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There are five reasons why this survey and ranking of explorers is different from that of other websites and worth reading and learning.


One, it offers concise biographies for the twenty-eight people who had the most influence in the field of exploration and ranks them, in order. Many websites are available that summarize the accomplishments of history’s explorers but this is the only one, to my knowledge, that ranks them. Ranking people in influence is somewhat arbitrary as there is no way to quantify how important or significant the impact an individual has on the world. Regardless, certain people stand out in history for their actions and are repeatedly discussed in historical surveys and school textbooks. Therefore, the authors are implicitly ranking people in influence by choosing to include certain people and excluding others. I am taking the ranking concept literally by explicitly ranking people in order and explaining their accomplishments in comparison to other explorers.


My goal is to reshape our understanding of how the exploration field evolved. For example, there are a handful of Europeans who stand out as explorers of the New World but who had the greatest impact? As I will show, Christopher Columbus’ voyages were the most influential. I also want to reframe how we study history. Instead of blindly following a chronological summary of what certain explorers did, I want you to use the ranked people on this website as guiding beacons to connect the key events that shaped our world. Columbus not only opened the New World to European colonization but inadvertently started a sugar industry and the expansion of the African slave market. In addition, I'd like to spark debate and discussion about the relative importance of each explorer’s feats. What was more significant: Magellan’s circumnavigation of the world or da Gama’s discovery of a sea route from Europe to India?


Reason number two to spend time on this exploration study. It offers a unique summary of who shaped the history of exploration by comparing the contributions of people worldwide. Included are individuals from across the globe, not just Western figures like Christopher Columbus and Marco Polo, but the Arab traveler, Ibn Battuta, and the great Chinese admiral, Zheng He.


Three, all the people's biographies  can be read chronologically by using the listing chart of the explorers on the first page. Reading chronologically allows you to see the historical development of the exploration field and understand how each person fits into the field. The only exceptions are Cortés should be read before Magellan and Pizarro respectively due to the dates of each person's key accomplishments.


Four, the use of postage stamps makes this a visual feast that you will want to revisit over and over. Stamps from around the world illustrate the people discussed in the biographical sketches. The stamps reveal many unexplored avenues of history and provide an important learning component in themselves. The people depicted on postage stamps of each country was one litmus test used to determine who was the most influential.


Lastly, detailed maps throughout this section provide valuable visual aids to help you understand exactly where the explorers traveled. (In addition see "A Guide to Using the Maps" at the end of this introduction). As an added bonus, each entry includes at least one additional book and usually more and for some explorers DVDs for those interested in learning more. These added references were carefully selected to offer a great deal more information about each person. If there are any primary sources (i.e. something written by the individuals chosen), these are listed.


How did I make my choices? I consulted many books on exploration and websites similar to this that have ranked people in history. In particular, The 100, by Michael H. Hart who attempted to rank, in order, the 100 most influential individuals of all time, was the original inspiration for this exploration section. The other source that was most helpful was Explorers – Great Tales of Adventure and Endurance published by DK Publishing.


After considering the different ways and degrees to which individuals through history have contributed to the subject of exploration, the top ranking was clearly Christopher Columbus. His influence was by far the most widespread, affecting most immediately people in Europe and the Americas, but expanding across the world to Asia. In 1492, he started the Great or Columbian Exchange that brought the Old World and New World together through exchanges of foods and animals and the disastrous spread of European diseases. His four voyages also started Spanish colonization of North and South America. Ranking below Columbus are Hernán Cortés, who defeated the Aztecs of Mexico in 1519, Francisco Pizarro, who conquered the Incas of Peru in 1533, and Pedro Cabral who in 1500 set up a colony in what is now the country of Brazil. Cortés, Pizarro, and Cabral expanded the Great Exchange started by Columbus. For example Pizarro was one of the first Europeans to taste and report on the potato, a new food favored by the Incas. All of Central and South America became Spanish speaking, except Brazil, as a result of Cortés and Pizarro’s conquests of the Aztecs and Incas respectively. Cabral's colonization of Brazil in 1500 led to the establishment of Portuguese as the main language.   


