What makes us humans want to explore?

Tales of exploration from around the globe and beyond!

We humans are curious creatures, and our history is crammed full of tales of exploration, adventure and discovery. But what makes us humans want to explore?

Is it the fame and glory? Is it the wealth of knowledge ready to be unearthed? Or is it our curiosity for what went before us, or what the future could look like? Well, Matt Wallace from NASA has a pretty good idea.

Inspiration from NASA | What makes us humans want to explore?

To help soothe the exploration itch that we’ve been desperate to scratch after so long stuck at home, we’re taking a look at some amazing tales of exploration. Discover some super brave (and sometimes dastardly) historical figures, plus take a peek at what may be next for us.

Finding riches

Close your eyes and think of buried pirate treasure; what do you see? Often, we imagine unearthing an ornate chest overflowing with golden coins, precious gems, strings of pearls and glittering relics to rival the royal collection!

Discovering pirate gold | What makes us humans want to explore?

With timeless hunts for buried treasure as told by Edgar Allan Poe in The Gold-Bug and Robert Louis Stevenson in Treasure Island (and The Goonies, of course), it’s no surprise that we love the idea of stumbling across a glittering hoard or, at least, a weathered map bobbing in a bottle by the shore. After all, who doesn’t want to get their hands on Captain Flint’s treasure?

The Gold-Bug was inspired by, and Treasure Island even mentions, William Kidd – a real-life privateer-turned-pirate. In reality, Captain William Kidd may be the only pirate to have buried his wealth for safekeeping – or, at least, the only one we know about! Captain Kidd hid a small cache of treasure at Cherry Tree Field on Gardiner’s Island, just off the coast of New York. Don’t rush to grab those spades just yet – it’s believed that the treasure was unearthed as evidence in Kidd’s trial after his capture. However, it’s long been considered that more of Kidd’s ill-gotten gains are laying undetected out there; numerous treasure seekers have spent their lives searching for it.

Captain Kidd's ill-gotten gains | What makes us humans want to explore?

There was more than one way to find your riches on the open ocean, even for roguish pirates. In fact, the most successful pirate to ever sail the high seas, who was 200x more powerful than Blackbeard, was an early-19th-century Chinese pirate called Zheng Yi Sao (or Ching Shih), and SHE ruled a pirate empire as a business with an epic fleet of ships. They benefitted from taxes from captured ports, and she taxed all of her crew on their ill-gotten gains to boost her own funds. Despite having strict laws for her own pirate empire, she was a bit of a menace for everyone else and became known as ‘The Terror of South China’. She was offered amnesty by the government, who even said she could keep all of her loot and retired with her riches!

Digging up the past

Of course, there’s more to treasure hunting than gold and jewels and pirate caches – finding ancient relics and even lost kingdoms is just as exciting and magical! We wouldn’t know half of the things we do if it weren’t for archaeologists and palaeontologists digging up the past and unearthing history.

A buzz of discovery drew Egyptologists across the world to unearth the Valley of The Kings throughout the past two centuries, spurring on professional digs to excavate the Great Pyramid of Giza, the last of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World, and King Tutankhamun’s tomb, among many others. But, mummies, pyramids and sphinxes weren’t the only major finds for archaeologists or even the ones with the most significant impact on modern history. The discovery of the Rosetta Stone in Rashid (also known as Rosetta and Rosette) was the key to deciphering the previously unencrypted Ancient Egyptian scripts. The stone slab, or stele, is inscribed with a decree issued in Memphis but repeated in different languages and scripts: the first in Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs, the second in Ancient Egyptian Demotic script and the third in Ancient Greek. Since the three segments were almost identical in nature, it was the first real chance to decipher hieroglyphics. Historians finally had the opportunity to understand the Ancient Egyptian texts, unlocking the truth of their civilisation and culture. And while the truth of the Egyptians, their burial practices and their relics have all come to light, there is still one mystery that remains – where is Cleopatra’s tomb?

Deciphering the Rosetta Stone | What makes us humans want to explore?

Of course, it’s not just Egypt that had secrets to unlock. Nowadays, everyone has heard of Pompeii, but can you believe it was hidden away for over 1500 years?! After the eruption of Mount Vesuvius buried the city in 79AD, Pompeii laid undisturbed until its rediscovery in the late 16th-century, and excavation work didn’t begin until over a century later. Yet, the discoveries made offered a unique insight into what life was like for ancient Romans. But it wasn’t just the archaeologists who were absorbed by the excitement of the artefacts, architecture and artwork. The buzz about Pompeii spread across the world, inspiring artists, decorators and furniture makers, particularly in France where Marie Antoinette’s quarters were furnished with Pompeian decor.

