform the hajj, or pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca, at least once in their lives. Other religions played a role in encouraging exploration, both as quest and as commitment. In the 7th century the Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang journeyed to India to find the sacred sites of Buddhism.
Another role of religion as a reason for exploration was the missionary journey. In the 13th century this motivated the Franciscan friars Giovanni de Piano Carpini and Willem van Ruysbroeck to seek an audience with Mongolian khans, while, in the 16th century, the Jesuits’ zeal for knowledge sent Matteo Ricci to China and Saint Francis Xavier to Japan.
The proselytizing urge of Christianity was epitomized by the travels of the Scottish missionary and explorer David Livingstone in Africa in the 19th century. European Christian proselytizing also took much more aggressive forms: In the medieval Crusades, Europeans warred with Muslims in an attempt to regain control of the Holy Land. Spanish conquistadors who explored the Americas in the 16th century were motivated by a combination of religious zeal, the desire for plunder, and a wish for fame, aptly summarized by the phrase “God, Gold, and Glory.”
The quest for a particular object of desire—often mythical—has also led many cultures to send out explorers. In these cases the motive lies deep within the cultural fabric of the society. In the 3rd century bc the emperor Qin Shihuangdi sent the courtier Xu Fu (Hsu Fu) with a fleet into the Pacific to find the islands where legend said the drug of immortality grew. His quest was echoed in ad 1513 by the expedition of the Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León who sailed to Florida to look for the fountain of youth. Myths could have a long lifespan: European explorers searched for the kingdom of the legendary Christian priest Prester John first in central Asia in the 13th century, later in China, and finally in Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) in the 16th century. In every case their travels increased geographical knowledge.
D Control and Conquest
The political organization of a society helped determine how it explored. A highly organized society could arrange state-sponsored exploration, pay the heavy cost, and have a need for information about countries, far and near, for reasons of state. The rulers of the huge Inca Empire of South America, which spread over 4,000 km (2,500 mi) north to south by the early 16th century, had to build up a geographical concept of their own territories for administrative reasons, and sent emissaries to contact and evaluate their neighbors. Farther north the Maya civilization in the 4th to 8th centuries established a trading network across Central America. The militaristic Aztec Empire of Mexico, which grew to dominance in the 14th and 15th centuries, likely sent scouts to prepare the way for its conquering armies. As late as the 19th century, British explorers mapped the Himalayas and Afghanistan for strategic reasons, to learn more about the frontiers of the British Empire, the better to defend them. The Lewis and Clark Expedition across the American West was performed for political and strategic reasons, as well as to find a route to the Pacific Coast.
Military conquest, once achieved, brought increased knowledge of foreign lands and created safer conditions for civilian travel. The astonishing overland campaign of Macedonian general Alexander the Great that took him to the borders of India in the 4th century bc added hugely to European knowledge of Asia. Similarly, the great Mongol Empire, which at its peak in the late 13th century was the largest land empire in history, opened up the paths along which such travelers as Marco Polo could move with comparative safety.
E Technology and Science
Since the 18th century, exploration on a global scale has received its main impetus from the advance of technology, and this in turn has meant that technologically developing societies have been at the forefront of exploration. At the same time, the improvements in ships, weapons, clothing, navigation techniques, and now rocketry and underwater techniques, have opened up previously inaccessible regions. With exploration and science inextricably linked, the motives for exploration took on new forms, sometimes cloaking older commercial or political motives.
In fact, a “scientific” approach to exploration dates back to the curiosity of classical Greek geographers such as Eratosthenes, who was interested in establishing the circumference of Earth, or the labors of early Chinese surveyors making maps of the great silt plains of northern China. The Age of Enlightenment in 18th-century Europe took this approach one step further, and might almost be called the Age of Curiosity. The theme, embodied in the work of the greatest of Enlightenment explorers, Captain James Cook, was to find new lands and examine their peoples and products, and to put them on the map for the greater increase of knowledge available to all human beings. It was politically convenient that discovery also led to territorial claims for the new-found lands and their contents. The history of cartography thus shows how great scientific achievements have had profound political, economic, and social effects.
