In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Early Explorers

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Societies
  • The Columbian Exchange
  • Climate
  • Economics and Demography
  • Environmental History
  • Geography
  • Migration
  • Explorers’ Accounts and Modern Ecology
  • Travel Narratives: Sources
  • Travel Narratives: Analyses
  • European Explorers
  • Non-European Explorers

Ecology The Early Explorers
Peter C. Mancall
  • LAST REVIEWED: 07 January 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 October 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0136


Early explorers played a crucial role in both ecological transformations in the early modern era (c. 1400–1800) and in scholars’ ability to understand environmental change over time. Christopher Columbus, the most famous explorer in the history of the world, figured prominently in the growing European desire to lay claim to the Western Hemisphere and established a model of explorers who traveled far in the pursuit of gold, God, and glory. But he also solidified the role that explorers played in identifying species and in the initial transportation of biota, which produced a series of far-ranging impacts. Following in the wake of the pioneering work of the environmental historian Alfred Crosby, who developed the concept of the “Columbian Exchange,” scholars have written about the environmental consequences of long-distance travel, primarily (though not exclusively) of Europeans in the period often called the Age of Discovery. As many of these studies have revealed, the development of trade networks that spanned the oceans spurred unprecedented ecological change, including localized species depletion and alterations in climates long before observers such as Rachel Carson and Aldo Leopold called attention to detrimental human impact on the environment.

General Overviews

Crosby 2003 and Crosby 1986 are the starting points for any discussion of the interplay between explorers and ecologies. As the author recognized, explorers did not travel alone into new territories. They typically brought animals with them, and almost as typically they were the unwitting carriers of infectious disease, most notably smallpox, which devastated indigenous American communities. But explorers also tended to bring home new plants and animals, which led him to label the phenomenon the “Columbian Exchange.” In 1972 Alfred Crosby (see Crosby 2003) laid out how the system worked in the early modern Atlantic world. As he wrote, Europeans benefited from explorers’ descriptions of American fauna and flora, and their diet and cultures became more varied as a result of the importation of tobacco, potatoes, tomatoes, and maize. Americans, by contrast, suffered from the arrival of pathogens for which they lacked the acquired immunities that Europeans possessed; hence smallpox, measles, and chicken pox became more lethal in the Americas than they had been previously. Crosby 1986 applies these lessons across the globe. Richards 2003 offers a systematic review of environmental change on a global scale, though explorers play a minor role in a work primarily intended to reveal how the pursuit of economic opportunity altered disparate environments. Richards focuses on population growth, which led to more intensive use of land; the movement of biota, a phenomenon tied directly to discoverers and those who followed them; depletion of certain species, all victims to increased economic activity; and human reshaping of lands in ways that transformed large carnivores (e.g., wolves) into pests and thus facilitated their elimination. Unlike environmental historians, others who write about early explorers often tend to emphasize biographical details and often dwell on issues relating to the politics of the era, typically setting expeditions into larger economic, religious, and cultural contexts. Buisseret 2007 is a comprehensive overview of explorers, many of whom traveled and wrote in the early modern era. There is much in particular on the explorations of the early modern era, a period stretching from the early-15th-century journeys of the Chinese admiral Zheng He (or Cheng Ho) to the early-19th-century explorers of the American West, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. Konstam 2000 provides brief but extensively illustrated accounts of the major issues confronting explorers.

  • Buisseret, David. 2007. The Oxford companion to world exploration. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    A collection of approximately eight hundred articles, with many illustrations from the Newberry Library in Chicago, this volume covers virtually every aspect of the exploration of earth from ancient times forward. Though the pieces are often not long, the astonishing range makes this a crucial supplement for serious research on the multiple ages of discovery.

  • Crosby, Alfred W. 1986. Ecological imperialism: The biological expansion of Europe, 900–1900. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Crosby expanded his vision beyond the explorers and other individuals who dominated the pages of the Columbian Exchange. His brilliant elucidation of one thousand years of human activity ranges from the Norse explorations of the North Atlantic (c. 900–1400) to the arrival of Europeans in New Zealand. Crosby reveals the importance of long-distance exchange of biota, with excellent details about how ecological change happened in very localized ways.

  • Crosby, Alfred W., Jr. 2003. The Columbian Exchange: Biological and cultural consequences of 1492. New York: Praeger.

    First published in 1972 and now available in a thirtieth anniversary edition, Crosby’s book has become the urtext for early modern environmental history. He used the accounts of explorers (among others) to explain the long-term consequences of the European conquest and colonization of America. Still relevant for its clarity of expression, this work is now more likely to be of use for those interested in the environmental consequences of European explorations.

  • Konstam, Angus. 2000. Historical atlas of exploration, 1492–1600. New York: Checkmark.

    Provides a useful if somewhat elementary survey of the major explorers of the long 16th century. The volume is primarily organized biographically, but there is substantial material on issues such as wind patterns, developments in cartography, and encounters between explorers and indigenous peoples. The work is not centrally about ecological concerns.

  • Richards, John F. 2003. The unending frontier: An environmental history of the early modern world. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    Richards’s magisterial review of the early modern environment and how it changed pivots on four developments: demographic change, biological exchange, reduction of certain species, and fears of food shortages. Some of these changes were initiated by explorers whose extensive journeys encouraged major changes.

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