In an age when flying around the world is a matter of reserving a plane ticket and laying down the cash, it’s hard to remember that our ancestors often knew little and saw less of the world beyond the city or country in which they lived.
But there were always brave souls looking to push the boundaries, rogue explorers who overcame fear to venture into unknown territories. The following seven adventurers, from the year 950 to the 20th century, discovered new lands and creatures and changed science and politics. They were military envoys, religious missionaries, criminals, war correspondents, and scientists, but they all faced hard-to-imagine dangers and explored unknown worlds.
To call Erik a rough character is something of an understatement. The man who founded the first permanent Nordic settlement in Greenland first explored the island while serving a three-year exile from Iceland for manslaughter.
At the end of his sentence, Erik returned to Iceland, gathered men and ships, and led a colonization effort in 986. His son, Leif Erikson, became a famous explorer in his own right, becoming the first European to reach North American shores, 500 years before Christopher Columbus.
Abu Abdullah Muhammad Ibn Battuta, often called the Muslim Marco Polo, covered 75,000 miles in his lifetime, outdoing his Venetian counterpart. His travels led him through an astonishing 44 modern countries. Between 1325 and 1354, he was on the move for all but three years.
Born in Tangiers, Ibn Battuta made his first journey at the age of 21, a hajj to Mecca. After that, he didn’t stop much, seeing Beijing, Bulgaria, Sri Lanka, Timbuktu, Cairo, Mogadishu and the Maldives, all without the help of trains, airplanes or cars. He recounts his journeys in the simply titled Rihla (“The Journey”).
Zheng He may not have covered as much ground as Ibn Battuta, but he made a much bigger impression wherever he went. That’s because the 15th century Chinese diplomat and admiral led a series of voyages throughout the Indian Ocean, accompanied by nearly 30,000 men and more than 250 ships, some of them more than 400 feet long.
Zheng He’s goal on the seven voyages between 1405 and 1433 was to establish Chinese dominance wherever he went, scaring smaller states into submission with the size of his army. A Muslim and a eunuch, Zheng He was a one of a kind adventurer.
With his account of his five year journey through Latin America, the German naturalist and expolorer redefined the travel genre. Forsaking his personal impressions for scientific description, von Humboldt catalogued new species (including the electric eel), described the fertilizing properties of guano, and observed planetary movement.
Von Humboldt, the first person to propose that South America and Africa had once been joined, studied how nature was interconnected. His demand for rigorous detail gave birth to a scientific movement called Humboldtian science.
David Livingstone wore many hats: Protestant missionary, scientist, explorer of Africa and abolitionist. He first traveled in Africa in 1840, and spent little time in Europe afterwards.
He was the first European to see Victoria Falls, the largest waterfalls in the world; he explored the Zambezi and Nile Rivers. Near the end of his life, he went six years without any contact with Europe, until his encounter with Henry Morton Stanely that produced the famous line, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”
John Silas “Jack” Reed is best known for Ten Days that Shook the World, his account of the Bolshevik Revolution, which he witnessed. A Harvard graduate, Reed rejected his upper class upbringing and became a Socialist.
He traveled with Pancho Villa during the Mexican Revolution before traveling through Europe as a correspondent during the First World War. Furious when the United States entered the war, he and his wife, the Marxist, anarchist feminist Louise Bryant, left for Russia. Back in the United States, Reed was indicted for sedition and left the country. After his death of typhus in 1920, he became one of the very few non-Russians to be buried at the Kremlin Wall Necropolis, an honor reserved for Socialist heroes.
Edmund Hillary was the first man to reach the top of Mount Everest, but he never would have gotten there without the help of Tenzing Norgay.
The Nepalese Sherpa first started climbing at the age of 19, and the expedition on which he and Hillary reached the summit was Norgay’s seventh on the mountain. He was named one of the 100 Most Important People of the Century by TIME Magazine in 1999.
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