Modern Marco Polos: ‘Golden age’ of exploration is now, Explorers Club says

How does one discover lost tribes of Africa in South America from a faculty perch in Cambridge?

That accomplishment and other astounding discoveries by latter-day Marco Polos will be celebrated at the Willard Hotel and National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C. at a Friday night dinner by The Explorers Club, a New York City non-profit founded in 1904 and dedicated to keeping the spirit of scientific exploration alive on the land, in the sea, and even in outer space.

“We’re in a golden age of exploration today,” Explorers Club president Alan Nichols told “The most outstanding of the world’s outstanding explorers are alive today, going on expeditions, and adding to the field of human knowledge.” caught up with two of this year’s noted explorers and one 2010 winner, all recipients of the Lowell Thomas award from the club, named after the world-traveling journalist who discovered Lawrence of Arabia.

Lost Tribes Rediscovered
S. Allen Counter has explored the Arctic, the Andes, Egypt and the Amazon. Today he is director of The Harvard Foundation and a neurophysiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital -- but he is most noted for his work in Suriname, South America.

'They were still speaking their native language, which sounds very similar to one of the tribal languages of Ghana.'

— Allen Counter

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Perusing old explorers’ books in the library, Counter read that in the 17th century, many slaves brought by European explorers to South America escaped into the jungles of Suriname, then a Dutch colony, and recreated their own culture and tribal structure -- including grass huts, like those found in ancient west Africa -- far out of the reach of the slaveholders.

He decided to take a trip there himself and see if their descendants were still thriving. Amazingly, they were.

“They were still speaking their native language, which sounds very similar to one of the tribal languages of Ghana,” Counter told “When we made audio recordings of them, and played them later in West Africa, those who heard the recordings said, ‘Oh, that sounds like the way our grandparents used to talk.’”

Counter also said the tribesmen lived in grass huts, along the river, much like their ancestors did 3,000 years ago in Africa.

“They rebuilt their society in a place that, environmentally, is not too different from their homeland,” he says. “Theirs is a story of freedom – the human spirit longing to be free from bondage.”

Today, these recognizably African descendants of escaped slaves still live there, and are facing the same sort of problems that indigenous South Americans face, including deforestation, and the encroachment of modern society.

“They have the usual problems of jungle people,” Counter said, adding that he revisits the tribe, met with the chieftain recently, and brings medical supplies to help the villagers. “They are struggling.”

Counter also went exploring in the Arctic and found the descendants of Admiral Perry. One of them was invited to come to Harvard, and was chronicled locally as “an Eskimo goes to Harvard,” he explained. “It’s not pejorative to say Eskimo – the Inuit call themselves that.”

The Silk Road Less Traveled
nother of this year’s award winners, Martha Talbot, has conducted ecological exploration in 60 countries, including Laos, and has walked on foot on the original Silk Road, founded by the Chinese in the first century B.C. to trade with the rest of Asia and eventually Europe. She’s also explored East Africa and South Africa. She is one of the world’s best known ecologists/conservationists, and has been exploring actively for more than 56 years.

A few years ago, Talbot explored Laos with her husband, driving initially through the rugged country in a Land Rover, then switching to a narrow boat -- she had to hold on to the sides to keep her balance -- and eventually hiking in the mountains.

During this trip, she identified 12 different endangered species and found a new type of forest. She also ate water buffalo soup with the locals, seasoned with strips of a spiky vine. Deep in the jungles of Laos, Talbot also found illegal poachers’ traps, in which a local variety of the deer was trapped. She reported this directly to the country’s deputy prime minister, and the government took action.

“I was furious to see this animal trapped, and not used, just left there,” she told “It was disheartening.”

“Martha is a pioneer in the field of ecology that is active – not just talking about ecology, but getting out there and really doing it,” Nichols said.

Other winners to be honored at this week’s dinner include Kara tribal member Lale Labuko and world-renowned photographer John Rowe for their establishment of Omo Child, a foundation that rescues and cares for children located in the Omo River Valley region of Southwest Ethiopia; marine ecologist and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Enric Sala for his work to protect the last pristine marine ecosystems worldwide and to develop new business models for marine conservation; and media mogul, and conservationist Ted Turner.

All of the winners were nominated by members of the club (including many NASA astronauts)  and, in interviews, all winners said they were surprised they were chosen and grateful for the honor.

Thinking Outside the Box
An award winner from 2010, Laurie Marker is helping with this year’s festivities and sponsoring an event with the Cheetah Conservation Fund for the recipients and guests the event.

"The Explorers Club members have always been people who think outside the box, who test boundaries and look for the less-traveled path,” Marker, executive director of the Cheetah Conservation Fund, told “To be recognized by a group like that is really special ... people don’t always understand it, they don’t always ‘get it.’"

"My friends in The Explorers Club always did.”