Humans have always been explorers. Some of the most significant explorations and discoveries took place long before Europeans were setting sail.
The indigenous peoples of North America are thought to have come from Asia some 13,000 years ago on a land bridge that joined the continents while the ocean levels were low due to an ice age. The Ancient Egyptians recorded exploration expeditions in the middle of the 5th Dynasty (c. 2400 BCE). During the 11th Dynasty, a force of 3,000 men travelled from the Nile to the Red Sea with plans to build sea craft and travel to “Punt”, the land of a trading partner that was probably at the southern tip of the African continent. In the late 7th century BCE, the Egyptian Pharaoh Necho commissioned sailors to sail around Africa.
The Polynesians were navigating the seas of the South Pacific 4,500 years ago. Long before the time of contact with European sailors, they had charted the islands from Hawaii to New Zealand and maintained inter-island trade and travel. A priest named Tupaia from the Society Islands drew a chart for Captain Cook detailing more than 70 islands, and was taken on board Cook’s ship to serve as a pilot. In the north eastern Pacific, skilled Chinese and Japanese seafarers may have made the voyage to the Pacific Northwest as early as the 3rd century.
Marco Polo (1254-1324), the son of a Venetian merchant, travelled east over land, crossing Central Asia to reach China. Polo, who worked for the Mongol Khan, returned to Venice by a sea route after 17 years. His tales were transcribed while Polo was imprisoned during war with the Genoese. Although the stories were popular, some Medieval European readers thought Polo’s book of fantastic tales was fable rather than the accounts of a great explorer.