F National Prestige and Personal Challenge
Successful exploration came increasingly to be driven by national rivalry and colonial ambition. Although this had been apparent since the Spanish-Portuguese rivalry of the late 15th century, it intensified during the 19th century when, in the so-called Scramble for Africa, the African continent was carved up into European colonies. This process was often headed by explorers who marched forward under the flag of their nation, and planted it to stake a claim.
When there was no more “new” land to discover, the sense of rivalry continued in the form of competition for prestige rather than territorial gain. Thus, in the early 20th century, British explorer Robert F. Scott raced Norwegian Roald Amundsen to the South Pole. In 1953 Britain and its Commonwealth thrilled to the news that New Zealand mountaineer Edmund Hillary had become the first person to reach the summit of Mount Everest, the highest peak in the world.
The same drive for national prestige, combined with the age-old strategic imperative, helped fuel early space flights and the race for the Moon. In the latter only the two most technologically advanced countries, the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), had the resources to compete. As the cost of space exploration continued to increase, the economically weakening USSR (and, since 1991, Russia) pursued it less and less. Meanwhile, the increasingly wealthy European Union, and to a lesser extent Japan, ventured into space. While the United States retains its dominance in space exploration, costs continue to soar, so now a pooling of international effort is seen as the only way forward in space. (For more information, See Space Exploration.)
The often colorful story of exploration has left it with a very romantic image. This image leads to continuing efforts by individuals or small teams to penetrate into truly remote places, whether on land, beneath it, or below water. Efforts to cross, climb, or descend difficult terrain by arduous methods are often called “exploration” but have more to do with surmounting physical challenges.
These efforts are heirs to a great tradition where the role of the individual has been crucial. Many of the most famous travelers and explorers created their own success, not just in the field but in the preparation of their journeys. Columbus spent years researching his ideas, and then badgered the Spanish Crown for financial support. Sir Henry Morton Stanley, the American explorer of central Africa, was a man of prodigious energy and drive who personally led small armies of porters, scouts, and scientists on huge marches through appallingly difficult equatorial jungle.
The combination of perseverance, wanderlust, and curiosity that characterized the individual throughout exploration was summed up by Ibn Battūtah, the greatest traveler of the Arab tradition. In 1325, at the age of 21, he resolved to travel “throughout the Earth” and spent the rest of his life doing so, journeying from northwest Africa to China. At his death in around 1369 he was reputed to be the most well-traveled person in the world.
From beginnings in East Africa, early human beings settled first in the warm and fertile valleys of the Nile River and Mesopotamia. Later, people moved north into the harsher climes of northern Europe and Siberia probably in search of game. The settlement of the Americas over perhaps the past 20,000 years almost certainly occurred as a result of migrations across a frozen land bridge that linked Siberia and Alaska during the last ice age (see First Americans). By 12,500 years ago people had reached southern South America and there was virtually no climatic region in the world that had not been inhabited or crossed. Over the last 4,000 years, Polynesians explored and settled throughout the Pacific Islands. These navigators reached some of the most remote islands of the Pacific and even settled on Easter Island, thousands of kilometers from the nearest land.
Explorers have often been described as those who filled in the blanks on a map (perhaps more properly the blanks in their own society’s perception, because the places they discovered were usually already inhabited). Although simple maps were produced by preliterate societies, it was 2nd-century mathematician Ptolemy who laid the foundations of mapmaking (see Map). Often called the “father of modern geography,” Ptolemy established the mathematical conventions that enabled the features of a spherical globe to be displayed as a flat map. Although his discoveries were forgotten in Europe in the following centuries, they were preserved by Islamic scholars in Arabic translations and survived to be rediscovered.
The early explorers left no written record of their discoveries that has survived. To build up a picture of their movements, scholars rely on evidence uncovered by archaeologists. Accounts exist of early journeys, but these were usually written long after the journey supposedly took place, and may be somewhat mythologized. Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs record an expedition in about 3000 bc to the land of Punt (probably the coast of present-day Eritrea or Somalia). The extraordinary circumnavigation of Africa by Phoenician explorers is only known from a single reference by the Greek historian Herodotus. Similarly, the voyage of Pytheas, who left the Greek colony at what is now Marseille, France, in about 325 bc to make the first circumnavigation of Great Britain, is only recorded by the later historian Polybius. No written records exist of the bold feats of seafaring that must have brought settlers from Indonesia westward to the African island of Madagascar more than 1,000 years ago.
