Far More Than Being First | The Explorers Club ​ ​
Back to The Explorers CLub

Far More Than Being First

by Wade Davis

A fellow of the Explorers Club and a recipient of its highest Honor, the Explorers Club Medal, Wade Davis is an anthropologist, ethnobotanist, and writer whose work has focused on indigenous cultures. He is the author of two dozen books, including the award-winning Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest and the recently released Magdalena: River of Dreams. For more, visit: daviswade.com.

It is hard to imagine that in our own time so much of the Earth remains unexplored. We know more about the surface of the Moon than the floor of the ocean. We spend billions sending probes into space to seek evidence of water on Mars, or ice on the moons of Jupiter, while largely ignoring what lies below the seas that cover 70 percent of our blue planet. This is the deep unknown, the last frontier for explorers like Sylvia Earle, Robert Ballard, and Victor Vescovo, ocean depths that no human has seen or experienced.

On land, it’s another story, and always has been, with the noted exception of Antarctica. The true and original explorers, men and women who actually went where no humans had been, were those who walked out of Africa some 65,000 years ago, embarking on a journey that in 2,500 generations—roughly 40,000 years—would carry the human spirit to every corner of the habitable world.

Since then, terrestrial exploration has rarely been divorced from power and conquest. Searching for a passage to the Indies, Jacques Cartier is said to have discovered the St. Lawrence River in 1534, though the valley was clearly settled at the time, and the waters offshore crowded with a Basque fleet, manned by fishermen with no interest whatsoever in flaunting the location of their discovery, a cod fishery that would feed Europe for three centuries.

History heralds Francisco de Orellana as the first to travel the length of the Amazon, in 1541, a journey documented by his companion, Gaspar de Carvajal, who wrote of fleets of native canoes and riverbanks dense with settlements, home to just some of the ten million people then living in the basin.

In one of the stranger episodes of the Spanish conquest, a trio of expeditions led by Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada, Sebastián de Belalcázar, and Nikolaus Federmann, coming from the north, south, and east, all reached the savanna of Bogotá. At a hastily assembled parlay, the explorers agreed to set sail for Spain so that its king, Charles V, might determine who was the official discoverer of the place, roughly the size of Belgium, which was the domain of more than a million Muisca.

When James Cook, arguably the finest navigator in the history of the Royal Navy, landed in Hawaii in 1778, his flagship was met by a flotilla of 3,000 native canoes. At Tonga, he observed that local catamarans could cover three leagues in the time it took his ship to achieve two. He encountered men from the Marquesas who could understand the language of Tahitians, though nearly a thousand nautical miles separated their islands. And in Tahiti, he met a navigator and priest, Tupaia, who drew from memory a map of every major island group in Polynesia, save for Hawaii and Aotearoa (New Zealand). More than 120 stones were placed in the sand, each representing an island across a span of more than 2,500 nautical miles, from the Marquesas in the east to Fiji in the west, a distance equal to the width of the continental United States.

Tupaia later sailed with Cook from Tahiti to New Zealand, a circuitous journey of nearly 8,000 nautical miles that ranged between 48 degrees south latitude and 4 degrees north. To his astonishment, Cook reported, the Polynesian navigator was able to indicate, at every moment of the voyage, the precise direction back to Tahiti, though he had neither benefit of sextant nor knowledge of charts.

Cook and his naturalist, Joseph Banks, who both learned Tahitian, recognized the obvious cultural connections between the distant islands of Polynesia. They were convinced that the settling of the Pacific had occurred from the west, yet neither man could accept that these journeys had been feats of discovery and settlement as purposeful and deliberate as their own.

The twentieth century brought more of the same. Hiram Bingham III shot to international fame and a place in the U.S. Senate with his “discovery” of Machu Picchu, an Inca site well known at the time to local farmers, who told Bingham where it was and how to get there.

