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1300's and Earlier 1400's Early 1500's Late 1500's 1600's 1700's 1800's 1900's Glossary of Exploration Terms

Baron Alexander von Humboldt:
Explorer and Naturalist

Baron Alexander von Humboldt (September 14, 1769-May 6, 1859) was a Prussian naturalist and explorer who explored much of Central and South America. Humboldt and his friend, the French medical doctor/botanist Aime-Jacques-Alexandre Goujoud Bonpland (1773-1858), explored the coast of Venezuela, the Amazon and Orinoco Rivers, and much of Peru, Ecuador, Colombia and Mexico (1799-1805).

On their many expeditions, Humboldt and Bonpland collected plant, animal, and mineral specimens, studied electricity (including discovering the first animal that produced electricity, Electrophorus electricus, the electric eel), did extensive mapping of northern South America, climbed mountains (and set altitude records), observed astronomical phenomena, and performed many scientific observations. The scientist Carlos Montufar (who later became a revolutionary in Ecuador) acconpanied them on part of the trip.

The Humboldt Current
Humboldt discovered what is now called the Humboldt Current off the west coast of South America, while he was investigating why the interior of Peru was so dry. It is a cold ocean current that runs along much of the western coast of South America, and is also known as the Peru Current.

Other Discoveries and Firsts
Humboldt was the first European to witness native South Americans preparing curare arrow poison from a vine. He was also the first person to recognize the need to preserve the cinchona plant (its bark contains quinine, which is used to cure malaria, and it was terribly over-harvested at the time). Humboldt was the first person to make accurate drawings of Inca ruins in South America (he visited the ruins at Canar, Peru). Humboldt and Bonpland discovered and mapped the Casiquiare Canal, the only natural canal in the world that connects two major rivers (the Orinoco River and the Negro River, a tributary of the Amazon). Humboldt was also the first person to discover the importance of guano (the dried droppings from fish-eating birds); it is an excellent fertilizer.

In the USA
After their South American expeditions, Humboldt and Bonpland visited the USA and were guests of President Thomas Jefferson in Washington, D.C., for three months in 1804 (their visit happened just after Jefferson had sent Lewis and Clark to explore the western US).

Late in Life
At the age of 60, Humboldt traveled to the Ural mountains in Siberia and to Central Asia to study the weather. He wrote extensively of his travels and discoveries. One of his books, A Personal Narrative inspired a young Charles Darwin. His last work was his multi-volume book, Kosmos, which tried to unify all of science. Humboldt died at age 90 (leaving Kosmos unfinished), and is buried in Tegel, Germany. Many landmarks in the Americas, including a current, a river, a mountain range, a reservoir, a salt marsh, parks, many counties and towns are named for Humboldt. On the moon, the Mare Humboldtianum (Humboldt's Sea) was named for Humboldt.

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