During the Middle Ages Christian authorities in Europe suppressed the findings of the ancient geographers. Although European sailors and navigators continued to chart the Mediterranean and surrounding seas, it was the Chinese and Arab traders in luxury goods who made the greatest contribution to exploration at this time with their fine cartographic skills. The 13th-century Venetian traveler Marco Polo used Chinese and Arab trade routes, both overland and by sea, to visit the Mongol Empire. A century later, North African explorer Ibn Battūtah used trading boats to visit India and most places in the Indian Ocean. And in the early 15th century, Chinese diplomat Zheng He captained a series of seven voyages involving a total of 317 ships and 37,000 men that visited all the major ports of Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean. The only important European expeditions in this period were the voyages of the Vikings. Sailing from Iceland, Erik the Red settled Greenland in the late 10th century, and his son Leif Eriksson reached North America a few years later.
In Europe, the so-called Age of Exploration occurred during the Renaissance, when scholars rediscovered the works of the ancient Greek and Roman geographers. Based on the works of Ptolemy, among others, Spanish explorer Christopher Columbus came to believe that he could reach Asia in the east by sailing west. In between, he would instead find the New World: the Americas.
A Age of Exploration
In 1492 Columbus set sail for Asia but found the Americas instead, exploring several islands of the Caribbean Sea. In the following years Columbus made three more voyages, and many other Spaniards explored the Caribbean islands and mainland. Spanish navigator Ferdinand Magellan became the first European to round the tip of South America during a 1519-1522 voyage that became the first circumnavigation of the world.
Columbus established the first European settlement in the Americas, and promised to bring back great riches to the Spanish monarchy, which sponsored his voyages. In later decades Spaniards Hernán Cortés and Francisco Pizarro were lured to the Americas by the promise of gold and silver. These men became known as conquistadors because they conquered indigenous American empires in their quests for riches: Cortés destroyed the Aztec Empire of Mexico in the 1520s and Pizarro defeated the Inca Empire of Peru in the 1530s. Columbus and the later conquistadors established a Spanish presence that has had a profound impact on the Americas in the centuries since.
In this period, Spanish exploration was rivaled only by that of the Portuguese. Portuguese explorers made their way down the western coast of Africa and eventually around the Cape of Good Hope in search of a sea route to the spices of India. When the ships led by Vasco da Gama made the return journey from his second voyage to India in 1503, their cargo of pepper, ginger, cinnamon, and cloves was worth a fortune. Just as Columbus had set off for Asia and found the Caribbean instead, Portuguese navigator Pedro Álvares Cabral and his fleet of 13 ships and more than 1,000 men reached Brazil on their way to India in 1500.
B From Exploration to Exploitation
Trade soon required permanent trading posts, and these in turn led to colonial occupation. The exotic luxuries of the early explorers gave way to commodities that, to be equally profitable, required a large amount of cheap labor: sugar, cotton, cocoa, tea, and tobacco needed to be planted and harvested; gold, silver, diamonds, and emeralds needed to be mined. Thus arose the institutionalized slavery associated with European colonization. At first, European colonists in the Americas enslaved Native Americans. Later, the infamous Atlantic slave trade developed to import enslaved Africans to work American plantations. Explorers were active in all these commercial operations, often pushing beyond the colonial frontiers to find new sources of gold, silver, furs, or slaves.
C Exploration of North America
The existence of North America was established in the 1490s, but not all European explorers viewed it the same way. Some saw it as an obstacle between Europe and the Far East, to be sailed through or around. Others were more concerned with determining exactly what this previously unknown continent held within its shores.
C1 Search for the Northwest Passage
In 1497 John Cabot—an Italian navigator sailing in the service of England—reached Newfoundland, the same region visited by the Vikings more than 500 years before. Besides opening up rich new fishing grounds off the North American coast, this and subsequent voyages also provided charts of the unexplored coast. As the shape of the newly discovered New World was being charted out, Northern European powers were keenly interested in finding a navigable route—a Northwest Passage—through North America to Asia.