In the early 1400s, Zheng He, generally considered the greatest Chinese explorer, had the early jump on the Europeans. He had already sailed to India and the east coast of Africa almost 100 years before any Europeans. But the Chinese did not set up colonies in these lands. The Chinese decision not to establish colonies in India, the east coast of Africa and possibly North America (there is considerable disagreement that the Chinese ever reached these shores) left these areas open to European settlement. Zhu Zhanji, the emperor of China who orchestrated He’s last voyage, died suddenly in 1435. Wang Zhen, the eunuch tutor of the new emperor Zhu Qizhen, became the de facto ruler and shut down all further ocean exploration after 1435. The result was certain European explorers became the most influential, i.e. Columbus, Cortés, Pizarro, Henry the Navigator, da Gama, Magellan, and Dias. Zheng is ranked seventh because of what he did not do, i.e. establish any colonies or settlements in India or Africa, plus China was the dominant civilization in the Eastern world. China influenced Korea and Japan principally, but also Vietnam. If the Chinese had established settlements in India and Africa, the world would be a very different place today.


Alexander the Great is number four, for spreading Greek culture across the Middle East, so early in history. Henry the Navigator is ranked number five because he was the genesis seed that led to European control in India and a sea route to China traveling east. In the early 1400s he initiated ocean voyages from Portugal down the coast of Africa that led first, to Dias rounding the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa in 1488 (a momentous event at the time), to Vasco da Gama making it all the way from Portugal to India and back in 1498. The trade route by sea, established by da Gama, turned Portugal into a major European power. It superseded the overland trading routes used by Indian traders from India to Europe and began a dominant trading position in India, for Portugal, and later other European powers via the oceans. Xuanzang is number thirteen due to his critical role in spreading Buddhism, one of the world’s major religions, in China.


Lewis and Clark, who made an epic journey across the western half of the United States, are included and rank high because the United States is now so influential as a world power. Also, their exploratory trip was important for the future settlement of the western U.S. Linked with Lewis and Clark is Sacagawea, their Indian guide, who saved their lives from hostile Native American tribes. Sacagawea is the only woman included.


Added to the list of influential European explorers is James Cook, Ferdinand Magellan, David Livingstone, and Jacques Cousteau. Between the late 1750s and 1779, Cook mapped more of the world than anyone before or since, including most of the South Pacific Islands, New Zealand, and Nova Scotia. Magellan led the first circumnavigation of the world, which answered once and for all how big the world was and how much of the world was covered with water. Livingstone’s travels in Africa had a profound effect in shaping European opinion about Africa. Finally, Jacques Cousteau’s groundbreaking invention of the first scuba equipment for breathing underwater opened up a whole new world of underwater exploration in the world’s oceans, lakes, and rivers.


Space exploration opened new vistas as well for humankind. But so far Armstrong's and Gagarin’s rankings at only twenty-one and twenty-two respectively reflect the limited influence their achievement had overall compared with the explorers with higher rankings.

A Guide to Using the Maps


At the end of almost all of the biographies there are customized modern-day maps that show the routes taken by the explorers. Every map was carefully created to only show the relevant geographic area and place names that were important for that explorer’s travels. As examples the Lewis and Clark map only shows a portion of the United States but the James Cook map shows the whole world with labeling focused on the islands he visited.


Most of the maps use a red circle to indicate the starting point for the explorer and direction arrows on the route lines to indicate outward and return paths. For Jacques Cousteau there is a world map showing all the sites he explored, for Edmund Hillary and Tensing Norgay there is a map showing where Mt. Everest is located, and for Jacques Piccard there is a map showing the location of Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench of the Pacific Ocean. Since this section covers such a wide span of history (484 B.C.E. – 1999) and names of places have changed over the millennia, I decided that using modern maps with the current names of countries and cities makes it easier to understand and follow each explorer’s path. The one exception is the map for Alexander the Great, which also includes some ancient city names to make following his route easier.

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