Who Were the First Explorers of Ancient Civilization?

Thousands of years ago, vast empires rose and fell in Egypt, Greece, Italy, the Middle East, northern Africa, China, and India.

Easter Island Statues

Bold explorers from these civilizations, such as Pytheas and Hanno, ventured into unknown lands and seas. Most of them searched for new trade routes or places to settle.

Today, scholars have limited knowledge of these journeys. Some accounts survive in ancient texts. Others have been pieced together by archaeologists, who have recovered and studied ancient artifacts.

Though many details remain unclear, historians have managed to recon­struct some of the ancient voyages, and they prove to be just as thrilling and daring as the exploration of modern times, if not more so.

Who were the Phoenicians and what did they discover?

The Phoenicians were a seafaring people who domi­nated the Mediterranean Sea for a thousand years, from about 1400 B.C. Skilled at navigation and sailing, they estab­lished trading settlements along the coasts of Lebanon and northern Africa.

The Phoenicians carried copper, tin, silver, olive oil, wine, glass, ivory, and other valuable goods from the eastern end of the Mediterranean to the western coasts of what are today Spain and France. To protect their mono­poly in sea power, the Phoenicians spread rumors and false information about their discoveries and trade routes. They described oceans that boiled and monsters that lurked in the deep.

In 600 B.C., according to the Greek historian Herodotus, the Egyptian king Necho II sponsored a Phoenician expedi­tion to sail around Africa. The ships traveled down the Red Sea and entered the Indian Ocean, where the crews planted crops, harvested them, and afterward made their way around the continent’s southern tip.

After three years at sea, the sailors supposedly entered the Mediterranean at its western end—completing one of the greatest feats of ancient navi­gation. Herodotus, however, doubted that the expedition was successful. “On their return they declared—I for my part do not believe them, but perhaps others may—that in sailing around (Africa), they had the sun upon their right hand,” he wrote.

Herodotus was describing the Phoenicians, who had sailed so far to the south that the sun shined from the north—a circumstance Herodotus thought was impossible.

Who was Hanno of Carthage the Carthaginian explorer?

Hanno was an admiral from Carthage, a rich and powerful city founded by the Phoenicians on the northern coast of Africa.

According to Hanno’s own description of his voy­ages in Periplus of Hannon, sometime in the fifth century s.c., he led a fleet of 60 ships filled with 30,000 men, women, and children out of the city and headed west. The Carthaginians had recently battled with their rivals, the

Greeks, in Sicily. They hoped to establish cities along the coasts of northern and western Africa and keep the Greeks away from their trading routes. At the western end of the Mediterranean Sea, the fleet passed through the Strait of Gibraltar, a channel that led to the Atlantic Ocean.

Two days after leaving the Mediterranean, Hanno founded the city of Thymiaterion on what is today the coast of Morocco. After waiting for the first crops to ripen, Hanno left some ships and colonists in the harbor and sailed on. He founded five more cities. Archaeologists know the names of two, Carion Fortress and Acra. None of these cities, however, have survived.

What did Hanno discover in his travels?

With two ships, Hanno continued south down the west­ern coast of Africa and discovered the broad Senegal River where it emptied into the Atlantic. He sailed up the river into the interior of the continent and marveled at the crocodiles and hippopotamuses.

Later, he wrote that the ship was attacked by “savages clad in wild beast hides. They drove us off by hurling stones at us and would not let us land.” The attackers were most likely inhabitants terrified by Hanno’s ship. His curiosity still unsatisfied, Hanno ordered the ship to turn south. The ship passed a landscape of boiling flame and smoke, which Hanno named Chariot of the Gods.

Historians believe Hanno saw Mount Kakulima, a volcano in what is now Sierra Leone. Finally, Hanno describes sighting hairy, humanlike beasts. “Far the most of these were women with hairy bodies,” he wrote, “whom our interpreters called goril­las.” If Hanno did spot gorillas, it means he reached the Gulf of Guinea and may have ventured as far as Cameroon.