In the 1520s Italian-French explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano sailed up the Atlantic coast of North America, and, looking for a navigable passage, became the first European to enter what is now New York Bay. The voyages of French explorer Jacques Cartier in the 1530s established that the St. Lawrence River was a means to reach the inner regions of North America. In the 1570s, British navigator Sir Martin Frobisher looked farther north, reaching Baffin Island of northern Canada, but failing to find a passage through. In the early 17th century British navigator Henry Hudson explored the island of Manhattan and what would later be named the Hudson River. On his next voyage, he discovered the passage into what became known as Hudson Bay. Hoping that it would yield the long-sought Northwest Passage, Hudson explored the bay until his crew mutinied and set him adrift to die in the freezing waters.
C2 Spanish Inland Expeditions
In 1528 Spanish explorer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca led an expedition to explore the Gulf of Mexico coast of North America. The expedition fell apart in what is now Texas, where attacks by Native Americans killed more than half the men. The survivors, including Cabeza de Vaca himself, wandered across Texas and the Rio Grande before finding their way to Spanish Mexico. Cabeza de Vaca’s account spawned legends of the Seven Cities of Cíbola, wealthy Native American cities in the North American interior, which inspired further Spanish explorations. In the early 1540s Spanish conquistador Francisco Vásquez de Coronado reached Cíbola but found only modest Native American settlements. In the 1530s and 1540s Spaniard Hernando de Soto explored what is now the southern United States, becoming possibly the first European to sight the Mississippi River.
C3 Fur Trade and Exploration
Although Cartier had explored the St. Lawrence in the 1530s, it was not until the early 17th-century expeditions of French explorer Samuel de Champlain that the extent of the fresh-water system now called the Great Lakes, reached via the St. Lawrence, became apparent. This coincided with the rise of the fur trade, as European demand for the fur of North American mammals grew. The fur trade led European powers to establish trading posts in North America. Champlain founded Québec on the bank of the St. Lawrence in 1608. The British established the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1670 and asserted its monopoly over all fur trading in the region.
The French sought to counter British influence by sending missionaries to the area to convert the native population to Catholicism. In 1672 French missionary Jacques Marquette accompanied explorer Louis Joliet on a journey down the Mississippi River that was forced to turn back at the river’s juncture with the Arkansas River. It was left to French explorer René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle to navigate the entire length of the Mississippi in 1682. La Salle claimed the river’s basin for France, naming it Louisiana.
In the late 18th century the Hudson’s Bay Company faced competition from the newly formed North West Company, which sponsored pioneering explorations of the waterways of the vast Canadian interior. In 1789 North West Company explorer Sir Alexander Mackenzie navigated to the Arctic Ocean down what is now called the Mackenzie River. From 1792 to 1793, Mackenzie made the first overland crossing of the continent when he found a route through the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific.
C4 Lewis and Clark Expedition
In 1803 France sold the vast territory of Louisiana to the United States in what is called the Louisiana Purchase. President Thomas Jefferson sent army officers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to explore the new territory. Their remarkable overland journey to the Pacific, known as the Lewis and Clark Expedition, opened up the territory to the imagination of the young country. Over the next decades other American explorers, notably Zebulon Pike and John C. Frémont, further explored the far western United States.
C5 Finding the Northwest Passage
In the early 19th century the British resumed the search for the long-sought Northwest Passage to Asia through the islands of northern Canada. In 1845 the British Royal Navy mounted a lavish expedition under the command of Sir John Franklin. His large expedition vanished, leading to an intensive decade-long series of rescue expeditions of various nations and sizes. The melancholy memoirs of Franklin’s last days, along with the remains of some of his party, were later found on King William Island. They had frozen to death after their ships became trapped in shifting ice. The massive exploratory effort of the Franklin search had, however, succeeded in filling in most of the remaining blanks on the map of the tortuous maze of islands and ice-choked channels that make up the Canadian archipelago.
