The human being is, above all, a curious species. He keeps wondering why, where, when and how. From the moment it became aware of its environment, humanity wanted to know and dominate it, beginning an intense process of exploration that has lead to the total conquest of Earth.
As a consequence of the great neolithic revolution, with the appearance of the production economy and the birth of a sedentary society, the exploratory activity acquired an increasing rhythm, being trade the main driver.
The first known explorations
The first known explorations took place in Sumeria. The expansion and conquest of Sumerian kings, such as Lugalzagesi of Uruk, gave the first images of the world known in its time, dominating from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea. Similarly, Sargon of Acad is remembered as a great explorer after his journey to the Taurus Mountains and the eastern part of the Anatolian peninsula.
Ancient Egyptians made important discoveries through the dominance of the Nile River. Unlike Sumerian travel, these companies were commercial in nature, often driven by the state. Large amounts of minerals and other unique products such as ivory or ebony were obtained from the southern regions of the Nile – Upper Nile, Nubia, Sudan -, or along the coasts of the Red Sea or Sinai. Even back in prehistory they had contact with the Central African peoples and the Pygmies.
The danger behind the adventure
One of the most famous explorers, Harkhuf, made four expeditions to Sudan and the Upper Nile, returning to Egypt with a pygmy as proof of his feat before Pharaoh Pepi II. However, many adventurers paid the price with their lives, as is the case with Pepinekht, who had to wait for his son Sabni to recover his body in Sudan in order to be buried according to traditional rites.
With the reign of Menthu-hetep IV the expeditions focused towards the Red Sea and the country of Punt – present-day Somalia -, extending in time until the XI dynasty and the beginning of the XII, when the revolts of the Sudanese tribes made it difficult forays into southern territories.
To get an idea of the danger of these trips, it is enough to mention the expedition to Punt led by Khentekthai, very celebrated for returning to Egypt without any casualties. The supply lines necessary to assist the caravans of donkeys and porters were organized on the southern border, not without setbacks, since enmities with some tribes forced the diversion of these explorations towards the jungle in many cases.
In spite of everything, thanks to the networks of intense trade, it has been verified that the Egyptian influence reached the African equatorial areas.
Exploring the Mediterranean
North of the Nile, the Egyptians laid hands on the eastern Mediterranean Sea, exploring the coasts of Cyprus, Syria, Asia Minor, and Crete. Little by little, the Cretans and the Achaeans were gaining importance in the navigation of the Mediterranean and extended their exploration to the Cyclades, continental Greece and the central Mediterranean.
Later, while Cretans and Achaeans explored the Sardinian and Tyrrhenian Sea, the attacks on the Aegean Sea by those known as Sea Peoples along with the destruction of the Mycenaean civilization, deprived humanity of several centuries of information regarding these campaigns.
The Phoenicians inherited the navigation techniques of the Aegean sailors and by the end of the 12th century B.C. they were well-known in the Mediterranean. Specifically, trade with the cities of Sidon and Tire led their sailors to explore the shores of Thrace and the Sea of Marmara. Possibly the Sidonians were the ones who discovered the Black Sea. The Tyrians, meanwhile, explored the coasts of North Africa until they reached the western Mediterranean and discovered the Pillars of Hercules – what we now know as the Strait of Gibraltar -, the southern coasts of Iberia and the Atlantic Ocean.
These Phoenician explorations were anonymous, as well as the foundation of cities such as Gadir (Cadiz) and many others along the Mediterranean coasts of Iberia.
The circumnavigation of Africa
Furthermore, through Herodotus, we know that the Phoenicians were the first to circumnavigate the African continent. By order of Pharaoh Necao, Phoenician explorers were to board a port in the Red Sea to return to Egypt through the Pillars of Hercules. The expedition lasted three years and was a resounding success, with the exploration of more than 20,000 km of coastline: one of the greatest feats in the ancient world.
This circumnavigation of Africa tried to be replicated on some occasions, but during this time it was impossible for those who dare to do it. The Persian Sataspes was condemned in the time of King Xerxes to attempt the same journey that the Phoenicians made in reverse – a curious punishment that, if successful, would translate into glory for the Empire -. He left Egypt and headed towards the Pillars of Hercules to follow the African Atlantic coast, but somewhere in his journey that we do not know, Sataspes became demoralized and turned to return to Persia, where he was sentenced to death.
Much later, between the years 146 – 117 B.C., the Greek Eudoxio embarked on another attempt to surround the African continent, this time in order to reach India without going through the Egyptian customs that reduced his profits. The first expedition left Gadir in a failed attempt, since their ship ran aground somewhere on the African coast and was lucky to be able to return to the starting point. They were less fortunate during the second journey, despite having been meticulously prepared, since after leaving the city of Gadir they were never heard from again.
This was the last attempt to circumnavigate Africa in Antiquity. The Phoenicians succeeded, but their feat was forgotten by the Romans, and during this time the coasts of the African continent appeared deformed in the planispheres.
Exploring the Black Sea and the Atlantic coasts
The Greeks inherited the spirit of adventure from their Achaean ancestors, showing the exploratory character in all their heroes – Hercules, Achilles, Ulysses … – and making them great navigators of the ancient world. For example, the legend of Jason and the Argonauts in the Ponto Euxino (Black Sea) exploration masks the Greek exploration of the Black Sea, Azov Sea and lower basins of the Tasis, Tanais (Don) and Ister (Danube) rivers, the Crimean peninsula and the Ukrainian plain.
Greek navigation reached the entire Mediterranean between the 8th and 7th centuries B.C., founding hundreds of colonies on the coasts of southern Italy, Sicily, southern France and Iberia. The trigger of these explorations was mainly economic, given the need for minerals and fertile lands for expansion, but a desire for adventure and attraction for the unknown cannot be neglected either.
On the other hand, the exploration of the European Atlantic coasts was started by the Tartessians. From the mouth of the Guadalquivir river, they traveled the western coast of the Iberian peninsula to the Galician estuaries and later the Breton islands – Cornwall in particular – in search of tin to trade with the Phoenicians. Parallel to these trips, they also entered the interior of the Iberian plateau to the north and west, where they found abundant gold and tin.
With the disappearance of Tartessos around 500 B.C., the Carthaginians continued the Atlantic explorations. Hannon’s expedition, whose purpose was to colonize and explore, embarked in Carthage to 30,000 colonists equipped with everything necessary to found new cities. After crossing the Strait of Gibraltar and doubling Cape Espartel, he founded several settlements along the Maghreb Atlantic coast until he reached Lixus, where a Phoenician factory was located at the mouth of the Lucus River, in what today we call Morocco.
From this point it began the exploration of the unknown coasts, always to the south. The description of the geography seems to indicate that Hannon managed to get to Cape Verde and Sierra Leone, although some studies suggest that he could have reached Gabon, and even had contact with Brazilian lands on the other side of the Atlantic. However, the latter has not been proven yet.
Continue reading the second part.
- Maluquer de Motes, Juan, (1970), La Conquista de la Tierra, La Edad Antigua, Salvat Editores S.A. y Alianza Editorial S.A. Depósito Legal M. 22.903 – 1970
- Conde-Salazar Infiesta, Luis; Lucena Giraldo, Manuel, (2009), Atlas de los exploradores españoles, GeoPlaneta, ISBN 9788408086833, OCLC 556943554
- Morère Molinero, Nuria E. (coord.), (2009), Viajes en el Mediterráneo antiguo, Centro de Estudios Ramón Areces, Universidad de Sevilla, ISBN 9788480048248