Exploration

Since the dawn of humanity, individuals and groups have traipsed over hills and dales, forded rivers, crossed mountains and sailed oceans. Often they have been driven by economic necessity. Yet there seems to be a basic drive within humans that impels them to explore their world.

Old Sailing Ship

In ancient times vast movements of peoples occurred because climatic conditions or over-population or the invasion of another group forced them to move. At other times exploration and colonization was a conscious policy of government. The Greeks developed specific procedures for scouting out new lands and the colonization of new city states. By the time of the Peloponnesian Wars they had explored most of the Mediterranean basin.

What is geographic exploration? It is the seeking of knowledge about an area previously unknown. Interestingly enough, even lands previously known and developed by one group can be "explored". It is a commonly said by someone new to a town or city that they are "going exploring". True exploring is the ground-breaking searching of an area previously unknown to a society. Thus, we may speak of Vasco da Gama as exploring the Coast of Africa, or Columbus exploring the New World.

In the course of human history, exploration has come in spurts. In ancient times expeditions were frequently mounted. Yet, the dark and middle ages saw little exploration. The only group that could truly be said to explore was the Vikings. This was because the economic and social conditions were not conducive to exploiting new lands. Nobles had an interest in maintaining their power and containing their peasant populations within a narrow sphere. On the contrary, the Norsemen lived in a more free society. They saw advantage and honor in leaving their own shores to establish kingdoms throughout Europe and coincidentally to colonize vast areas of the north, eventually stretching all the way to Newfoundland in North America.

The Age of Exploration came with the beginning of the end of the feudal system. Because individuals could gain wealth and glory, there were suddenly reasons to seek new lands, and the technology necessary to do so. It is hardly coincidental that this period saw the development of the sextant, the compass, and the sea-worthy caravel. Investment in exploration, though risky, proved profitable and within a few centuries the entire world was colonized.

There is little doubt that some explorers were both cruel and corrupt. No excuses can be made for criminal behavior. In some areas vast populations were destroyed, often unintentionally by disease. Even so, the sum total of this activity proved to be economic advancement on a world-wide scale.

The Age of Exploration ended with the fall of Imperialism at the end of the First World War (the Great War). Exploration would not kick off again until the "Space Race" of the late 1900s. The Soviet Union was the first nation to launch a satellite into orbit, Sputnik. The United States saw a threat and determined to launch its own space program. Eventually, this would lead to men walking, temporarily, on the moon. With this goal accomplished, space exploration has only progressed by fits and starts, with an occasional un-manned probe or mars rover. When will humans again proceed to explore the universe? When the need or desire or economic benefit finally overcomes the current inertia.

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