The truth is, you didn’t have to be a professional to make a notable discovery (and you still don’t!). Even the layman going about their day-to-day life can stumble across relics, remains or even lost cities with a bit of luck! Have you ever heard of the Terracotta Army? The sculptures depicting the army of China’s first Emperor were created in the 3rd-century BCE to line his tomb and protect him in the afterlife. The mausoleum and its 8,000+ terracotta soldiers (plus chariots and horses) were unearthed entirely by accident in 1974 by a group of farmers digging a well! One slightly lesser-known discovery is the ancient Derinkuyu underground city in Turkey, with a complex tunnel system, multiple levels and caverns capable of housing over 20,000 people (and livestock!). It was rediscovered in 1963 when a resident found a curious room behind a wall in his home during building work and kept digging! Do you know what’s lurking behind your walls or below your floor? (Note: we do NOT recommend taking a sledgehammer to them to find out…).

Unearthing the Terracotta Army | What makes us humans want to explore?

Treading new paths

You don’t have to be inspired by finding treasure or ancient relics to call yourself an adventurer. In fact, some of the best-known adventurers helped us ‘discover’ the world! From Marco Polo’s recorded journey along Asia’s Silk Road in the 13th-century to Christopher Columbus’ voyage to the Caribbean and Americas in the 15th-century, then Captain James Cook’s exploration of the Pacific Ocean in the 18th-century, the story of the world beyond Europe unfolded, and previously uncharted territories were mapped and explored.

While many credit Christopher Columbus with being the first European to ‘discover’ North America, a Viking named Leif Erikkson set foot on American soil nearly 500 years before Columbus even set foot on his ship to the ‘New World’! Leif’s family had a history of exile, sailing, of course, and discovering new places. His grandfather Thorvald Ásvaldsson was exiled from Norway and travelled to Iceland (which was established by his great-great-uncle Naddodd a century or two before). Leif’s father, Erik the Red, was banished from Iceland, set sail west and discovered Greenland!

Leif, in turn, developed the seafaring bug and, during a voyage back home after visiting Norway, he was blown off course and saw a land covered in vines and wheat fields. He later returned, following the route of a merchant named Bjarni who had spotted the same vine-covered expanse of land. First, he landed in a place he named Helluland – flat-rock land, possibly Baffin Island – then Markland – possibly Labrador – before reaching his ultimate destination, Vinland. Historians were always sceptical of the truth in Leif’s travels, but the discovery of Nordic settlements on the northern tip of Newfoundland, Canada, sealed Leif’s spot in the history books as an early explorer.

Even our storybooks help us imagine what being a voyager to undiscovered places might look and feel like, allowing our minds to run wild with inspiration. The famous French novelist, poet and playwright, Jules Verne clearly caught the adventuring bug with his epic tales in the Voyages Extraordinaires collection. While you may not have heard of all 54 novels in the collection, you’ll undoubtedly know some of the stories: Journey to the Centre of the EarthThe Mysterious IslandTwenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea; and, arguably the most famous, Around the World in Eighty Days. Verne’s novels inspired generations of voyagers, including the investigative journalist Nellie Bly, who in 1889 set off to circumnavigate the globe in less than 80 days to beat Verne’s character, Phileas Fogg. She used steamships and the existing railroads rather than a hot air balloon and managed to complete her journey in just 72 days, 6 hours and 11 minutes!

Race to be first

Although discovery and adventure bring their own thrill, it’s nothing compared to the joy of being the first and etching your efforts into the history books forever. While Nellie Bly was in the race to be the first to beat Phileas Fogg’s record, she certainly wasn’t the first woman to circumnavigate the globe: that honour belongs to Jeanne Baret.

Disguised as a man, Baret joined the French Navy as an assistant to the naturalist Philibert Commerçon, with who she had an existing relationship. They set sail in 1766 and spent years investigating botanicals across the world. The duo eventually settled in Mauritius, where she remained even after Commerçon’s death in 1773. Jeanne didn’t finish her circumnavigation until around a decade after she first set sail, landing back in France sometime in 1775.

Jeanne Baret sailing the seas | What makes us humans want to explore?

Once the seas were thoroughly charted and circumnavigated, adventurers needed new challenges, turning to the summits, the skies and even the stars. Thanks to their pioneering feats, names like Sir Edmund Hillary and Amelia Earhart are already well-known. In 1953, Sir Edmund was one of the first two climbers confirmed to have reached the summit of Mount Everest, alongside climbing partner Tenzing Norgay. But, long before Edmund Hillary was even born, Annie Smith Peck was shocking the world with her unladylike hobby of mountaineering. In 1908, at the age of 60, her expedition was the first to reach the north peak of Mount Huascarán in Peru. And that wasn’t enough – a year later, Annie conquered Mount Coropuna and placed a ‘Votes for Women’ pennant at the top. She kept mountaineering until the age of 82, but, unfortunately, her achievements were overshadowed by her choice of climbing attire – she dared to wear trousers instead of skirts and dresses!