British explorer Robert McClure finally proved the existence of the Northwest Passage in the 1850s. McClure’s expedition negotiated much of the passage starting from the Pacific Ocean, but he had to abandon his ship midway. Rescued via the Atlantic route, he and his men completed the Northwest Passage in 1854, but not by a single voyage in a single ship. That had to await the crossing made in a small boat by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen from 1903 to 1906.
By the late 18th century the nations of Europe were reaching across the globe. They did so in two closely related ways: first, by means of expanding colonial empires; second, by means of expanding scientific efforts to understand the world—its physical processes, living creatures, and natural history. The history of geographic exploration from the late 18th to early 20th century is a story of science and imperialism.
A Captain Cook
No one exemplifies the intersection of geographic exploration, science, and empire better than Captain James Cook. In three Pacific Ocean voyages in the late 18th century, Cook not only established the pattern for a properly scientific expedition, but also added significant territory to the British Empire.
In Cook’s first voyage, from 1768 to 1771, he circumnavigated the globe, observed the transit of Venus across the Sun from Tahiti, charted the coasts of New Zealand and Australia, and brought back a shipload of new botanical and zoological specimens. On his second voyage (1772-1775) Cook sailed farther south than any previous explorer and into the Antarctic pack ice, laying to rest the notion of a habitable continent south of Australia. On Cook’s last voyage (1776-1779), he became the first European to visit the Hawaiian Islands (see Hawaii) and explored thousands of miles of the west coast of North America from what is now Oregon to far northern Alaska. On his return to the Hawaiian Islands in 1779, Cook was killed in a skirmish with islanders.
B Exploration of Africa
Over the course of the 19th century the relationship between Europe and Africa changed completely. In the early 19th century, Europeans knew little about the interior of the African continent, and influence was limited to a few coastal trading posts. Just a few decades later, the whole of Africa was divided into precisely delineated European colonies. Exploration was central to this process.
Europeans knew of the existence of several large rivers flowing through the interior of Africa. Determining the courses and finding the sources of these rivers were the goals of European explorers at the start of the 19th century. Scottish explorer Mungo Park focused on the course of the Niger River, which was known to flow just south of the Sahara in West Africa. Park’s first expedition, from 1795 to 1797, determined that the river flowed east, leading some geographers to hypothesize that the Niger was somehow connected with the Nile River. Park died on his second voyage (1805-1806) trying to find the true course of the Niger. It was not until 1830 that Richard Lemon Lander established that the Niger flowed into the Gulf of Guinea and that it was a navigable, commercially valuable route to the interior. German explorer Heinrich Barth provided a painstaking account of West African geography after traveling some 16,000 km (10,000 mi), from 1850 to 1855, across the Sahara from Tripoli to Lake Chad and down the Niger.
B1 Source of the Nile
People had wondered about the source of the mighty Nile for thousands of years—Ancient Egyptian and Roman expeditions up the Nile are documented—but the age-old mystery remained up to the mid-19th century. British explorers Sir Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke headed west from the Indian Ocean coast in 1857 and became the first Europeans to sight Lake Tanganyika, which Burton took to be the source of the Nile. Traveling alone, Speke found Lake Victoria to the northeast and correctly surmised this to be the Nile’s true main source. The difference of opinion led to an acrimonious falling out between the two explorers.
From 1860 to 1863 Speke and British army officer James Augustus Grant made a follow-up expedition to the same region, pushing north and exploring the western edge of Lake Victoria. They followed what they suspected were the upper reaches of the Nile, a surmise that was confirmed by their unexpected encounter with British explorer Samuel White Baker and his intrepid wife Florence, who had ascended the river from Cairo, Egypt. Speke and Grant were thus able to confirm that “the Nile is settled,” that Lake Victoria was indeed the main source of the Nile.
B2 Livingstone and Stanley
In southern Africa, it was the most famous of the Victorian explorers, Scottish missionary David Livingstone, who made his mark on uncharted territory. Livingstone crossed the Kalahari Desert and mapped much of the area from what is now Angola to the mouth of the Zambezi River in Mozambique from 1849 to 1856. He returned to the Zambezi in 1858 and explored its tributaries and Lake Malawi. In 1866 he began tracing the drainage systems to the north, exploring Lake Tanganyika, Lake Mweru, Lake Bangweulu, and the watercourses of rivers flowing into and out of these lakes. When he failed to report back in 1871, a number of search expeditions were mounted, among them one by the New York Herald journalist Henry Morton Stanley. Stanley found Livingstone at Ujiji, on Lake Tanganyika, greeting him with the famous words, “Doctor Livingstone, I presume?” Livingstone assured Stanley that he was not in need of rescue and continued exploring the region until he died in what is now Zambia in 1873.