Hanno ends his account by stating, “Provisions failing, we sailed no further.” The voyage was an incredible achieve­ment. It would take Europeans almost 2,000 years to repeat Hanno’s feat.

Who was Pytheas the Greek Explorer?

Pytheas was an astronomer, navigator, and geographer raised in the third century B.C. in the Greek colony of Massalia (present-day Marseilles), a city on the southeastern coast of France. At that time, the trade rivalry between the

Phoenicians and the Greeks was intense. Phoenician war­ships closely guarded what is now called the Strait of Gibraltar to prevent Greek traders from reaching the ports of northwestern Europe. Instead of an easy sea voyage, traders had to transport goods overland through France. Pytheas hoped to break the Phoenician monopoly.

Eventually, Pytheas avoided the Phoenicians and passed safely through the strait. He was probably attempting to find a sea route to transport tin, which was mined in the British Islands and was vital to the production of bronze. After sailing around the Iberian peninsula, which includes Spain and Portugal, Pytheas followed the coast of France north. Later, a Greek historian named Polybius would preserve Pytheas’s account of his journey.

Pytheas stopped in what is now Cornwall, the south­western section of England, and described the mines where tin was extracted from the earth. He wrote that the inhabitants, called Celts, were friendly, and he enjoyed their beer and honey wine. He also noted that England had mis­erable weather, a complaint that has echoed down to our times.

After spending an unknown amount of time in England, Pytheas sailed north between Ireland and Scotland and entered the North Sea. At this point, Pytheas landed on either Iceland or Norway. (Scholars are not certain.) Pytheas called the land Thule, and he described the 24-hour polar days as the “ever-shining fire.” Incredibly, Pytheas sailed even farther north, only stopping when he encountered a place where land, air, and sea appeared to be combined together in a “jelly-fish” kind of ice.

Some scholars believe that Pytheas ran into an area of ice sludge and fog in the Arctic Ocean. After this, Pytheas finally returned south and wrote of his journeys in a volume titled On the Ocean, which has been lost. In it Pytheas demonstrated his keen observation powers. He calculated the distance from north Britain to Marseilles at 1,050 miles, just short of the actual figure of 1,120 miles.

He also theorized that the moon was responsible for the tides and noted that the North Star is not always above the North Pole. No other ancient explorer is known to have followed his route, and at the time his accounts were dismissed as exaggerated stories.

Who was the greatest general and explorer of the ancient world?

Alexander the Great, born in Macedon north of Greece in 356 B.c., is remembered as the greatest general of the ancient age. He was also its greatest explorer.

Bold, fearless, and full of curiosity, Alexander led his Greek army to victo­ries in a steady march across the Middle East. He conquered Egypt, penetrated the Sahara desert, and sent a party up the Nile River to discover why it flooded every year. In his relentless campaign to crush his enemies, the Persians, Alexander swept through Turkey and into Mesopotamia.

Along the way, he instructed scribes to describe the lands, their cities, and their people. After capturing Babylon, Alexander and his army marched into the wild, mountainous region of Afghanistan, where he founded several cities, all named after himself. Though he had already passed the lim­its of the known world, Alexander could not resist crossing the Hindu Kush, a formidable mountain range 500 miles long with peaks more than 25,000 feet tall.

In India, Alexander smashed a local Indian army and marveled at its elephants.

But even as Alexander continued lusting after new discoveries in the East, his men began to rebel. Alexander dreamed of continuing on to China; his men dreamed of going home to Greece. Finally, Alexander gave in, though a report said he retreated to his tent and broke down in sobs of fury and disappointment.

Instead of returning as he had come, he marched south to the coast of the Indian Ocean, where he divided his army into three parts. One was to return by ship, while the other two would march overland. The middle route, which Alexander personally led, was across the barren, lifeless stretch of land called the Makran Desert—an area avoided by travelers to this day.

Alexander’s men were decimated by the burning sun and parched landscape, but Alexander survived. When he returned to Babylon, Alexander had been in the East for seven years and had conquered most of the known world. But instead of resting, Alexander ordered a fleet to prepare to sail around the Persian coast. Alexander’s dream was never realized. At age 33, he died of disease.

