A series on exploration, Part 1: to the roots of exploration

And an overview of some major events

Note that we will be specifically talking about exploration in the geographical sense, the physical exploration.  

Humanity craves exploration. It runs in our veins, so to say. For millions of years, the Homo genre has been one of explorers and pilgrims, going so far as to colonize the entire world before even the first civilization. This is not a feature of all animals, as very few species colonized every biome as humans did. How can we explain this urge to explore, the drive to discover new lands that defined our species for the best of its lifetime?


What is exploration, exactly?


Ah, the definition of a word. It feels like every single one has had countless definitions over the centuries, none being absolute. To set the basis, I like the simplicity of the one given by Encarta Webster’s Dictionary of the English Language :

"An exploration is a travel undertaken to discover what a place is like or where it is."

The search for discovery is an important point there. An explorer is fundamentally different from a trader or a pilgrim. If they may all travel far and inhospitable lands, both traders and pilgrims have a fixed destination, they seek to reach some place, even remote. The explorer's journey has no such thing as a destination and is but a search for the unknown.


Because exploration is more often than not a two-way journey, the discoverer must come back to their people to report what they found, bringing charts and knowledge. Running blindly in a direction is no good if one cannot tell what they discovered. Yet, traveling to the unknown does not mean going to places devoid of life or civilization. As a matter of fact, it was very rare for exploration not to involve local guides to help them find their way.


Can we explore a fully inhabited world?


Since the early migrations, humans are all over the world. How then could later adventurers truly discover anything? Because exploration is about disclosing information previously unknown to one's kind. Despite the fantasized untouched land that a crew of brave people explores, cutting its way through a lush jungle or coming miraculously out of a large desert, it was very rarely the case. Most explorers had to rely on locals to survive: trading goods for food, and more important, recruiting guides to show them the way around.


These interactions are events of mutual explorations, and both cultures learn from each other. In the tales of Western explorers, there is mention of a close aid, be it a guide, an interpreter, or an intercessor. Although they are rarely remembered in recent versions of expedition stories, these local explorers were invaluable assets for the crews they interacted with. Their knowledge of the geography and dangers was essential, and many played a key role by acting as mediators with the other people.

Where to go ? by Ekrulila

Bright and grim consequences


For the better and for the worse, the concept of exploration is deeply tied with conquest. Even when they were directed for the sake of knowledge, something followed. Great empires seeking to colonize newfound lands, religions spreading their faith to pagans, or merchants establishing new trade routes. It did not necessarily involve violence, but one of the exploring parties usually end up imposing their way of life on the other. This is not the doing of the explorers themselves, but rather how the knowledge they brought back home was used.

No mere adventurers or renegade travelers, explorers were the forgers of links, the spinner of webs. They were the primary agents of contact not just between cultures and people but between whole ecosystems and environments. [...] exploration ultimately means change. It is a particularly adventurous form of original travel involving discovery, cultural contact, and change.
— Stewart A. Weaver, Exploration: A very short introduction, page 11

So exploration changes things, right. But not just the charts. Culture and individuals of both sides are changed, shaking comfortably established world views. Suddenly, people realize their world is broader than what they have been told all their life. What's more, other people exist over there, different in every way yet so similar. This one time, a whole continent was discovered, with its riches, countless treasures, and mysteries. Trade bloomed from the first contacts, and people no longer welcomed in their homes could find a new calling.


Both economy and politics take advantage of the discovery of new lands or trade routes. But science too, as it opens more ground to study, new species to find, and previously unknown materials. The Geodesic Mission to the Equator was such a scientific expedition possible thanks to the exploration of Peru in the 18th century.

Exploration brought its fair share of desolation too. Slavery was a direct consequence of exploration, especially in the 15th and 16th centuries. When encountering another civilization of lesser might, the discoverers could use them as slaves after subjugation, to work in their former home or in an unknown land far away. It was not easy, down the path of blood and iron, in wars where ultimately technological power prevailed.