Following up the discoveries of his predecessors, Stanley returned to Central Africa in 1874 for one of the largest and most ambitious overland journeys across Africa ever undertaken. He circumnavigated Lake Tanganyika and followed its outflow to the headstreams of the Congo River, which he descended all the way to its mouth at the Atlantic Ocean, a distance of about 3,000 km (about 2,000 mi). The terrible journey lasted 999 days and cost the lives of more than 200 of his men.
The work of the great explorers of Africa resulted in maps. It was on those maps that European leaders drew lines symbolizing their respective claims on the continent. The swift process of divvying up the continent into European colonies in the last two decades of the 19th century became known as the Scramble for Africa.
C Exploration of Australia
Unlike Africa, Australia has few large rivers. When British navigator Matthew Flinders—an admirer of Captain Cook—undertook his charting expeditions around this southern continent from 1798 to 1803, he found many fewer large river mouths than he expected. This gave rise to speculation that the rivers that ran to the west of the Great Dividing Range might run to some large inland sea or lake—a potential solution for the region’s drought problems. In the 1820s and 1830s British explorers Charles Sturt and Thomas Mitchell traced the courses of these rivers and found that they all merged with the Murray River, which empties into the Indian Ocean on the southern coast of Australia. In the late 1830s and 1840s Australian sheep farmer Edward Eyre explored the southern coast and also traveled deep into the outback. The German scientist Ludwig Leichhardt explored northern Australia but died in 1848 trying to cross the continent from east to west.
Australia was similarly unforgiving to those who tried to cross it from south to north in the early 1860s. In 1861 Irish explorer Robert O’Hara Burke and his companion, English surveyor William John Wills, both died in the attempt. Scottish explorer John McDouall Stuart succeeded in making the 3,250-km (2,020-mi) crossing only on his third attempt, in 1862, after numerous clashes with Aboriginal Australian peoples defending their territory and provisions.
Other explorers, often guided by Aboriginal Australians whose ancestors had been crossing Australia for thousands of years, mapped the remaining parts of the vast land. British brothers Francis and Augustus Gregory explored the Northern Territory, Australian explorer John Forrest explored Western Australia, and Australian explorer William Gosse became the first European to sight the massive rock formation called Uluru (Ayers Rock) in 1873.
D Great Trigonometrical Survey of India
British commercial and colonial power in India grew over the course of the 18th century. To better understand the region, the British government initiated the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India in 1800. The Survey was responsible for mapping the entire Indian subcontinent and adjoining lands north of the Himalayas, a process that took 70 years. The teams of surveyors started at Chennai (Madras), on the eastern coast, fanning out north and south and finally reaching the Himalayas, under the directorship of Sir George Everest (for whom Mount Everest is named) and his successor, Andrew Waugh. British surveyors were barred from entering Nepal and Tibet, so they enlisted the help of Indians to penetrate the areas disguised as Buddhist pilgrims. Trained to walk one mile in exactly 2,000 paces and equipped with surveying equipment hidden in prayer wheels, explorers such as Nain Singh, Kishen Singh, and Kintup secretly mapped the vast areas at great personal danger. The Great Trigonometrical Survey of India was probably the greatest geographical project undertaken anywhere in the 19th century.
E Reaching the Poles
The forbidding conditions at the extreme northern and southern regions of the globe turned away explorers for centuries. By the dawn of the 20th century, the North and South poles were the last great prizes for explorers.
