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Geographic Exploration

South China Sea, Polynesians, emperor of China, Japanese people, human species

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Geographic Exploration, process of conscious discovery by human beings of the world around them. The human species is highly mobile, migrating and traveling to every corner of the globe. In this, we are not unique. What sets human beings apart from other living creatures is our ability to discover. Many other creatures share humankind’s curiosity, but we alone can communicate our discoveries. Human societies acquire a collective awareness of their known world, and the most adventurous have the urge to discover what lies beyond and to return to describe their findings: These are the explorers.


The exploration of Earth, and now the space beyond it, has proceeded from many different sources and perspectives. Chinese, Europeans, Africans, Polynesians, and Native Americans all explored the frontiers of the regions they knew. The pace of this exploration has been uneven: extraordinarily quick in some periods, with long intervals when little has happened.

Some cultures have felt the need to explore, others appear to have deliberately turned inward. Some perhaps did explore but never recorded their findings. Some societies lacked the necessary technology, and others seem to have been so highly adapted to their environment that they remained within it. An unusual case of a “nonexploring” society was Japan. Early contact with the outside world was limited to an occasional embassy to China and trips by pilgrims to the mainland. As late as 1500 the Japanese had not yet fully explored the northern island of Hokkaido, part of the main Japanese archipelago. The reasons for this lack of interest are not clear, but as time passed the closed attitude became formalized when Japanese people were forbidden to travel abroad, and by government edict Japanese ships were limited in size and had to be built to designs only suitable to sail close inshore.

Still other cultures made great bursts of exploration, and then abandoned the quest. In the first quarter of the 15th century, the emperor of China repeatedly sent out his courtier Zheng He to explore the world. After seven unprecedented voyages throughout the South China Sea and Indian Ocean, the Chinese administration abruptly cancelled all further trips, and the country reverted to its traditional policy of seclusion. Some societies lost the ability to explore. Many island cultures of the Pacific Ocean eventually lost the technological know-how to construct vessels capable of the transoceanic travel that originally brought their ancestors there. These peoples thus became confined to their islands.


Baker, Daniel B., ed. Explorers and Discoverers of the World. Gale Research, 1993. Profiles of more than 300 explorers, from ancient times to the recent past.

Bohlander, Richard E., ed. World Explorers and Discoverers. Macmillan, 1991. Reprint Da Capo, 1998. Solid coverage of the explorers and others who supported exploration.

Bryan, C. D. B. The National Geographic Society: 100 Years of Adventure and Discovery. Abrams, 1987, 2001. Reviews the society's growth and its worldwide explorations; illustrated.

Driver, Felix. Geography Militant: Cultures of Exploration and Empire. Blackwell, 1999. A look at the relationship between geographical knowledge, exploration, and the needs of empire.

Flowers, Sarah. The Age of Exploration. Gale, 1998. A special focus on Columbus, Da Gama, Drake, and Magellan.

The Oxford Atlas of Exploration. Oxford University Press, 1998. Illustrated chronicle of humanity's exploration of the unknown; covers all geographic regions.

Waldman, Carl, and Alan Wexler. Who Was Who in World Exploration. Replica, 1999. Over 800 explorers are covered in this illustrated reference guide.


Microsoft ® Encarta ® 2009. © 1993-2008 Microsoft Corporation.

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