Who were the early Chinese explorers?

While the empires of the western world were expand­ing eastward, explorers from the Chinese Empire were ven­turing west. The first motive of the Chinese was to establish

But a second motive emerged after A.D. 400—religion. Buddhism emerged in India in the sixth century B.c. and spread to China. Later, Chinese pilgrims would travel to India to discover more about the Buddha and his teachings.

Who was Chang Ch’ien the Chinese explorer?

Chang Ch’ien was one of the earliest and most famous Chinese explorers. In 138 B.C., the Emperor Wu Ti sent Ch’ien west on a mission to find allies. But he was captured by China’s enemy, the Huns, and spent ten years in captivity. He escaped and made contact with the Yiieh-chih, a nomadic tribe in what is today Afghanistan.

Ch’ien reported back to the Chinese emperor in 116,B.c. Wu Ti sent him on another mission the following year, this time to the Wu-Sun, a tribe that lived in what is today southern Russia. On this journey, Ch’ien compiled information on Fergana, a city in Uzbekistan, and India and Parthia—modem-day Iran. When Ch’ien’s journeys were complete, China had made contact with the civilization established by Alexander the Great. The Roman and Chinese empires began to exchange goods.

What was the Silk Road?

The Silk Road was a 4,000-mile-long trading route between the civilizations of Rome and China. Caravans carrying Chinese goods—especially silk—traveled out of northwest China, around the burning desert sands of Takla Makan, over the Pamir Mountains north of India, into Mesopotamia, and finally arrived at the eastern end of the Mediterranean. No one group made the trip. Instead, the goods were passed from one group to another, often tak­ing years to reach their destination. The groups inhabiting the middle of the Silk Road made enormous profits from the trade, and they tried to prevent any direct contact between China and the Roman Empire.

Who was Fa-hsien the Chinese Buddhist traveller?

Fa-hsien was born in the Chinese city of Shansi some­time in the fourth century A.D. As a young man, Fa-hsien became an avid follower of Buddha. He resolved to visit India to see where the Buddha had lived his life and visit temples and shrines of Buddhist teaching. According to an account written by Fa-hsien titled Fo Kua Chi (Record of Buddhist Kingdoms), it took him more than five years to journey from China to central India.

“In the desert were numerous evil spirits and scorching winds, causing death to anyone who would meet them,” he wrote. “Above there were no birds, while on the ground there were no ani­mals. One looked as far as one could in all directions for a path to cross, but there was none to choose. Only the dried bones of the dead served as indications.” Fa-hsien wrote of mountains where he climbed sheer cliffs 8,000 feet tall. The height, he wrote, made him “dizzy.” Fa-hsien made invaluable recordings of Buddhist life as he traveled down the Ganges River Valley in India and finally returned to China via ship.

Who was Hstian-tsang the Chinese Buddhist monk?

Hstian-tsang, a Chinese Buddhist monk, was born in A.D. 602. While studying Buddhist religious texts, Tsang noticed contradictions. Troubled, he decided to visit India, the source of Buddhism, and resolve the discrepancies. In 629, Tsang began his trek by crossing north of the Takla Makan, a vast wasteland of barren sand. His companions and guide soon abandoned him.

Pressing on alone with his horse, Tsang followed animal trails and camel bones. He lost his way but his horse, perhaps detecting water, led him to Turfan, a desert oasis. Next, Tsang crossed over the Hindu Kush mountain range into Pakistan and reached the sacred valley of the Ganges River in India, the holy land of Buddhism. In India, Tsang visited the major sites associated with the Buddha. He wrote of giant libraries filled with books and merchants who traded silks and carpets with Persians in the Middle East. Tsang spent 16 years in India.

When he returned to China, he was received by the Chinese emperor, who was so impressed with Tsang’s accounts that he offered him a post in his court. Tsang respectfully declined and devoted the rest of his life to translating into Chinese the massive amount of Buddhist documents that he had carried from India.