E1 Arctic Exploration
British admiral William Parry led an 1827 expedition by sledge to within 800 km (500 mi) of the North Pole. This remained the closest any person had come to the pole until an expedition of British naval officer George Nares from 1875 to 1876. Norwegian scientist Fridtjof Nansen built a special little ship, called the Fram, with a tough, saucer-shaped hull designed to withstand the pressure of polar sea ice. In 1893 Nansen purposefully stuck the Fram in pack ice and drifted aimlessly across the Arctic Ocean north of Russia. Setting out from the ship with kayaks and dogsleds, Nansen got to about 400 km (about 250 mi) from the pole before having to turn back.
American naval officer Robert Peary undertook seven Arctic expeditions in the late 19th and early 20th century. In 1909 Peary and assistant Matthew Henson used dogsleds to reach what Peary believed to be the North Pole based on his calculations. Upon the team’s return to the United States, another American, Frederick Cook, claimed to have reached the North Pole a year earlier. Both Peary and Cook may have exaggerated their claims or miscalculated their coordinates, although Peary certainly came very close to the pole at the very least. Examination by experts established that Cook’s claim was false, and Peary's records were accepted as genuine.
E2 Antarctic Exploration
The race to the South Pole proved even more dramatic. British naval officer Robert Falcon Scott commanded the expedition on the Discovery, from 1901 to 1904, which reached nearer the South Pole than any previous explorer and also did admirable scientific work. A member of Scott’s team, Ernest Shackleton, led an expedition from 1907 to 1909 that reached within 179 km (111 mi) of the pole. Shackleton’s next expedition in 1914 achieved a miracle of survival when its ship, the Endurance, sank after becoming trapped in Antarctic pack ice. The crew was forced to cross the icy sea in open boats to the deserted South Shetland Islands. A smaller group, including Shackleton, rowed 1,300 km (800 mi) across the storm-swept South Atlantic Ocean to the island of South Georgia, traversed the glaciers of the desolate island to a whaling station, and summoned help for the rest of the crew. Not a single life was lost.
Antarctic exploration culminated in 1911 and 1912 in the famous race to the South Pole between Scott and Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. Scott’s small team man-hauled sledges along Shackleton’s 1907-1909 route, reaching the pole in January 1912. There they were greeted by the Norwegian flag and a message from their rival Amundsen. He had reached the most southerly point on Earth some five weeks earlier by an efficient plan using huskies, who pulled the sledges and were periodically killed and fed to the surviving animals. Amundsen’s team made its return trip safely. Scott and his team covered most of the return journey, hauling precious geological samples, before exhaustion and cold led to their deaths in a frozen tent.
In the 20th century imperialism waned and ceased being an impetus for exploration. Although most regions of the world had been explored by the early 20th century, two factors continue to spur further exploration to this day. First is zeal for adventure: Sporting expeditions have climbed the highest peaks, kayaked down the white water of river gorges, hang-glided into volcanic craters and forest canopies, ballooned across oceans, and ventured deep into unexplored caves all over the world. Second is scientific curiosity: Scientists still seek to discover all the biological and physical wonders of our planet. Discoveries are coming thick and fast in every realm of science, transforming people’s understanding of the processes that govern the world and its amazing range of plant and animal life. However, these findings are largely made by unpublicized teams rather than famous individuals. Their successes result from months or years of tough fieldwork, often followed by lengthy laboratory analysis. Every year an increasing number of scientific expeditions go into the field.
A Mountain Climbing
Interest in mountain climbing grew after the first ascent of Mont Blanc, the highest peak of the Alps, in 1786. Since then, mountaineers have been scaling peaks around the globe. Mountaineering’s ultimate challenge was the summit of Mount Everest, the highest peak in the world. After British climbers George Leigh Mallory and Andrew Irvine disappeared close to the summit in 1924, some experts claimed that it was physically impossible for human beings to climb Everest. They were proved wrong in 1953 when Edmund Hillary, a climber from New Zealand, and Nepalese Sherpa Tenzing Norgay successfully fought their way to the summit. Since 1953 every ridge of Everest has been climbed, photographed, or mapped.
