Why Humans Explore

The eMagazine has a section that address the topic of Ways to Explore to offer you some motivation to get out and explore.  These motivations are, for the most part, associated with moving your interests outdoors and using them as a basis for your explorations.  There are many other motivations and one way to discover some of them is to study the greatest voyages of exploration.

History’s Greatest Voyages


History's Greatest Voyages of DiscoveryI’ve been listening to a series of lectures by Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius, Ph.D. of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.  The course is titled History’s Greatest Voyages of Exploration.  In it Dr. Liulevicius examines a series of explorations, beginning in pre-historic times.  In each case, the explorers were motivated to explore.  What were their motivations?

The historic voyages in these lectures had varied motivations, yet Dr. Liulevicius says we all have one thing in common: “It’s in our genes. The drive to discover is at the core of human identity.”  Exploration and travel has been built into us since the original migrations out of Africa.  Starting with this base level of motivation, the voyages of exploration had other motivations, or perhaps they were justifications to explain the base motivation.

Quest for Knowledge

Around 340 BC, Pytheas the Greek left Greece alone and traveled as far as Iceland in the pursuit of knowledge – scientific exploration.  He documented his journey around Great Britain, into the land of the midnight sun and the polar ice.  He is the first explorer noted as having journeyed simply for knowledge.  He began a movement that has continued today as we explore the moon and beyond.

While Pytheas was exploring the northwest portion of the known world,  Alexander the Great was headed east to India and south into Africa.  While his apparent motivation was discovery and conquest by war and nation-building, he is also known as a seeker of knowledge; another scientific explorer.


Portrait of Xuanzang

Portrait of Xuanzang

When Jesus told his followers to spread the word, he set forth a motivation based upon religion.  First, the apostles traveled from today’s Italy to India.  Later, came Saint Brendan the Navigator.  He was born in about 484 AD and ultimately set out to get lost in a sort of religious quest. Along the way, he recorded visiting lands as far as Iceland and perhaps even Newfoundland.

Religious motivations were not limited to Christians.  In 629 AD, Buddhist monk Xuanzang set out from China to India to acquire holy texts.  His journey took 17 years and passed through the Gobi Desert, Tashkent, Samarkand to the Buddha’s home in the eastern Ganges.  He returned to China with hundreds of cases containing texts, relics and even plants and medicines.  His journey was also scientific in that he was seeking the basis of Buddism by collecting the ancient  texts that were not then available in China.  The idea was to supplement his and China’s understanding of Buddhism.

Pursuit of Wealth

In 1291 AD, brothers Ugolino and Guido Vivaldi and their crews set out from Genoa to travel to India, by heading west across the Mediterranean and through the Strait of Gibraltar.  Their motivation was primarily to tap into the riches of India and build their wealth by bringing those riches to Europe via water – a much faster and cheaper approach than the overland routes of the time. That’s the same motivation that

Marco Polo

Marco Polo

drove Columbus to North America a couple of hundred years later. The Vivaldi’s also took a couple of Franciscan Friars, so it is believed there were also religious motivations.  The voyagers were last seen off the coast of Morocco – the voyage failed – but their motivations had to have been very strong to take the risks that led to their demise.

Beyond the Vivaldi’s and Columbus there were many explorers who sought wealth.  One of the best known is Marco Polo who began his adventures in 1271 AD when he was 17 years old.  He traveled from Venice to what is now Beijing, China, and  encouraged expansion in East-West trade with his writings.


The Norsemen were motivated primarily by adventure and conquest.  For a couple of hundred years that involved major violence across much of Europe.  Those weren’t the only motivations.  They also succumbed to curiosity, fame and the desire for wealth.  By the 900’s AD, they were exploring Iceland, Greenland and around 1001 they were in Vinland – somewhere between Newfoundland and Georgia – where the natives told them of a visit by men in white robes – perhaps Saint Brendan’s party.

Routes of the Norsemen

Routes of the Norsemen
Mediatus (H.J.)  [CC-BY-SA-3.0]

The Motivations

With these stories, Dr. Liulevicius highlights some of the major motivations that led to the greatest voyages in history:

  • Pursuit of knowledge (Science)
  • Pursuit of wealth
  • Religion
  • Curiosity
  • Fame
  • Exploration
  • Conquest
  • Discovery


If you would like to get far deeper into the history of exploration,  I can strongly recommend History’s Greatest Voyages of Exploration.  The 12 hours of lectures are fascinating and expertly presented by Dr. Liulevicius.  They are available as a downloadable audio book, on CD, downloadable video or on DVD.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

I accept the Privacy Policy

Pin It on Pinterest