Who was Ibn Fadlan the Arab Muslim writer and traveler?

Many Arab travel narratives from the 800s and 900s are filled with fantastic stories of doubtful accuracy. One traveler named Ibn Fadlan, however, gave a very level account of his visit to the Bulgars, a people in southern Russia who had recently converted to Islam. In A.D. 921, Fadlan was sent to advise the Bulgars on their new reli­gion. While he stayed with the Bulgars, Fadlan observed the Rus, a people who had descended from Vikings. Fadlan described the Rus as a dirty, primitive group that still worshipped pagan gods. With grim detail, Fadlan described a king’s funeral, where a female slave was gruesomely sacrificed and laid alongside the dead chief in a ship. The ship was then burned.

Who was Al Idrisi the Muslim geographer and mapmaker?

Al Idrisi was a Muslim geographer and mapmaker who lived in the Christian kingdom of Sicily in about A.D. 1100. Idrisi had studied in Spain and had traveled extensively in North Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. Supported by the Christian king Roger II of Sicily, Idrisi drew on Greek and Arab sources to create a map of the heavens and the world. He sent out expeditions to confirm his calculations and he relied on Arab sea captains, who told him that Africa was in fact surrounded by water. He engraved a map of the world on a 12-by-5-foot silver plate and creat­ed another globe of the heavens. He also wrote a book about his travels, commonly called The Book of Roger in honor of his king. The Arabic title translates as “The Pleasure Excursion of One Who Is Eager to Traverse the Regions of the World.” Idrisi’s work represented the sum­mit of Arabic map making.

Who was Brendan the Navigator?

Sometime between A.D. 500 and 800, Christian monks from Ireland voyaged to Europe and possibly across the Atlantic Ocean to spread Christianity. They sailed in cur­raghs, open wicker-frame boats covered with animal hides. In the 500s, a monk named Brendan sailed to the Hebrides Islands off the coast of Scotland, to the Scottish mainland, and possibly to Wales and Brittany, France. According to an Irish epic called Navigatio Brendani (Voyage of Brendan), he also led an expedition into the Atlantic Ocean to the “Promised Land of the Saints.” Historians have speculated that the land is Iceland or the Canary Islands off the north­west coast of Africa. He is remembered today as St. Brendan the Navigator.

Who were the Vikings who lived in Scandinavia?

The Vikings were fierce, hardy, and brave people who lived in Scandinavia, the frigid northern lands of Europe. Traveling in longboats, long, narrow ships with square sails and oars, the Vikings plundered Scotland, Wales, England, Ireland, and the coasts of northern Europe from about A.D. 800 to about A.D. 1100. They sacked monasteries, slaugh­tered the monks, looted the gold, and hauled food back to their ships before disappearing again onto the dark waters of the North Sea. From about A.D. 790, the Vikings terrorized northern Europe, even traveling east and south through Russia to make contact with Arab traders in Baghdad. In the 800s and 900s, land in Scandinavia became scarce, and some Vikings began to settle in foreign lands. Driven by the need for land and a hunger for wealth and adventure, these intrepid people turned westward and became the first Europeans to discover and colonize North America, almost 500 years before Columbus sailed.

Who was Erik the Red?

About A.D. 860, Viking sailors reported that a large but uninhabited island lay due west of Norway. An expedition soon confirmed that an island of icy fjords, mountains, and grassy plains lay open to settlement. By A.D 930, 20,000 Viking settlers had crowded onto the island, called Iceland. One of them was an exile from Norway called Erik the Red. Erik was passionate, and his explosive temper matched the intensity of the fiery color of his hair and beard. He killed a man during an argument and was expelled from the town. He moved, settled, and then killed two of his neighbor’s sons in another quarrel.

The Vikings ordered Erik to leave Iceland for three years. Erik faced a difficult decision. He couldn’t return to Norway, but he was unable to remain in Iceland. Boldly, Erik decided to sail west with his family and 30 settlers. He had heard stories of yet another island in the Atlantic. After four days at sea, Erik sighted a coast of mountains locked in ice and snow. Erik ordered the ship to sail south, hoping to find amble land. He soon rounded the island’s southern tip and spotted fields covered with grass. Erik ordered the ships to stop there, and the families began building homes and planting crops. After three years, Erik returned to Iceland to find more settlers. He shrewdly called the new land “Greenland,” realizing that the attrac­tive name would entice colonists. In A.D. 986, 14 ships with 450 Vikings returned with Erik and settled on farms that soon stretched along 120 miles of Greenland coastline.

How did the Vikings spot North America?

While sailing from Iceland to Greenland, a Viking boat was blown off course to the west and reported the exis­tence of a shadowy, unknown land. News of the sighting soon reached the Vikings in Greenland. Leif Eriksson, the son of Erik the Red, was just as brave and curious as his father. He gathered 35 Vikings for a sea journey to learn more about this mysterious place.

How did the Vikings settle North America?

After days at sea, Leif spotted a barren island, which he called Helluland, or “Flatstone Land.” Flatstone Land is called Baffin Island today and sits off the coast of northern Canada. Leif and the Vikings continued south, sighting a wooded land with flat beaches. Leif called it Markland, or “Wooded Land.” The Vikings sailed on and found a suitable place on an island to pass the winter. They erected a small village, which Leif named after himself—Leifsbudir. They were delighted to find streams choked with salmon and vines heavy with berries growing nearby. When the Vikings left the next spring, Leif called the land “Vinland,” meaning Wineland. Today, it is called Newfoundland. The next spring, Leif’s brother, Thorvald, followed Leifs route. The voyage was less fortunate. The Vikings fought a battle with American Indians, and Thorvald died from arrow wounds. In 1009, about 250 Vikings settled in Vinland, the irst European settlement in North America. But hostile Indians doomed the colony and it was abandoned just four years later. The Viking population on Greenland also even­tually dissipated in the late 1400s, when winters became colder and a combination of disease and Eskimo attacks killed off the population.

News of the Viking discovery of North America did not spread to the rest of Europe. When other Europeans again sailed into the Atlantic Ocean in the 1400s and 1500s, they were surprised by what they found.

Who was Ibn Battutah?

Ibn Battutah was born in Morocco, on the northwest coast of Africa, in 1304, and became one of the greatest travelers in history. As part of his religious duty as a Muslim, he set off on a pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia in 1325. On this journey, Battutah felt the first thrill of what would become a lifelong love for travel. Vowing to “never take the same road twice,” Battutah trekked more than 75,000 miles over the vast Islamic Empire, which stretched from Spain to India. He wrote down his experiences in the ROW’, one of the most famous travel books ever written.

Battutah stayed in Mecca for three years, studied law, and set out for Baghdad in Mesopotamia. Leaving Baghdad he traveled south to Yemen and sailed down the east coast of Africa. He established trading contacts and grew wealthy. He turned north and journeyed into Turkey, where local rulers welcomed him as a Muslim scholar. Battutah then moved east, crossing through Iran, Georgia, Armenia, and Afghanistan. Harsh weather and the biting cold did not deter him.

At one time, he had to wear three coats and two pairs of trousers. The bulky clothing made him so unwieldy that he had to be assisted onto his horse. He traveled through the Hindu Kush mountains and entered India. The ruler of Delhi made him ambassador to China. Battutah loaded a ship with gifts for the Chinese Emperor, but he was shipwrecked, and his gifts and his possessions were scattered into the ocean. He eventually reached Peking, but the emperor was no longer there. Unbowed, Battutah explored Ceylon, Bengal, and Java before finally returning to his home in Morocco, where he was received as a hero. He spent the last years of his life relating his extraordinary travels to a scribe. He died peace­fully at the age of 73.

Who was Cheng Ho?

