The Age of Discovery was an exciting and enlightening time in history stretching from the late 15th century through to the early 17th century. Daring and dangerous voyages were planned and executed by sea. Adventures that had only been dreamed about were realized. Great explorers of this time took on the dangers of the sea, the elements and physical hardships to find new worlds and go where no man had ever gone before. They raced against one another to discover new lands and stake claims to the riches they found. Brave and great men such as Christopher Columbus, Hernando Cortez and Ibn Battuta have been immortalized in history as members of an elite group who dared to wonder about the world and break away from the narrow-minded ideas held during their time. Their travels took them around the world and they discovered civilizations that Europeans did not know existed, such as the Incan Empire. Some explorers went on to inhabit the lands that they found and make them their homes.

Explorer Biographies

  • Marco Polo: The most famous of the explorers on the Silk Road. His journey through China would go on for 24 years.
  • Ibn Battuta: A famous Muslim traveler who journeyed through much of the World of Islam. It is believed that Battuta traveled more than 75,000 miles in his journeys.
  • Zheng He: A Muslim military officer and explorer, he went on seven voyages to the western seas. He died on the seventh voyage of the legendary Treasure Fleet.
  • Prince Henry the Navigator: He never set sail on any voyages of discovery. He was known for sponsoring many voyages of exploration along the western coast of Africa.
  • Gil Eanes: Started out as a household servant and shield-bearer to Henry the Navigator. Henry sent him on numerous voyages along the northwest coast of Africa; he was the first to round Cape Bojador.
  • Bartolomew Dias: A Portuguese explorer who is believed to be related to the explorers Joao Dias and Diniz Dias. He took his first voyage of exploration to the Gold Coast of Africa in 1481.
  • John Cabot:He was a merchant and began to explore the north Atlantic in the early 1480s. Cabot was looking for possible trading opportunities.
  • Captain James Cook: As an English navigator, he explored Australia, New Zealand, the Pacific Coast of North America, Siberia and Hawaii. He was killed in 1779 at Kealakekua Bay, Hawaii.
  • Vasco de Gama: A Portuguese explorer and navigator, he was the first European to sail to India by sea route. He died only three months after arriving in India.
  • João Fernandes: Early Portuguese explorer said to have named Labrador. He was linked to English voyages as well as Portuguese.
  • Panfilo de Narvzea: A Spainard and conquistador who exploited and conquered Cuba in 1515. He was aided by the Cuban official, Diego Velazquez.
  • Amerigo Vespucci: Our continents are named after this Italian navigator. He started work with Columbus, and then set sail on his own voyages in which he made significant improvements to navigational techniques.
  • Francisco Pizarro: A Spanish conquistador who discovered the Inca Empire. He established a new capital city in this land known as Lima.
  • Juan Ponce de Leon: The first Spanish explorer to step foot on Florida land. He discovered the island of Puerto Rico and was its official governor for two years.
  • Vasco Nuñez de Balboa: The first European to see the eastern part of the Pacific Ocean. His discovery brought about exploration and settlement across South America.
  • Hernando Cortéz: Cortez was the conqueror of Mexico. In 1518, he reached Mexico and brought home evidence of a superior culture to Spain.
  • Giovanni da Verrazzano: An Italian navigator who made several voyages to countries east of the Mediterranean Sea. He had a reputation as a master mariner.
  • Jacques Cartier: An important French explorer of the east coast of North America. Cartier was sent by the King of France to find gold and a passage to the Far East.
  • Ferdinand Magellan: A famous Portuguese explorer who turned to the Spanish for sponsorship of his explorations. He discovered the Strait of Magellan.
  • Hernando de Soto: A Spanish conquistador that gave the world the first information of the North American territory. De Soto spent his life taking voyages and exploring the world.


  • Age of Exploration Time Line: List who the explorers were and what they did. Covers the period from 1430 to 1542.
  • Timeline of Explorers: Starts in 1500 BC and goes through 2000 AD. Covers the Age of Discovery explorers.
  • The European Voyages of Exploration: Covers the explorers and their voyages from 1415 to 1650.

Activities for Students & Teachers

  • Waves of Exploration: Students investigate three early expeditions and create journals detailing the journeys the explorers might have had.
  • The Age of Exploration: An entire course that helps students trace the routes of early explorers of the Americas.
  • European Explorers (1492-1620): Students describe the reasons and the outcomes of the European explorers.
  • Marco Polo and China: Students read an excerpt from the explorer's memoirs to China then compare China and Europe of the time period.
  • Early Explorers of America: Teaches students the significance of the explorers and what they accomplished.

Vocabulary Terms

  • Astrolabe – An instrument used to figure latitude by sailors at sea.
  • Armillary sphere – A model of the celestial sphere with the earth at the center and the outer rings showing the equator, poles, and tropics and the inner rings the sun, moon and stars.
  • Back-staff – An instrument used for measuring the altitude of the sun.
  • Ballast – A heavy material such as lead or concrete placed at the bottom of a vessel to create stability.
  • Barometer – An instrument used for measuring atmospheric pressure.
  • Bearing Dial – A device used by sailors to determine the position of the sun and moon.
  • Cartographer – One who makes maps.
  • Circumnavigate – Meaning to sail around the world.
  • Cog – A European trading vessel from the 12th century.
  • Compass – A navigational instrument with a magnetized needle that aligns itself with the magnetic fields of the earth.
  • Conquistador – A Spanish conquer, one who explored new lands and took them over.
  • Dead Reckoning – A system of deductive reasoning used to estimate location and speed using variables such as the wind, waves, birds and currents.
  • Feudalism – A peasant or serf whose loyalty is to a lord, and the lord is loyal to the King.
  • Hand lead – A device made of rope with length markings and a weight at the end to determine water depth.
  • Longitude – Imaginary lines running north to south on the surface of the earth. Used to determine time.
  • Meridian – A circle that passes through the poles and denotes degrees of longitude.
  • Northwest Passage – Waterway through and around North America.
  • Port – A vessel's left side. This is the side of the ship that positioned on dock side.
  • Quadrant – An instrument for determining the altitude of planets and stars.
  • Rudder – An instrument that controls the direction of a vessel mounted near the stern.
  • Sand glass – A device used to measure time aboard a ship.
  • Scurvy – An illness caused by lack of Vitamin C. This caused more sailors' deaths than any other cause.
  • Starboard – A vessel's right side.
  • Sundial – An instrument that projects the shadow of the sun on a surface, showing the time of day.
  • Traverse Board – A means for recording the course of ship during a four-hour time period.

If it weren't for the daring and inquisitive explorers of the Age of Discovery and the support of many European countries behind them, we wouldn't have the world as we know it. They opened up trade between countries that could never have been achieved without the strategic exploration and discovery of sea routes. They found a brave new world which offered great riches and fertile lands to populate. These men opened the eyes and minds of many to a world outside of their knowing; a world that can still be explored and that still holds discoveries to be made even to this day.

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