In 1921, George Mallory and his climbing companions walked off the map on their first attempt to climb Everest, a mountain no one had approached at close quarters, save for the countless Tibetans they encountered as they trudged 650 kilometers across the plateau. Their arrival at Rongbuk at the base of the mountain made little impression. The lama, Dzatrul Rinpoche, declined to break his retreat to greet them. In his namthar, a record of the spiritual and social life of the monastery, the arrival of the subsequent expedition in 1922 earns but a few lines, including: “I felt great compassion for them to suffer so much for such meaningless work.” Climbing to heights where oxygen deprivation obliterates consciousness, courting death and placing at risk a precious incarnation and all its potential for spiritual transcendence was, from the Buddhist perspective, an act of pure folly.

In the Arctic, exploration morphed from discovery to adventure to athletic competition in less than a century, even as Greenland gave birth to the greatest Arctic explorer of all time, Knud Rasmussen, a scholar and ethnographer who personified what the search for knowledge, the true exploration of the unknown, could mean in the modern era.

The English had first looked north to the Arctic in the sixteenth century, with the legendary explorations of Martin Frobisher (1576–78), John Davis (1585–87), and William Baffin (1615–16). Legendary is the operative word. By the time the admiralty turned its attention to the Northwest Passage in the nineteenth century, these earlier voyages had been completely forgotten, lost in the mists of memory and lore.

With the final defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815, the number of seamen in the British Navy dropped from 140,000 to 19,000. Officers, men of lineage and class, were retained, all 6,000. By 1817, however, 90 percent of these men were unemployed. For them, exploration offered the only avenue to promotion and acclaim. Professional ambition as much as patriotism would inspire a new generation of Arctic explorers, such as naval officers John Ross and William Parry.

The near successes of Ross’s two voyages in 1818 and 1829–33 induced many others to try, a wave of hubris and desire that culminated in the ill-fated expedition of Sir John Franklin (1845–48/49). The loss of both of his ships, Erebus and Terror—which had sailed in the Antarctic under the command of James Clark Ross years earlier—and the disappearance of all officers and crew, seemingly without a trace, took on mystical significance in Britain. A national outpouring of sentiment, amplified by Sir John’s wife, Lady Jane Franklin, a woman of wealth and considerable influence at court, inspired nearly 40 relief expeditions. In seeking the ghost of Franklin, these rescue missions morphed into voyages of discovery, charting the vast and unknown reaches of the High Arctic. Britain’s obsession with Franklin only faded as war in Crimea (1853–56) filled the morning papers with casualty lists—17,580 dead from disease alone—that eclipsed lingering concerns for 134 men who had perished years before in a quixotic quest for glory.

In the 1870s, Arctic exploration took a fateful turn from the practical and nautical to the personal and ultimately meaningless, as men from several nations set their sights on the North Pole, a point on the ice with no intrinsic significance save as an emblem of physical achievement and national will. In many ways, this was the beginning of what would become, in the twentieth century, an entire industry of adventure.

Reaching the North Pole was less a journey of discovery than a quest for personal glory and fame. Men such as Frederick Cook and Robert Peary clung desperately to their claims, often demonstrably false, even as they branded their expeditions indelibly with themselves. With endorsements, sponsorships, book deals, and lecture tours in mind, Peary expunged his indispensable companion, Matthew Henson, deliberately distancing himself from the African-American, while the four Inuit men—Ootah, Egigingwah, Seegloo, and Ooqueah—who accompanied them both to the pole, remain largely unknown to history.

In 1897, some 12 years before reaching the pole, Peary kidnapped an Inuit family, including a young boy named Minik, and brought them to New York as living specimens to be exhibited. Minik’s father soon died and the boy’s care was entrusted to a staff member of the American Museum of Natural History. It was there that he came upon the skeletons of his father and the others on display in a diorama. Minik survived 12 miserable years in the United States. In 1909, he begged Peary to take him home, but the famous explorer refused. By the time Minik finally returned to the Arctic, he was destitute, broken in body and spirit, lost between worlds, incapable of speaking his language, unable even to support himself as a hunter.

The man who defied Peary and brought Minik home, if only to return his father’s remains to his homeland, was none other than Knud Rasmussen. In character, heart, motivation, and vision, Rasmussen was everything that Peary was not. What he achieved in a life cut short—he would die at 54, having eaten kiviak, an Inuit delicacy, tainted with salmonella—a man of Peary’s ilk could neither appreciate nor understand. An enameled faith in the superiority of his own culture left Peary half-blind, even as he stumbled north to the pole.

