how fast can people travel on foot? -- 7/15/20

Today's selection -- from The Year 1000: When Explorers Connected the World―and Globalization Began by Valerie Hansen. How fast can people travel on foot?:

"Modern travelers accustomed to airplanes, trains, cars, and ships tend to exaggerate the difficulties of travel in earlier periods. We wonder how people could traverse thousands of miles on foot and forget that most people could walk 20 miles, or 32 km, a day, and for long periods. People in the year 1000 were used to this -- one envoy went on foot more than 2,500 miles, or 4,000 km, between 1024 and 1026.

"The historian who records this long trip doesn't mention how the envoy managed it, but we can suppose that he -- and most of the explorers in this book -- received help from local guides, no matter how difficult the terrain. During the 1990s, villagers helped one research group get over a difficult section of the Himalayas, showing them multiple routes that didn't appear on any map. Depending on the time of year, and the amount of snow, these routes posed varying levels of difficulty. There was even a gradual, flat route suitable for use by pregnant women.

A scene depicting long distance runners, originally found on a Panathenaic amphora from Ancient Greece, circa 333 BCE

"Data about the speed with which people could travel on foot survives from multiple places and times. If couriers were running individual legs of a journey, and they did not have to carry anything, a team could achieve extraordinary speeds, up to 150 miles (240 km) in a single day, as the Spaniards reported for the Inca in the early 1500s.

"Of course, soldiers bearing their own food and weapons traveled more slowly. The rates of travel for ancient armies, including those of Persian ruler Xerxes, Alexander the Great, and Hannibal -- and even that of the more modern Queen Elizabeth I of England -- ranged between 10 and 20 miles (16-32 km) per day. Even now, U.S. Army guidelines define a normal rate for a march at 20 miles per day. Anything more rapid qualifies as a forced march.

"Riders on horseback could go faster: a modern rider in Mongolia can cover 300 miles in a single day if he frequently changes mounts, and in the past, Mongol soldiers could sustain speeds of 60 miles (100 km) per day for a few days during intense campaigns.

"Good roads could also increase speeds dramatically. Many types of roads existed in the year 1000. In the most advanced societies, like China, dirt roads and bridges over rivers were common, and movement was straightforward. In others, few roads existed, and explorers had to find their own paths.

"Conditions of overland travel also determined how far people could carry bulk goods. Around the year 1000, the residents of Chaco Canyon in New Mexico regularly hauled corn 90 miles, or 150 km, and, on an occasional basis, transported large timbers from 170 miles (275 km) away (Chaco had no trees). They went even farther to obtain luxury goods such as macaw feathers."



Valerie Hansen


The Year 1000: When Explorers Connected the World―and Globalization Began




Copyright 2020 by Valerie Hansen


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