The diver in dark blue water in the rays of light from above.

Beyond the Western myth of exploration lies a rich and often overlooked history

Why do we explore? It’s just what humans do. But how we define it is changing.

A diver explores a cathedral-like cenote, which lies underneath Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula near the Maya ruins of Tulum. For 135 years, National Geographic has sent archaeologists, anthropologists, and divers around the world to discover fresh insights into lost civilizations.
Photograph by Paul Nicklen

There is only one museum along the old Oregon Trail that tells the story of America’s westward expansion through the eyes of those being expanded into. In a corner of Oregon bordered by Washington and Idaho, this wood-paneled warren of galleries and interactive exhibits celebrates the heritage of Native people and mourns what was destroyed when the pioneers arrived. Walking down a long ramp, visitors enter the brick facade of a replica “Indian training school,” where Native children were forcibly converted and assimilated. A life-size photo of the students stares back from over a century ago; their matching uniforms make them look like tiny soldiers.

“We were told to write our own history if we want it told well,” Bobbie Conner explained. She sat in a conference room of the Tamástslikt Cultural Institute, the center she directs on the Umatilla Reservation, home to the Cayuse, Umatilla, and Walla Walla tribes. “And this story is as old as time: conquest.”

The history of exploration is often told in the binary. Explorer and high mountain. Explorer and remote island. Explorer and uncontacted tribe. The conqueror and the conquered. Today the definition of exploration is more expansive. We explore our bodies, our ancestry, the capacity of our brains, the idea of home. We explore history and who gets to tell it. The explorer has been an adventurer, a showman, a scientist, and now there’s a new archetype: the reconciler—someone to help us understand how we got here. These pioneers are interrogating our history books, rewriting them, and hoping to prevent the past from repeating.

By the time I sat with Conner in that conference room, I’d spent six months in Oregon, my home state, waiting out the COVID-19 pandemic. For years I’d written dispatches for this magazine from places like the remote marshes of South Sudan, the desert border of the United States and Mexico, and the mountains of eastern Congo. Now, stretched in front of me was the banality of a home I’d never had much interest in. With nowhere to go, I sought to understand my new confines; before long, I ended up on the edge of the state, questioning my idea of exploration itself.

But first, let’s rewind some 60,000 years to when “a small colony in Africa went into the world and lost contact.” This is according to Felipe Fernández-Armesto, a historian and professor at the University of Notre Dame, who’s spent nearly six decades studying how the world has been transformed by a process he calls route finding—in which different cultures collide, interact, and adapt to each other in journeys fueled by greed, imperialism, religion, and science. “The history of exploration,” he says, “is putting the routes between different peoples back.” It’s as if, for thousands of years, we’ve been attempting to undo the distance our earliest ancestors put between us, for better or worse.

It was this goal that united scientists, scholars, and military men to found the National Geographic Society in 1888. For the past 135 years we’ve plumbed the sea, sky, land, and space “for the increase and diffusion of geographic knowledge.” The exploration we funded and documented seemed at times less about making contact and more about being first. And there was no shortage of those milestones: from summiting Mount Everest with the American team to mapping the Atlantic Ocean floor.

Firsts then morphed into discoveries: Science, space, and the natural world were wrung for their secrets. The Leakeys unearthed our fossilized ancestors, Jane Goodall lived among the chimpanzees, and conservationist Mike Fay charted a 2,000-mile trek across Central African rainforests. Today explorers may not be human at all: Does a camera explore when it’s dropped to the bottom of the ocean to photograph at depths humans haven’t yet reached? Or a microscopic robot, when it’s threaded through our bodies to perform surgery?

Stories have fueled exploration for hundreds of years. During what’s known as the European age of exploration, from the 15th to 17th centuries, popular fiction told of heroes on daring journeys, and these so-called romances of chivalry may have inspired Columbus and Magellan to set sail. Storytelling has repopulated the world with new generations of explorers many times over. Perhaps the photography and maps National Geographic magazine published moved you to go out and see the world. But stories have also served to propel a Western myth of the explorer that isn’t entirely true.

“There’s a failure of the literature to discuss explorers from other countries, so for the last 500 years this was a story dominated by dead white males,” says Fernández-Armesto. “That’s created the impression that it’s a white male activity—it isn’t, by any means.”

One of the earliest world maps was painted on a cave wall in India some 8,000 years ago, and the first explorer we know by name is Harkhuf, who led an expedition from pharaonic Egypt into tropical Africa around 2290 B.C. Then there was the Bantu migration from West Africa across the sub-Saharan continent, starting a thousand years earlier. In the Pacific Ocean, sailors in dugouts and catamarans followed the stars and sea swells to map and colonize islands from New Guinea to Hawaii, starting around 1500 B.C. In the seventh century, a Chinese monk named Xuanzang crossed China, India, and Nepal on a quest for original Buddhist scriptures. That same century, Arab armies marched from the Arabian Peninsula to Central Asia and North Africa, fueled by the drive of holy conquest.

The era of the white male explorer came long after that, and the archetype dominated the Western narrative. But those other explorers have always been there.

In the archives of National Geographic, I find more modern examples, overlooked by society at the time: Juliet Bredon, a female explorer who published under the name Adam Warwick to relay her exploration of China in the 1920s, and Reina Torres de Araúz, a Panamanian anthropologist who made the first expedition from South to North America by car. In a pile of news clippings about Harriet Chalmers Adams—who, at the turn of the 20th century, traversed 40,000 miles in Latin America, retraced Columbus’s route from Europe to South America, and photographed the frontline trenches of World War I—the headlines convey more interest in how she strayed from the feminine stereotype: “A Woman Unafraid of Rats” reads one.

As we dig through history to bring new people into the pantheon of explorers, we reevaluate old stories: What did exploration mean to the people who were being explored—and then often exploited or even exterminated? Can a place really be discovered? And who should be considered an explorer? Is Eve, for biting the forbidden fruit and gaining knowledge but forgoing Eden? Or Pandora, compelled by curiosity to open the box, unleashing miseries on the world?

Today the history of exploration is being rewritten to fill in old holes by people like Tara Roberts, who appeared on our March 2022 cover in her snorkel, during a dive in the Florida Keys to map the sunken ships that once carried enslaved people from Africa to America. Yazan Kopty, a Palestinian oral historian, is digging out century-old photos of Palestinians from the National Geographic archives and using social media to fill in their stories—their names, the holidays being celebrated, the villages in the background.

At the Tamástslikt Cultural Institute, Conner, who hails from Cayuse, Nez Perce, and Umatilla lineage, used the word “reclaiming” to describe this new form of exploration. Recently, dancers performed a ceremonial post-battle scalp dance that hadn’t been seen in public for half a century. The Nez Perce tribe has acquired 320 acres of ancestral land for descendants to gather, bury their dead, and host festivals. Tribal names are returning to maps and signage.

The idea of telling their story in a museum left the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation perplexed at first, Conner said. There was nothing to celebrate about the destruction of their people and land. But they thought of how the narrative of exploration in Oregon is still glorified with a pioneer’s wagon on its flag and a pioneer statue atop the Capitol building. And they considered how much bigger their story was than the land where it took place—a remote corner on the western edge of America—and how relatable it might be across the world. “This is the center of our universe,” she said, “but it connects to all other universes.”

Staff writer Nina Strochlic’s most recent story for the magazine looked at the legacy and resurgence of New York’s Catskill Mountains.

This story appears in the July 2023 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Read This Next

Omega-3s are more critical for your health than we thought
New museum reckons with Charleston’s role in the slave trade
How Barbie’s signature pink took over the world

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet