When did exploration begin? A difficult question. If we consider exploration in its broadest sense as an activity that takes people to places they’ve never been before, then we have to start very early indeed. Evidence suggests that hominids left Africa in a series of migrations over millions of years. If we limit ourselves only to homo sapiens sapiens, we still have to go back 50,000 or 60,000 years, the time when many sorts of evidence suggest a small population of humans left Africa, probably without a road atlas.
But perhaps we should narrow our definition a bit. Most of us now think of exploration as something more than mere migration, something that includes a self-conscious pursuit of the unknown. If this is our definition, we need to start much later. How much later is hotly debated, perhaps as late as the 14th or 15th century CE.
Even this starting point has problems. First, many Renaissance explorers like Columbus were not primarily interested in discovery of unknown regions, but hoped to find new routes to known locations such as Cathay (China) and the Spice Islands (Indonesia). On this see my earlier post. Second, terms such as “explorer” were not yet used to describe people who set off in search of discovery. For all of their impressive nautical muscle-flexing, Columbus, Cabot, Hudson were viewed as “travelers,” and their voyages, “travels.”
By the 1800s, however, the umbrella of “travel” had become very large indeed. Not surprisingly, the idea of the traveler was also in flux, a category that had come to encompass every itinerant from Joseph Banks, science officer of the Endeavour, to British lads on vacation. As the concept of traveler lost definition in the eighteenth century, “explorer” entered the vernacular to delineate it, to distinguish the serious investigator of the unknown from more quotidian voyagers, the doe-eyed ingénues of the Grand Tour.
So we could start our study of modern exploration in 1800. A very judicious decision. Except that we would be basing this starting point on the use of words, “explorer” and “exploration,” rather than a shift in thinking or practices. This is not very satisfying either. Certainly ideas about mapping unknown regions have been around a long time, even if they were called something else.
In his excellent book The Beginnings of Western Science, David Lindberg identifies a parallel problem for the history of science. If words like “science” or “biology” constitute one’s starting point for modern science, then the historian begins her task quite late, in the nineteenth century. If she considers scientific ideas or methods to be the key, then the starting line could be pushed back into the early Renaissance. But even this date ignores the work of earlier scholars (naturalists or philosophers we might call them) who spent their lives trying to understand the functioning of nature deep into recorded history, say 600 BCE.
In short, no starting point is perfect. One thing is clear though; the relationship between exploration and travel is too strong to be ignored. It might sound easy to group them together, but for scholars of the voyage, this can be more difficult than it appears. The division that grew up between these concepts in the 19th century has also come to define a modern boundary of sorts. The subject of exploration attracts many scholars today, with historians probably represented in largest numbers. By comparison, the study of travel, particularly travel writing, has become a favorite subject of literary and cultural studies scholars. One sees this division in the academic journals and websites devoted to travel vs. scientific exploration.
So in the next few months I will be doing some exploring of my own, wading into the travel literature from the other side of the disciplinary fence. In the meantime, if you are interested, I’ve put up some links on travel writing.