Thor Heyerdahl, noted explorer and author, was born in Larvik, Norway, on October 6,1914. After studying zoology and geography at Oslo University, he married and traveled to Polynesia. After a period of familiarization with the island way of life and culture, the Heyerdahls chose a primitive lifestyle on a remote Pacific island, Fatu Hiva, in the Marquesas group. While there doing research on the transoceanic origins of the island’s flora and fauna, Heyerdahl observed that the prevailing winds and currents came from the east, bringing with them many local plants that were unique to the American continent. As a result, Heyerdahl became convinced that because the oceans served as a natural means of transport that enabled people to move around the world, perhaps the first migrants to Polynesia might also have come from this same direction.
Scientific opinion at the time maintained that it was an impossibility for early navigators from South America to reach Polynesia. This was a theory Heyerdahl refused to accept. So, he embarked upon the construction of a primitive raft, a replica of those used by early South American Indians. Made of nine balsa wood logs from the forests of Equator and lashed together with crossbeams and covered by a deck, the Kon-Tiki set sail from Peru on April 18, 1947, intending to demonstrate that navigation was possible for pre-Incan peoples sailing from east to west, using the South Equatorial Current to settle Polynesia.
In contrast to European craft, the raft owed its safety and seaworthiness to its ability to rise and fall with any threatening sea and the wash-through construction, which allowed the water to drain through the logs like a sieve.
On the perilous journey, Heyerdahl and five companions, dependent on the sea and sky for their survival and with logs increasingly becoming waterlogged, made landfall 101 days later on Raroia Atoll, Tuamotu Archipelago, south of the Marquesas, after some 4,000 miles. The exploits of the voyage are recorded in Kon-Tiki Expedition (1948), which sold millions of copies and is documented in the film of the same name. The journey demonstrated that migration from South America to Polynesia was possible, despite much skepticism. However, currents theory and supporting evidence from archaeological, cultural, linguistic, blood-grouping, and genetic sources showed that the Pacific Islanders had made long and gradual colonization of the Pacific from the Old World.
Following the success of the Kon-Tiki expedition, Heyerdahl organized and led expeditions to the Galapagos Islands and experimented with Peruvian centerboards, called guaras, used for steering, which allowed a raft under sail to turn about and resume a new course into a contrary wind and current, as does a rudder in a European craft. This added further credibility to his claim that sustained voyages were possible to and from the South American coast.
Thor Heyerdahl continued his research on ancient navigation with expeditions to Easter Island in 1955 to 1956 and the Ra I expeditions of 1969 to 1970, when he devoted his energy to the ancient reed boats made of papyrus. These boats were thought to become waterlogged after less than 2 weeks on open water. With 12 tons of papyrus reeds, a 15-meter vessel was constructed and was launched from Sofi, Morocco, and sailed 2,700 miles in 56 days before foundering and being abandoned 1 week short of Barbados due to storms and deficiencies in construction. Ten months later, Heyerdahl tried the same voyage with a smaller vessel, Ra II, from Sofi to Barbados, showing once again the possibility of travel using ancient technologies. This gave reinforcement to his theory of linking the similarities of the Mayan and Aztec cultures to Egypt and Mesopotamia by establishing the possibility of an oceanic connection.
In 1977, Heyerdahl sailed 3,600 miles on the largest of his reed ships, Tigris, to suggest the possible linkage of Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the Indus Valley by open ocean, rather than long-distance camel routes.
Thor Heyerdahl died on April 18, 2002. Although evidence contradicts most of his theories, he used tools and techniques from the past and materials available to an adventurous people to expose the world to different ideas through his epic journeys.
- Conniff, R. (2002). Kon artist? Smithsonian, 33(4), 26.
- Heyerdahl, T. (1950). Across the Pacific by raft. New York: Rand McNally.
- Heyerdahl, T. (1971). The Ra expeditions. New York: Doubleday.
- Heyerdahl, T. (1974). Fatu Hiva. New York: Doubleday.
- Heyerdahl, T. (1981). The Tigris expedition. New York: Doubleday.