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Is travel an innate human characteristic?

Around 60,000 years ago, having survived a climatic onslaught that reduced the global population to 10,000 people, a group of anatomically modern humans from East Africa made a journey that would ultimately change the course of history in unimaginable ways. A small group, possibly as few as 150 people, crossed the Red Sea at the Bab al-Mandab Strait separating modern day Djibouti and Yemen, and set in motion a process of exploration that would take humanity to the farthest reaches on Earth.

Since that pivotal moment the desire to learn and explore, arguably driven by an innate curiosity to venture beyond our immediate surroundings, has been intertwined with other pivotal moments throughout human history. Following the crossing of the Bering land bridge from Siberia 20,000 years ago, human colonisation made quick work of the Americas, expanding from the modern day US-Canada border to Patagonia within 1,000 years.

That seemingly inexorable desire for discovery and exploration similarly resulted in the colonisation of the previously uninhabited Pacific Ocean, the barriers of distance, uncertainty and isolation proving incapable of preventing human settlement in almost every Micronesian and Polynesian island.

Just as or even more remarkable is the Austronesian (Indonesian) presence in Madagascar, an island lying only 250 miles off the eastern coast of Africa. The mere fact that the prehistoric people of Borneo have been identified as the original inhabitants of Madagascar almost defies imagination and is one of human exploration’s great mysteries.

Why did these voyagers leave Borneo? In what conceivable way did they survive the 4,000 mile expanse of the Indian Ocean, traveling in boats to arrive in Madagascar? What memories, relationships and ways of life were they leaving behind, never to return to again?

Perhaps the impetus for exploration in these cases was necessity; much like the frequently publicised necessity of those in Africa and the Middle East experiencing violent conflict, repression and poverty in their home countries to escape and explore other avenues in search of a better life. Or like the less frequently publicised necessity of Europeans in the 16th – 18th centuries who migrated en masse to Africa and the Middle East to seek higher standards of living and to escape political and religious persecution.

Aside from the necessities mentioned above, however, there may also be a necessity of a different kind. A necessity that wells up inside a person and sooner or later cannot be ignored. Ibn Battuta, a 14th century Moroccan explorer and one of the world’s most well-known travellers, described this necessity as being;

swayed by an overmastering impulse within me and a desire long-cherished in my bosom to visit these illustrious sanctuaries. So I braced my resolution to quit my dear ones, female and male, and forsook my home as birds forsake their nests.” (The Travels of Ibn Baṭṭūṭa, Gibb, H.A.R. trans. and ed. 1958)

Artistic drawing of Ibn Battuta riding a camel in the desert
Ibn Battuta, a 14th century Moroccan explorer, is one of the world’s most well-known travellers.

This impulse he refers to would carry him 75,000 miles over 40 modern day nations, spurring him on for 29 years of exploration in which he would be kidnapped by bandits, survive a sea storm and escape a beheading by a tyrant Sultan. Now while the thought of being kidnapped by bandits doesn’t sound too appealing, for many people the impulse Ibn Battuta refers to is something they can relate to. During prolonged periods of time when people are confined to the same location, there’s an impulse; a desire to explore parts of the world they haven’t been to or to revisit places in which the environment differs from that of their existing surroundings. The very thought of being in a different environment generates excitement, possibly derived from the anticipation of experiences that one’s senses are unaccustomed to.

Perhaps the desire to learn about and explore that which exists beyond our surroundings is an innate human characteristic. Ever since our prehistoric ancestors made the decisions to traverse unknown lands and waters, and following innumerable similar decisions subsequently made by generation after generation, our exploratory nature has stayed with us.

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