Exploration since the time of ancient civilization until today has been motivated by scientific curiosity, colonialism, commerce or a simple desire to learn about other cultures. An early explorer was Pytheas (380-c. 310 BCE) from Greece, who explored the island of Britain as well as parts of northern Europe, and was thought to be a pioneer of maritime exploration.
Marco Polo (1254-1324) was a Venetian merchant who traveled to Asia with his father and uncle, returning after 24 years. The journey was described in Il Milione.
The Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama (c. 1469-1524) was the first explorer from Europe to reach India via the Cape of Good Hope. In 1502, he commanded the 4th Portuguese Armada in a voyage to India, with the object of expanding Portuguese interests in the east. Vasco Núñez de Balboa (c. 1475-1519) was the first known European explorer to view the Pacific Ocean from America. Ferdinand Magellan (1480-1521) was the first to attempt to sail round the entire globe in one expedition. After sailing through the Straits of Magellan, the explorer gave the Pacific Ocean its name. Juan Sebastián Elcano (1476-1526) completed the circumnavigation started by Magellan after the latter's death in the Philippines.
The Portuguese prince known as Henry the Navigator (1394-1460) was known as the patron of exploration as he sponsored many exploratory voyages. The Portuguese João Fernandes Lavrador (1445-1501) reached Labrador and Newfoundland first, but John Cabot (c. 1450–1499) an Italian explorer, claimed Newfoundland for the English king. Canada was discovered by the French Jacques Cartier (1491-1557). Pedro Álvares Cabral (c. 1467-c. 1520) also Portuguese, is generally regarded as the European discoverer of Brazil.
Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) was said to have been inspired by Marco Polo. Originally Genoese, he was commissioned by the Spanish to sail west in 1492 to reach Asia. Instead he arrived in the Americas. He completed four voyages across the Atlantic Ocean which initiated Spanish and later European colonization. His contemporary, the Italian Amerigo Vespucci (1454-1512) make voyages in 1499 and 1502, exploring the east coast of South America. The expeditions became widely known in Europe after two accounts attributed to Vespucci were published. A world map published in 1507 by Martin Waldseemüller named the new continent America after Vespucci. The Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro (c. 1475-1541) conquered the Inca Empire and Hernán Cortés (1485-1545) conquered the Aztec Empire for Spain.
Not long after Columbus began the discovery and conquest of the New World, the Russian Yermak Timofeyevich (c. 1532-1585) conquered the Khanate of Siberia. Semyon Dezhnyov (1605-1672) was the first European to sail through the Bering Strait, named later after Vitus Bering (1681-1741), a Dane who explored the Siberian Far East and Alaska, and claimed it for Russia. Ivan Krusenstern (1770-1846) was the first Russian circumnavigator.
The Russian commander Mikhail Lazarev (1788-1851) discovered Antarctica. Roald Amundsen (1872-1928) led the first successful Antarctic expedition between 1910 and 1912. He was also the first to traverse the North West Passage. The British Antarctic Expedition, from 1910 to 1913, led by Robert Falcon Scott reached the pole on January 17th, 1912, but found that the Norwegian team led by Amundsen had preceded them by 33 days.
The most famous English explorer was possibly Sir Walter Raleigh (c. 1554-1618). In 1594 Raleigh sailed to South America and afterwards published an exaggerated account of his experiences. In 1616, Raleigh conducted a second expedition to Venezuela. His company attacked a Spanish outpost at San Tomé. On Raleigh's return to England, the Spanish ambassador insisted that King James I carry out Raleigh's death sentence and he was executed in 1618.
Abel Tasman (1603-1659) sailed to New Zealand and Tasmania. James Cook (1728-1779), a legendary British sea captain, explored a wide area of the Pacific, including Hawaii, New Zealand and Australia.
The Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804-1806) was the first commissioned by the United States to the Pacific Coast. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, accompanied by a fifteen year old Shoshone Indian woman, Sacagawea, reached the Pacific Ocean in the area of present-day Oregon in November 1805.
Famous female explorers included Isabella Bird (1831-1904), the first woman to become a member of the Royal Geographical Society, who traveled extensively, exploring the Far East, Central Asia and the American West; Gertrude Bell (1868-1926) who traveled mainly in the Middle East, and Carrie Strahorn (1854-1925) best known as the first western woman to tour the entire Yellowstone Park and one of the first to travel to, and write about, the wilds of Alaska.