Bacterias and viruses are at all times inside us. Some are terrible pathogens coexisting with us through tens of thousands of mutual interactions. They are no longer harmful to us but have lost nothing of their lethality. This is especially true for cattle farmers, who were close with their domesticated animals for enough time to share their pathogens. However, when explorers carrying all manners of diseases unconsciously landed in a foreign land, the unfortunate indigenes suffered from pathogens they weren't used to. It goes both ways, but in the most obvious example, the conquest of America, the immune system of the locals was not ready at all for what the conquistadors brought with them, and whole civilizations were wiped by sickness.


An overview of exploration periods


Through some examples of great explorations, we can highlight what pushed people onward, to the unknown, through the ages. Going chronologically, from the very dawn of man to the present days, let's review quickly some exploration events of interest. Each one of them is incredibly interesting and will have their dedicated in-depth article later in the series.


The early human migrations


Let's go back. Way back. When we were nothing more than a group of hominids secluded in East Africa, at a time when the Sahara was a lush forest. For various reasons, the first Homo erectus ventured out of Africa around two million years ago, and colonized the whole world until their disappearance, 110.00 years ago. In such a large timespan, the reasons for their migration are multiple: moving according to climate change, in search of better food, to avoid a predator or a competitive neighbor, your choice. One could argue that it does not really encompass our previous definition of exploration, as we have no textual records, and that kind of travel was not for the sake of exploration but rather of survival.


Nonetheless, most ethno-archaeologists believe that early hominid clans relied on advanced scout parties to recognize the ground and establish the best route for the main group. And as Weaver says :

What is advance scouting if not travel for the sake of discovery, if not the formation of new knowledge in continuous passage through space?
— Stewart A. Weaver, Exploration: A very short introduction, page 13

Scouts must discover the land before them, and most importantly go back safely to their people to form a sort of report on what lies ahead. In that sense, these now-forgotten hominins were the very first explorers. Explorers did not create links between people of different origins but separated clans of the same origin. In a truly untouched world, they may have been the purest explorers as they only relied on themselves, even if encounters with other groups certainly happened. The people spread by this initial migration, then much later by Homo sapiens own migration in response to climate change, evolved, and built society and civilization. They forgot about each other only to rediscover their lost kin millennia later.

Austronesian migrations


For tens of thousands of years, the early settlers of Southeast Asia remained near the shore, poking timidly into the great Pacific Ocean. Then, about 6000 years ago, they broke through and sailed into the wind aboard their va’a tauna, double-hulled ships able to travel far and swiftly. As true explorers, they cleverly went into the wind. It was not a rare occurrence for explorers to sail right into the wind or at a close angle, as it is the only method that allows for trial and error while exploring the unknown. If food or health diminishes, it is always possible to turn back and let it blow at full strength to push the ship back home. An easy way to get the lay of the land and safely return to tell everyone.


Around the year 0 of the Common Era, they had colonized almost all of the ocean. Peerless seafarers, the Austronesian culture spread across the seas to form what will be called later the Polynesian triangle: the expanse of their settlements, its extremities being the Easter Island, the northern Hawai'i, and finally New Zealand. Later findings suggest that they even went as far as to set foot and trade with the population of Chile, in South America. This means that sometime between 700 and 1350, Polynesian people may be the very first discoverers of America.


Now, why did they go to such length to inhabit a whole ocean? There does not seem to be a grand scheme of world domination. It is more likely that it was an organic process. At times when lands became too cramped for the growth of the population and folks were faced with food shortages, it was custom for children except first-borns to be neglected. The eldest had all and the other children had no choice but to leave their homeland to seek a better life. At other times, warfaring clans invaded and conquered weaker people, forcing them into exile. Finally, such seafaring people probably explored for the great joy of discovery.