A few decades later, up in the skies, Amelia Earhart was firmly stamping her name in the history books with her achievements. She was the first woman to fly over the Atlantic as a passenger, the first woman (and second person ever) to fly over the Atlantic solo – making her the first person to fly over the Atlantic twice – and gained another four achievements for being the first person to succeed in solo flights. All this before her tragic disappearance in 1937 while attempting to be the first female aviator to complete an around-the-world flight.

Even when all of the ‘firsts’ seem to have been taken up, there’s still the chance to make your mark and slide into the record books, which is precisely what Jean Batten did. While fellow aviator Amy Johnson had become the first female to fly from London to Australia, Jean Batten smashed her record by four days – despite passing through a monsoon – and then made the return flight too! She set the world record for the fastest crossing from England to Brazil in 1935, then again for the fastest ever flight between England and New Zealand just a year later. So if there’s something you want to do, but you’re sad you won’t be the first, just remember Jean and her world-record-smashing expeditions!

Jean Batten taking to the skies | What makes us humans want to explore?

Seeking new worlds

Exploring the unknown is ingrained in our core; as Matt Wallace of NASA said, we want to go to new places and find answers. Now that most of our own planet’s discoveries have been made, we’re turning our heads to the stars.

After centuries of staring at the stars with curiosity, the ‘Space Race’ officially began in the 1950s. The Soviet Union (USSR) and the US competed to achieve spaceflight. Initially, it seemed the USSR had the upper hand, achieving both the first successful artificial satellite launch with Sputnik 1 in 1957, then astonishing the world by sending the first man – Yuri Gagarin – into space in 1961. However, US President John F. Kennedy wasn’t ready to give in and threw in the challenge to land a man on the moon, pushing both nations in a race to make it happen. And, with the spaceflight of Apollo 11 in 1969, the US finally won the next leg of the space race with the iconic moon landing.

Floating through the stars | What makes us humans want to explore?

That may be where it all started, but it’s certainly not the end of the story! Even now, we’re still racing to the stars, eager to find answers to the huge question – what’s out there? We’ve sent probes out to explore the solar system, some of which have entered into interstellar space. Probes and satellites have orbited our neighbouring planets to reveal their secrets, with some even landing on the surfaces of Venus, Mars and Titan – the largest of Saturn’s moons.

What’s next? While science fiction feeds our imaginations with possibilities beyond the Solar System and Milky Way, interstellar travel may be off the cards for humans (for now). But, interplanetary expeditions? We’re just getting started! The Mars Race is officially underway, with NASA’s timeline of the 2030s for a crewed trip to the red planet. However, they’re not the only ones in the running – private companies like SpaceX and Boeing are also setting their sights on being the first. Some of the efforts lean towards colonisation and terraforming, hoping to make Mars a habitable planet for humans – now that is like something out of a SciFi show!

But the SciFi shows like Star Trek and Doctor Who, and all the books lining our shelves, aren’t just about discovering new planets and galaxies, although that is a big part of it. They explore the ideas of making a new home, interacting with ‘aliens’, forming communities, colonies and enjoying the mundane stuff too. At the end of the day, we don’t just dream about finding the buried treasure, unearthing the ancient artefact, being the first and fastest or climbing into that rocket ship – sometimes that’s the end of the story, but more often than not, it’s just the start.

There’s an easy way to get exploring right now!

We can’t promise real treasure or a trip to outer space, but we can promise a real adventure, travelling on paths you’ve never travelled before, delving into the past by examining historical landmarks and racing to be the first to spot the next clue!

You don’t need to have an unlimited budget or specialist equipment to go exploring on a Treasure Trail; your Trail booklet, sturdy shoes, a pencil and a sense of adventure are all you need. With over 1200 Trails across the UK, your local one is just down the road!

So, pick up a Treasure Trail and channel all those reasons why humans explore as you get out there for a real-life adventure. Indulge your inquisitive side; be curious, go to places you haven’t been and unearth the answers to those crucial clues! What will you discover?

Have a go at finding some treasure!

Now that we’ve inspired you to explore, how about a quick little puzzle? Complete the Search for Bluebeard’s Lost Treasure, and see if you can location it!

Bluebeard's Lost Treasure