While the Islamic Empire spread from Spain to India, Chinese ships were traveling to Japan, Arabia, and even to the southern tip of Africa. The Chinese sailors traveled in junks—some of which were giant ships that displaced more than 1,000 tons. (Columbus’s ships averaged about 100 tons in size.) Scholars are not certain exactly when the Chinese reached the coast of Africa, but some texts suggest as early as the 800s. In the 1400s, a Chinese explorer named Cheng Ho led seven sea expeditions, reaching the islands of Java and Sumatra, the coasts of India, and ports in Persia, where the Muslims were astonished by the size of the Chinese fleet. Squadrons of Cheng Ho’s ships may have traveled around Africa and explored its western side, decades before the Europeans would reach the continent’s southern tip. But these expeditions were to be China’s last. Confucianism, which scorned the outside world, was becoming the domi­nant philosophy in China, causing the Chinese to abandon their explorations and turn inward. At about this time, Europe was fully emerging from its former isolation.

Who was Marco Polo?

Marco Polo was born in Venice, Italy, in 1254 to a fam­ily of jewel merchants. When Marco was 17, his father and uncle took him on a journey that would last 24 years and cover much of the western and eastern worlds. His later accounts of his travels in the Middle East and China would spread through Europe, inspiring the imaginations of kings and explorers and helping to launch the Age of Exploration centuries later.

Marco, his father, and his uncle left Venice in 1271. For the next three years, they traveled the spice route through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, the Pamir Mountains, and the searing sands of the Gobi desert. Marco wrote down notes of his observations—black oil burned for light, blinding sandstorms that seemed to sing, and horse-riding bandits who attacked and captured much of their caravan. The Polos barely escaped with their lives. After traveling 8,000 miles, the Polos arrived in Cathay, or China, ruled by the powerful Kublai Khan.

What did Marco observe in the East?

Marco was stunned by the magnificence of the khan’s royal court. The king entertained 40,000 guests at banquets that served dozens of courses of meat and fish. The khan grew fond of the intelligent young Italian, and he ordered Polo to various parts of his empire as his agent. Marco saw the wonders of the eastern world—gorgeous palaces, exquisite silks, porcelain vases, and paper money, which was unheard of in Europe, and hunted game in a vast park with cheetahs and falcons. The khan ruled his 34 provinces by sending messages through an elaborate network. About every 25 miles, couriers and fast horses awaited the khan’s messages. When one arrived, they carried it quickly to the next post, ensuring that the ruler’s orders arrived quickly and safely. Marco also observed the lifestyle of the Tartars—nomadic horsemen who lived on the vast, flat Asian steppes. They carried tents that collapsed easily for transportation and were covered in felt waterproofed with animal fat. They also dehydrated milk into powder. On a long journey, the Tartars mixed the powder with water in a pouch. After a day of travel, the mixture had become a thin gruel that they ate for dinner.

Kublai Khan valued Marco so greatly that at first he refused to allow the Polos to return to Europe. In 1292, however, the khan reluctantly gave them permission to leave. This time, the Polos returned mostly by sea, sailing around the coast of India.

How did Marco inspire other explorers?

When Marco Polo returned to Venice in 1295, he told fantastic tales of what he had seen, drawing scorn and accusations of exaggeration. Marco’s descriptions appeared to the Venetians to be the wild ramblings of a child’s imag­ination. Marco, however, insisted that his stories were true. On his deathbed, Marco said, “I have not told half of what I saw.” Today we might not know the name Marco Polo had he not been captured while battling Venice’s rival city, Genoa. In prison, Marco shared his stories with a fellow prisoner named Rustichello of Pisa. Rustichello, a writer of romances, wrote down Marco’s stories and printed them in a book, The Description of the World. Later, these stories would inspire a whole generation of European explorers to look for the wealth and wonders of the East. One sea cap­tain read through the book and took careful notes. He even kept the book with him when he embarked on a daring voyage west across the Atlantic Ocean. His name was Christopher Columbus.

About Karen Hill

Karen Hill is a freelance writer, editor, and columnist. Born in New York, her work has appeared in the Examiner, Yahoo News, Buzzfeed, among others.