The Norse saga


When I wrote above that Polynesians may be the first outsiders to set foot in America, it may be inaccurate. We don't know the exact date of their arrival, but the same is not true for the precisely dated Norse landing. Around 997 CE, a small crew settled at the northernmost tip of Newfoundland. Nothing too big, no more than nine buildings. It all begins with the Viking age, which was not kickstarted by the bloodthirst of barbaric raiders, but rather by the timeless need for more land and the pressure of demographic growth. They desired to trade with other people, fortune, fame, and generally to satiate their curiosity and quest for a better life. The plunders were but outliers of the Norse migration.


They had little land to claim in the south and east, due to powerful kingdoms ruling over Europe, so they turned west and sailed the unknown waters of the North Atlantic. To this deed, they used a peculiar boat, the knarr, and defied the conventional way of maritime exploration. They took off with the wind blowing in their back, at full speed for they had one of the fastest ocean-sailing ships of their time, faster even than 15th-century caravels. Assuming the spherical shape of the Earth, they were certain to hit land eventually.


With a general idea of where they were going, they went to Iceland, and Greenland before finally reaching North America. During their travels, they encountered fleetingly pre-Inuit people of Greenland, and most importantly aboriginal people of America. Doing so they closed the circle of the human migration, reuniting for some time the branch that went West to inhabit Europe and the branch that went East and colonized Asia before crossing the Bering Strait to America. Although this first American contact did not change much for the people of Europe, it was only a foretaste of what was to come.


The Age of Exploration


This is undoubtfully the most documented exploration period in history, and perhaps the most grandiose. Where previous explorers only poked around the known ground, Christopher Columbus was one daring fellow. He was not the only one thinking about the west as a route for India and China, it was only a matter of time before someone had enough funding to attempt the trip. And this someone was him. He made it to America and back, told the story of what wonders he had seen, and changed the course of the world forever. A whole continent laid there, untouched and ready to be picked up by Spanish conquistadors.


This exploration story is one of bloody, violent conquest. The names of some European invaders have made it down history, such as Juan Ponce de León for his conquest of Porto Rico and the legend of the fountain of youth, or Francisco Pizarro who subdued numerous American empires thanks to his overwhelming technological advantage. The Europeans spread deadly diseases and annihilated most of the South American population. No episode of exploration in history has been or will ever be as horrible.


However, it was not all the age of exploration brought. The trip of Columbus aimed to secure a new trade route after the blockade of Constantinople. Spain and Portugal, two major powers of the time, explored many alternative paths. Bartolomeu Dias trailblazed the way to the Cape of Good Hope, for Vasco Da Gama to cross it in 1497, showing that a route around Africa was possible to reach India. With both Columbus and Da Gama's feats, everything seemed possible. Ferdinand Magellan was convinced that there was a way to the East after America. An epic journey, full of dangers and uncertainty that eventually cost Magellan his life. At the end of the day, this fantastic bet was successful. His crew completed the very first circumnavigation of the Earth through losses and wounds. Even though the strait that now bears his name proved too hard to be a reliable route, this phenomenal achievement gave the full measure of Earth's dimensions.


The age of exploration and the one of conquest that followed it differ from the previous ones by their motive. The Europeans had enough land and did not actively seek a better life. Even though what motivated the glorious captains was the joy of exploration and discovery, they only fulfilled their wanderlust thanks to the funding of royal and rich patrons. The common goal of the expeditions was to secure new trade routes, in order to strengthen commerce. As it will be for the next centuries, it was about money. True discoveries, such as Columbus's landfall in America, were the fruit of happy accidents, far from the original goal.

Tupaia and James Cook


When Captain James Cook went on his first journey to the Pacific in 1769, he met a Tahitian priest named Tupaia. The man gave him a map of the Pacific island way more accurate than what any European cartographer of the time could provide. More than that, he was able to navigate between the archipelagos without relying on any tool, guiding Cook's ship to islands unknown to the explorer. He was said to be able to point toward Tahiti at any point of the day, whether clear or cloudy, without an ounce of doubt. His precious guidance spared Cook weeks if not months of hazardous travel in the vast ocean, and he served as a mediator with the indigenous people.