B The Seas
More than 70 percent of Earth is covered by oceans, but only since the mid-20th century have humans possessed the technology to explore beneath the surface of the water. Since then, scientists have explored the ocean floors to learn how underwater currents and marine organisms affect the weather, atmosphere, and species survival on Earth. For example, it was the exploration of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge by scientists such as American oceanographer Robert Ballard that finally demonstrated the reality of plate tectonics—the most important breakthrough in geological thinking of recent decades. Other scientists are revealing the millions of species of fish and other marine species that inhabit the waters. In 1960 Swiss oceanographer Jacques Piccard piloted a submersible to the lowest point of the sea floor ever reached, achieving the depth of 10,915 m (35,810 ft) below sea level in the Mariana Trench in the western Pacific Ocean. (For more information, See Deep-Sea Exploration.)
On the surface of the seas, 20th-century navigators have led epic voyages. Norwegian anthropologist Thor Heyerdahl made several voyages using ancient boatbuilding and navigation technologies to demonstrate possible historic migration routes. In 1947 Heyerdahl and his small crew thrilled the world by sailing his balsa raft Kon-Tiki 6,920 km (4,300 mi) across the Pacific. More recently, British historian Tim Severin recreated several legendary voyages, such as the journey of Jason and the Argonauts, in replicas of historic boats. In 1967 British navigator Francis Chichester made the first solo circumnavigation of the globe in his yacht.
C Deserts
In the first half of the 20th century British explorers Harry Philby, Bertram Thomas, and Wilfred Thesiger made several expeditions into one of the most forbidding and least-explored places on Earth, the fiery sands of the Rub al’Khali (Empty Quarter) of Arabia. Numerous scientific expeditions have since been mounted in the world’s deserts to discover the dynamics of sand dunes, the geological formations of desert regions, the paleontological and archaeological evidence of early human beings, and the life cycles of desert creatures.
D Tropical Rain Forests
In recent years, many biological discoveries have been made in the world’s stands of tropical rain forest. The rain forest is the world’s richest ecosystem, containing perhaps half of the 10 million or more species with which people share the planet. Botanists have penetrated isolated forests in search of plants, while entomologists are constantly discovering new insect species. Ecologists are studying the dynamics of the nutrient and water cycles that nourish tropical forests, and environmentalists have investigated the vital role those systems play in maintaining life on Earth.
The Amazon Basin of South America contains one third of the world’s tropical forests. Its greatest explorers in the 20th century have been Brazilians, who have also championed that country’s indigenous peoples. In the first half of the century Brazilian army officer Cândido Rondon discovered and surveyed more great rivers and contacted more isolated tribes than anyone before or since.
E Polar Research
Recent decades have seen exciting expeditions to both poles. British geologist Vivian Fuchs and Mount Everest conqueror Edmund Hillary used snow tractors to make the first crossing of Antarctica from 1957 to 1958. Using snowmobiles, British explorers Ranulph Fiennes and Charles Burton were the first to cross both the North Pole and the South Pole on a single circumnavigation of Earth in the 1979-1982 Transglobe Expedition.
Scientists are also hard at work in the polar regions. Researchers from various nations stay in Antarctica year-round and there is a permanent American base at the South Pole itself. In the 1980s Antarctic scientists noticed an alarming hole in Earth’s protective ozone layer, a discovery that led to international initiatives to phase out the production of harmful chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).
F What’s Left to Explore?
Little new seems to remain under the classic definition of geographical “first discoveries” although there are still a few mountains unclimbed, rivers unnavigated, and caves unfathomed. Explorers seeking fame must now try to reach remote destinations by difficult or unusual means: by going solo, by running, by hang-gliding, or by mountain bike. Italian mountaineer Reinhold Messner and Austrian climber Peter Habeler scaled Mount Everest without using bottled oxygen in 1978, and British climber Alison Hargreaves became the first woman to do so in 1995. In 1986 Americans Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager took nine days to fly around the world nonstop and without refueling in their specially built aircraft Voyager. In 1999 Swiss scientist Bertrand Piccard and British pilot Brian Jones made the first nonstop circumnavigation of the world by balloon, crowning a decade of attempts by an array of international teams.
In scientific exploration, however, the amount to be discovered seems almost infinite. Possibly millions of species are as yet unrecorded, while many others have received only basic recording or description. At the same time, people are still learning how the oceans and land habitats function. There is more than enough to explore and discover for many generations to come.

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