The son of a Danish missionary and a mother of Inuit blood, Rasmussen moved effortlessly between social and cultural realms, slipping in and out of roles with ease, garnering respect and affection in all that he did and every hunting camp and settlement he graced. Not to mention the literary salons and theaters of Copenhagen and Paris, where, at the height of his fame as a writer, his star shone so brightly that guards had to be posted at every door to keep his female admirers at bay. Such notoriety came only after a lifetime of exploration and achievement; Rasmussen neither sought attention, nor made much of it. What mattered to him was the Arctic and the story of its people.

Raised among the Greenland Inuit, knowing their language from birth and running his own dogs by the age of nine, Rasmussen could and did live as a native. He thought nothing of slipping naked beneath caribou hides to share his body heat with an elder. Like his indigenous fellows, he didn’t fear the cold; he made use of it. A sled could be made from the carcass of a caribou, with runners made of rolled caribou skin, and crossbars of frozen char and walrus meat cut to the right size. If things got tough, as Rasmussen once quipped, you could always eat your sled.

From an outpost at Thule in remote northwest Greenland, Rasmussen and his partner in exploration, Peter Freuchen, launched seven research expeditions between 1912 and 1933, all epic in scale, that explored the length and breadth of Greenland and much of the eastern Canadian Arctic. Their most ambitious effort, the Fifth Thule Expedition, consumed four years as they traveled overland from northern Greenland to the western limits of Alaska and the Bering Sea, 33,000 kilometers altogether, all by dog team and sled. Nothing like it had been done in North America since Lewis and Clark.

Rasmussen did not undertake such journeys with endurance records in mind. He had no interest in being the first to do anything; his ambitions had nothing to do with self. Given a choice, he preferred “hardship to boredom, danger and exposure to inactivity, the knife blade of hunger to the dull satisfaction of gluttony.” But, like the Inuit, he never sought adventure or courted death. He laughed in the face of starvation and confronted tragedy with fatalistic indifference simply because in the Arctic there was no other way. Death and privation were everyday events.

Travel allowed Rasmussen to enter the culture of the Inuit through the only portal that made such access possible, shared experience on the open tundra, hunting in the winter night as men mimic seals to attract polar bears, only to confront them in the darkness. As the bear lunges for the kill, it exposes the warm underbelly, the only part of its anatomy not protected by an armor of sea ice. The Inuit hunter plants his harpoon in the ice, as the bear falls upon him. Killing an ice bear was one of the challenges that marked the path of the shaman.

Rasmussen’s holy grail was not an object or a place, but a state of mind, a depth of understanding that would allow him to reveal to the world the wonder of Inuit life. Stretching across the circumpolar expanses was a common culture of the northern ice; people speaking dialects of the same language, sharing beliefs and myths, responding to the same adaptive imperatives. Only one who had crossed a continent could report, as Rasmussen did, that a youth in Greenland would recognize a tale told by a grandfather on the northern slope of Alaska, just as that elder would know the folklore of indigenous northwest Greenland.

Though a child of the Arctic, an adopted son of the Inuit, Rasmussen never abandoned his fidelity to Denmark, or his obligations as a writer and scholar to record his observations. The research contributions of the Fifth Thule Expedition, published in 1946, fill no fewer than ten volumes, with separate monographs dedicated to natural history, archaeology, linguistics, and ethnography, along with photographs of some 20,000 artifacts. These reports remain to this day a definitive source, offering an invaluable portrait of the Inuit before sustained and corrosive contact in the 1950s forever transformed their lives.

Rasmussen never doubted that the true glory of the Arctic resided in the genius and vision of the Inuit. His life’s mission was to know the world as they did, to understand the patterns of their lives, to enter their realms of magic and shamanic power. With knowledge as his goal, cultural understanding the quest, Rasmussen redefined the promise and potential of exploration, not only in the Arctic but throughout all of the inhabited world.

PreviousInto Uncharted Territory
NextMoulins Bleus