Zheng He and his fleet by Alex Santafé

Zheng He, the great Chinese admiral


At the beginning of the 15th century, the greatest naval power was not European. Zheng He led seven maritime expeditions through the Indian Ocean, commanding a formidable fleet of 62 great junks, 225 support vessels, and 27.780 men. Now he did not really explore, as he discovered no new route or land. They were political expeditions, to gather tribute, subdue enemies and establish diplomatic relations. He is still remembered as a great explorer, for he led the most wondrous fleet of his age and traveled farther than almost anyone.


Unfortunately, his death in 1433 and the ascension of the Confucian faction caused the demise of the biggest fleet in the world. 8 years later, nothing was left of it and the Chinese potential to rule over the seas was definitely null and void.


Do animals explore ?


A most interesting question. Surely we cannot be the only ones with such an endeavor? Well, the different species did migrate through the world and speciate numerous times, but was it really exploration, or merely a blind search for more favorable land? Samely, we can't consider current bird or maritime animal cyclic migrations explorations. They both have a fixed destination and know the way to it. The forerunners that established the trajectories might be called animal explorers, but that's about it. What about wolfs exiled from their packs going to fund another elsewhere? This could be the closest example of exploration, even though it has the caveats previously exposed.


If you have any examples that could prove me wrong there, I will gladly hear them, as finding information on this particular topic proved harder than expected.


Modern age exploration

The Trieste by U.S. Navy Electronics Laboratory

Nowadays, there is not much land to explore anymore. We know almost everything there is to know on the surface of the Earth, minus the most remote places in the middle of deserts or the Amazon forest. So what is left for us, born after the great ages of exploration? Luckily, the land is not the only thing to explore. We still know very little about the deep oceans, for instance. It was only 62 years ago, in 1960, that Jacques Piccard dived into the Challenger Deep, the deepest point on Earth. His submarine, the Trieste, was the peak technology of its time, able to withstand a pressure never experimented with before. Even now, there is much to be done, especially to understand this peculiar ecosystem. The Tara schooner undergoes scientific expeditions to harvest plankton samples from all over the world to study them in order to study and better protect the oceans. Contrary to the previous exploration periods, ours focus more on the scientific side of things. Some still aim to find oil deposits, especially in the oceans, but whether it can be considered exploration is subject to debate.


On the other side, space remains a vastly unknown territory, that we fail to grasp fully what is even in our vicinity. We have observed a lot of objects, but only a handful directly. Voyager 1, the farthest spaceship ever sent, is at a mere distance of 23 million kilometers from us, got out of the inner solar system in 2012. But closer to us, even the surfaces of the moon or Mars are widely unknown. From the distant stars to the profound caves, the days of exploration are far from over.


The cost of exploration


As you've seen, exploration is not something one can attempt easily. It requires a lot of preparation and planning, and an enormous amount of resources. Most of the time, from a single ship to a whole fleet was needed, as sea exploration was preponderant. It was not possible without the joint effort of tens of people at the very least, and a broad variety of talents. Later on, almost every navigator had to ensure funding from royalty, as only the treasure of a country could afford the cost of exploration. Nowadays, these expeditions still require massive financing only in reach of governments or billionaires. One can not improvise themselves explorer and go discovering on a whim. It is a process that must be carefully planned, sometimes for years.


Nonetheless, lesser-scale explorations are more than ever within the reach of individuals. In our deeply interconnected world, exploration to satiate personal curiosity is not reserved for the wealthiest with powerful backing. Though it is not quite the exploration as we defined earlier, because there isn't much novelty to tell that is not already somewhere on Internet, it can prove quite fulfilling to a few.


The Explorer Gene


As we have seen, the causes for exploration are multiple. However, in recent life, it is less of a need than it once was. Yet, some people are not contempt with their sedentary lives, yearning to go outside and roam the world. To those folks, staying too long in one place can become physically tiring, as they have a profound need to wander. To explain this unorthodox behavior, a popular hypothesis is the on of the explorer gene.


DRD4-7R is the name of a gene coding for a dopamine receptor, especially of an allele already associated with ADHD and novelty-seeking behaviors. Although the topic is still debated within the scientific community, this allele may be linked with the craving for exploration and nomadic behaviors. Its bearers thrive when traveling and discovering new things, but wither when forced to live a stable life. However, it is to take with a grain of salt, because conflicting theories clash to explain the prominence of the gene in descendants of great explorers folks.


The first one, discrediting the title of DRD-7R as the explorer gene, is the first settlers bias. When pilgrims colonized unknown land, they came at first in small groups.

If an allele is present in the majority of the genomes of those first settlers, it has a very high chance to stay this way even if it does not provide any advantage, as long as it is not detrimental. According to this theory, it may be a pure coincidence that the allele is over-represented in such populations. If a majority of the settlers had curly hair, then their descendants would probably have nothing but curly hair, even though it is completely unrelated to a craving for exploration.


The antagonist theory is inspired by toad migrations. When thousands of little creatures travel at once, the ones with longer legs, able to do the bigger jumps will always be ahead. When the time comes to mate, the front toads have nothing but other front toads to breed with, and thus the genes that gave them a headstart are transmitted to their offspring. The next generation will probably migrate even faster than their parents, and mate with faster toads. This example is applicable to the first pilgrims. The ones traveling further because of their thirst for exploration met people like them, transmitting adventure-oriented genes to their children, who will explore deeper into the unknown when their turns come. According to this theory, founders of new towns possessed almost always this allele, while people bearing another allele such as DRD4-4R stayed in their comfortable established cities.


Exploration in popular culture


It is a topic that culture frequently takes on, at least partially. Some of them make the act of exploration their main focus and may serve as inspiration. These categories are quite hollow at the moment, any input to fill them would be greatly appreciated.  


In the famous series Star Trek, exploration is the raison d'être of Starfleet and its many spaceships. Although it is not so present in the latest movies, it is an integral part of worldbuilding.

Video games

In video games, exploration is almost always present, albeit not quite in the sense we defined earlier. Every open world has some of it, but it is essentially one person roaming the world, without telling anyone about it. Sunless Sea and its sequelSunless Skies by Failbetter Games are nothing but exploration, where the player has to venture either into the dark Underzee or the bright sky to chart the big map and, most importantly, report what he has seen back home. Instinctively, the constraint of the dark unknown forces the captain to adopt the ancestral strategy of shore-hugging until he has enough resources to dare cross the open sea.


Speculative Evolution is a genre that marries surprisingly well with the theme of exploration. In Expedition: Being an account in words and artwork of the 2358 A.D. voyage to Darwin IV, Wayne Douglas Barlowe tells us the story of a crew effectively exploring the extraterrestrial planet of Darwin IV. In the form of a diary, we have presented the findings of the protagonist as he progresses in his adventure.


Worldbuilding exploration


First, the most important thing to bear in mind is that exploration events happen for a reason. If life is fine and the people thrive, they have no reason to venture into the uncertainty of the unknown. The trigger could be anything, however, from a shortage of land to a natural disaster, including the need to secure new trade routes. Speaking of which, the first encounters between two civilizations were not easy ones. When both were on equal standing, trade could bloom and strengthen both parties, but should they have an imbalance in power, the stronger would stomp the other. Enslavement slaughters and countless atrocities to take over the already occupied land. Purely scientific explorations happen too, but they come far later in history, in advanced societies that can bother to invest heavily for the sake of knowledge.

