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What Was the Age of Discovery?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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The Age of Discovery, also sometimes called the Age of Exploration, was a period in global history ranging from the 15th to the 17th centuries. During this era, many European and Asian nations learned much more about the globe, establishing new trade routes, creating better maps, and meeting new people. It is considered to be a very important and fruitful period, especially in European history, although the native populations disrupted by explorers might disagree.

Several things brought about the Age of Discovery in Europe. The first were the scientific and technical advances of the Renaissance, a period which also created a demand for unique and unusual trade goods, including spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. These advances led to much more seaworthy ships that were capable of surviving in the Atlantic ocean. Shipbuilding and navigation progressed by leaps and bounds in the period leading up to, as well as during, the Age of Discovery. Previously, explorers had been limited to overland routes and minimal shipping possibilities.

Some of the motivation for exploring the world was probably also political and religious. Some European nations were unhappy with the Muslim dominance of trade from the East, and wanted to seek out alternate routes and trade directly. This desire was probably economically motivated as well, since traders stood to gain more profit by cutting out the middleman.

During the Age of Discovery, many Europeans explored the East on overland routes, such as the Silk Road. They brought back unusual trade goods, driving up the demand for more, and the era built trade relationships between Europe and Asia. There was also a growing exchange of information and ideas between East and West that probably enriched many cultures. Many traders also began to wonder if oversea routes would be more efficient, and the sailing aspect of the period was born.

Numerous nations built and sailed ships during the Age of Discovery, including England, Spain, Portugal, Italy, France, and several Scandinavian countries. In addition to discovering two new continents, North and South America, these nations also formed colonies all over the globe. The formation of colonies would have far reaching impacts which continue to this day. By forming a colony, a nation could monopolize a particular product, and expand it political and social power. Many of these nations were very reluctant to let their colonies go, and many were not returned to native rule until the 20th century.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Historical Index researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By LoriCharlie — On Nov 27, 2012

@Monika - That's a really good point. People do get pretty obsessed with food and spices, especially things they like. I have a good friend that drives all the way across town to a specific grocery store because the stores carries a type of salad dressing she likes.

Plus, a lot of people like to try new, "exotic" things. I can only imagine how exotic cinnamon and nutmeg would taste if you'd never tried. And I can't imagine trying cinnamon and nutmeg once and then never wanting it again!

By Monika — On Nov 27, 2012

I'm not surprised to hear that food (well, spices) played a big role in the Age of Discovery. People have always been obsessed with food (if you don't believe me, think of the number of pictures of food you see every day on social networking sites), so wanting to trade in spices seems like a good motivation to travel!

By Pharoah — On Nov 26, 2012

@ceilingcat - I find that kind of interesting too. However, I try to keep in mind that this history is from a European perspective. So it was a "discovery" from the perspective of the Europeans, even though there were already people on North America.

Still, I sometimes wonder what would have happened if the Age of Discovery hadn't happened, or if the people in the America's were as technologically advanced as the Europeans. Europeans basically wiped out entire civilizations with all their "discovering" and colonizing. It's really very sad when you think about it.

By ceilingcat — On Nov 25, 2012
I think it's really interesting when people talk about the Renaissance and Age of Discovery and talk about how people from Europe "discovered" North American. There were people already there! It wasn't some new discovery like an element no one had ever heard of before. There were already entire civilizations on North America, they just weren't European.
By anon124053 — On Nov 04, 2010

it happened because the Renaissance was growing out of europe and people wanted what other countries gained from Traveling to North America. If countries got wealthy, they had control which meant they had power and many countries such as Spain, England and France all wanted that power. so they sent explorers to find the new land and clam it before anybody else did.

By anon116743 — On Oct 07, 2010

could you expand more on why the age of discovery happened and when? but still OK.

By anon44521 — On Sep 08, 2009

nice! very nice!

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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