In the late 15th and into the 16th century, explorers like the Italians Christopher Columbus (anglicized from Cristoforo Colombo), John Cabot (anglicized from Giovanni Caboto), Giovanni da Verrazzano, and Amerigo Vespucci, who gave his name to the continents of the new world, set their sights on lands that today are home to 13.5% of the world’s population.* To them, those lands were only theoretical. Their voyages represented the only known non-Nordic explorations of the Americas at the time. Before that, in the late 10th century, Vikings also made their way into the Americas, settling present-day Newfoundland and Greenland. They established colonies that survived for more than five centuries in the latter and traveling as far inland as present-day L'Anse aux Meadows in the former. These explorers all sailed into the unknown, only a blank spot on the era’s best maps, boldly and in a way most natural to the human spirit of exploration.
When they arrived, though, they found they were not alone, nor were they first. Dating back as far as 33,000 years, archaeologists and paleontologists have found proof of movements from Asia into the Americas. It was these people whose descendants became the indigenous peoples of the Americas, building astounding cities like Cahokia in present-day Illinois and Tenochtitlan, the juggernaut that evolved into Mexico City. Scholars now disagree about the means by which people first entered America, either across the Bering Strait after an ice sheet melted or along the western coast in the millennia prior. Regardless of the means, the same constant, human spirit of exploration drove them.
In addition to these better-known instances of explorations, there have been multiple theories about other contact between the indigenous peoples of the Americas and Polynesians, East Asians, Indians, Africans, and Classical-period Europeans. Researchers and academics continue to debate these theories, which vary widely in credibility. One theory that has stirred up particularly virulent controversy is that of contact between indigenous people of present- day South America and the Ancient Egyptians – as evidenced by the discovery of tobacco and coca metabolite traces in mummies uncovered in present-day Sudan and Egypt.
Whether or not this theory pans out and whatever conclusions we draw about the colonization of the Americas in the 15th century, the 10th century, or prehistory, the fact remains that people have historically embraced and carried forth the spirit of exploration in search of new lands. In recent years, a movement has gained momentum in America to replace or co-celebrate Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day, paying homage to the pre- Columbian Americans instead of or in addition to the Italian explorer who opened the gates to the colonial period for European countries. While the debate is a personal one and rife with varying perspectives, it seems important to remember the spirit of the holiday – as a celebration of exploration first and foremost.
Like precious few other human characteristics – language, socialization, spirituality – exploration has been a constant across all cultures. From the seafarers who settled the islands of the Pacific to the Europeans who braved the Atlantic to the Apollo astronauts who charted a course Moonward, people have distinguished themselves again and again by stretching out beyond the comfort of their homesteads and into the great unknown. This Columbus Day, we look back on the explorers of every era and of every nation, seeing ourselves in them and their urge to venture onward and outward.
* For a more extensive list of Italian explorers, see below:
Esploratori italiani/Italian explorers
Giuseppe Acerbi • Enrico Alberto d'Albertis • Carlo Amoretti • Paolo Andreani • Orazio Antinori • Giosafat Barbaro • Giacomo Beltrami • Scipione Borghese • Vittorio Bottego • Giacomo Bove • Sebastiano Caboto • Umberto Cagni • Giovanni Caboto • Alvise Cadamosto • Gaetano Casati • Giuseppe Castiglione • Cristoforo Colombo • Ambrogio Contarini • Niccolò de' Conti • Andrea Corsali • Antonio da Noli • Giovanni da Pian del Carpine • Ardito Desio • Alfonso de Tonti • Enrico de Tonti • Andrea Doria • Eusebio Kino • Alessandro Malaspina • Lancelotto Malocello • Reinhold Messner • Umberto Nobile • Antonio Pigafetta • Emanuele Piloti • Marco Polo • Niccolò and Maffeo Polo • Michele Pontrandolfo • Domenico Potorti • Matteo Ricci • Prince Luigi Amedeo, Duke of the Abruzzi • Pietro Paolo Savorgnan di Brazzà • Giovanni da Verrazzano • Amerigo Vespucci • Ugolino Vivaldi • Vadino Vivaldi • Alex Bellini
All source photos and illustrations used in this article are made available via public domain.