Next, it was always a major investment to make. At the beginning of the age of exploration, only the kingdoms of Spain and Portugal invested so much, as they were the wealthiest on the continent. Even before, the various exploring crews had to get the support of rich sponsors. Nowadays, explorations on earth rely for the most part on government funding. With the shining exception of the Tara Ocean fundation which is funded very lightly on public money, most expeditions cannot be set up without governmental approval. Space exploration is both subject to a government versus billionaires race. As time goes on, we can expect more and more space missions launched by private funds.

Finally, it came in waves all throughout history, varying in size and duration. The first migrations, at a species scale, took millions of years, whereas the European-centered age of exploration lasted for about three centuries. Such events did not occur at the same time and people explored different parts of the world, at different times. If you wish to fill the history of a whole world, you have to consider when they happened, if they were by the land, the sea, or the sky (or even space), and what were the reasons. The span is another thing to think about, as it depends mainly on the technological level of the explorers. The faster the mean of transportation and the longer they can last out of their homeland, the shorter it will be. Having a general knowledge of the direction can be of help too. Through their trial and error method, the Polynesians probably needed more time to reach new islands than Christopher Columbus who traveled West confidently.


Roleplaying exploration


Exploration is not one of the Three Pillars of gameplay of D&D 5e for no reason. Though it is taking exploration in a much broader sense and not just sticking to geographical exploration, it is a major component of any game. The key to playing exploration is to not force it onto players but rather encourage it. They may follow the straight path in the forest, but straying away from the track could lead to the discovery of ancient ruins or a monster's lair that happen to have a bounty on it. Likewise, urban exploration through back alleys and rundown buildings is a fine way to meet the local mafia or thief guild. Now, hinting at those possibilities might be needed if your players are not seekers by nature.

In a brand new territory, having a guide NPC, or even better, a briefed PC to direct the party toward points of interest can help them figure out the place. Don't forget that locals often play a key role in explorations. Why not have them have a nice cultural exchange with indigenous tribes or societies? Depending on the level of realism you are looking for, you would want to take into account resources needed for long travels, and most importantly time. This one can be tricky, as pure exploration takes a lot of time just to travel. Even though roleplaying the day-by-day journey can be a fun experiment, it will probably bore your players pretty quickly. If you really want to send your party in terra incognita, you will probably have to find an in-between the two extremes, boring exploration and completely ellipsed travels.


Writing exploration


Writing an expedition can be exhilarating, as it is no more than showcasing your amazing worldbuilding. However, if that is not the announced goal of your text, it might sound boring. A careful balance has to be found between too much description and not enough to carry the feel of novelty. Expeditions are expensive and long. They require a thorough preparation that can take months or even years. It is an important parameter to take into account if you are tracking your character's age.


Mild spoiler of Vinland Saga ahead

Show spoiler
This aspect is pretty well-treated in the last part of the manga Vinland Saga, as the characters take a very long time getting prepared in Iceland before attempting the first trip to Vinland. The whole point of their 2-year journey to Grikkland is to get enough money to achieve their exploration in the first place.

Once in a foreign land, the support of locals is the key to survival, through guides and trade. An exploration crew will struggle way more without help. Language can be a pretty harsh barrier, and it requires some wits to be understood by people of a different culture, not to mention race in worlds where multiple coexists. This part of exploration is, in some regards, the most dangerous, as misconduct may make the explorers enemies of the locals.


Space exploration is a slightly different matter. A spacefarer surely has the means to perform automatic surveys far ahead. However, the scale of things is also increased tenfold, which kind of evens things out. Planet ground is not exactly unknown, as it is easy to get a fairly accurate idea of the surface and geology. Life forms are harder to spot from orbit, depending on the life in question. Do remember however that planets are big, and that landing on one point is absolutely not representative of the geography as a whole. Sahara desert, Himalayas,s and New York are very different places on the same planet, after all.




Exploration: A Very Short Introduction, by Steward Weaver


Exploration on Wikipedia


The Restless Gene


Early human migrations


NASA site for Voyager 1


On roleplaying and exploration


Cover image: Where to go ? by Ekrulila