Legends Series: Thor Heyerdahl

Thor Heyerdahl. Photo: Shutterstock

When Thor Heyerdahl died 20 years ago at the age of 87, the famous Norwegian explorer and ethnographer left behind a controversial legacy. He’d spent years attempting to prove his radical views of Polynesian heritage. His claims infuriated academics and have been accepted as without merit. But in the process, he managed to popularize science.

Thor Heyerdahl spent his life trying to prove that South Americans had populated Polynesia, but advances in DNA science eventually proved him wrong.

From an early age, Heyerdahl had a keen interest in zoology. As a boy, he charged admission for visitors to view a venomous snake he’d housed in his homemade “museum”. He took a degree in zoology and geography at the University of Oslo, while simultaneously studying Polynesian culture and history, privately.

After university, he earned the opportunity of a lifetime: go to the South Pacific to study local animals and how they had arrived at that far-flung location. He promptly wed his first wife Liv, and the couple traveled to Fatu Hiva in 1937. It was his breakthrough, experiencing as an adventurer the environment he was studying as a scholar.

An experiment in Eden

Fatu Hiva was a sharp learning curve for the newlyweds, who were ill-prepared for the primitive environment they found themselves in. With barely any provisions, they spent a year on the island before returning to Oslo to write about their research in Heyerdahl’s first book, called Hunt for Paradise in Norwegian (1938). Because of World War II, it never appeared in English. Thirty years later, he wrote a popular book, called Fatu Hiva: Back to Nature, that explored that initial experience.

Happy times in Fatu Hiva.

Although his youthful quest for a modern Garden of Eden in the South Seas failed, Heyerdahl returned to civilization with a new theory that contradicted the accepted view of Polynesia’s origins.

Historically (and currently), the prevailing opinion was that Polynesia’s population originated in South East Asia. When Captain Cook stumbled upon civilizations in the South Pacific, he was puzzled by how people had managed to spread so far between the islands.

By today’s standards, that might seem like a strange underestimation of the abilities of prehistoric cultures. But during the late 17th century, arrogant Westerners couldn’t comprehend how those early peoples could navigate a domain that is geographically larger than any other nation on earth. And how did they travel those vast expanses in open boats?

His Polynesian theory

Despite evidence documenting an east-west migration from South East Asia to the Polynesian Islands, Heyerdahl spent the rest of his life attempting to prove the opposite. He believed that the pre-European Polynesians may have sailed from South America.

Heyerdahl decided that because South American plants such as the sweet potato were available in Polynesia, it was probable that some Polynesians had originated in South America. His theory was that Polynesia had been discovered by accident when a ship from the Americas drifted off course.

However, because winds and currents in the Pacific generally run from east to west, scholars maintained that it would be impossible for ancient ships to reach Polynesia from South America.

Heyerdahl set out in a raft called the Kon-Tiki to demonstrate that Polynesian culture came from South America.

The Kon-Tiki expedition

The most famous of Heyerdahl’s expeditions aimed to prove them wrong.

In 1947, Heyerdahl sailed from Peru to Polynesia on a raft called the Kon-Tiki. He used only technologies and materials available during pre-Columbian times. To help validate his theory that wind and current could have led a boat to the islands, he made the Kon-Tiki un-steerable.

For 101 days, six men and a parrot traveled almost 7,000km across the Pacific. Eventually, they struck a reef at Raroia — an atoll in French Polynesia –- which abruptly ended the experiment.

The Kon-Tiki expedition proved that South Americans could have drifted to Polynesia, but it did not prove that they had done so.

Upon his return, Heyerdahl wrote The Kon-Tiki Expedition: By Raft Across the South Seas. The book became a bestseller and helped spotlight ethnography in general and his personal theories in particular. Perhaps what made this and his subsequent expeditions so popular was that he seemed to be doing science, yet he was having fun at it — unlike the staid academics who disparaged him.

Easter Island

After Kon-Tiki, Heyerdahl organized another adventure to Easter Island in 1955. He wanted to prove that Easter Island’s people had also migrated from South America. Instead, Heyerdahl returned with even more opposing views.

Heyerdahl believed that between 1722 when Admiral Roggeveen discovered Easter Island, and 1774 when Captain Cook visited, significant contact between South American and Polynesia had occurred.

Some of Heyerdahl’s artifacts from Easter Island. In 2019, 17 years after Heyerdahl’s death, his son agreed to return them to Chile.

He brought thousands of artifacts back to Norway, including human remains, sculptures, and ancient weapons to prove his claim.

He then published two large archaeological reports, plus the usual popular book, called Aku-Aku, that made his case to a wider audience. Some years later, he stubbornly wrote another book called Easter Island: The Mystery Solved. In it, Heyerdahl claimed that the Hanau Eepe of South America first settled Easter Island.

As the years passed, Heyerdahl’s views expanded to include the radical possibility of cultural contact between early peoples of Africa and the Americas. He believed that certain cultural similarities, such as the shared importance of pyramid building in ancient Egyptian and Mexican civilizations, suggested a link.

In 1969, Heyerdahl embarked on an expedition to prove that Egyptian civilization may have also influenced pre-Columbian Western cultures. He left Morocco on a boat named the Ra, constructed in Egypt from Ethiopian papyrus reed. But the Ra began taking on water 950km from its destination, because of design flaws.

The Ra expeditions

Undeterred, Heyerdahl gave it another shot. This time his boat Ra II was built in Bolivia. In 1970, his multinational crew of seven set sail, arriving 57 days later in Barbados as intended. To Heyerdahl, it was another win.

Seven years later, he was at it again. This time, he navigated down the Tigris River on a reed raft. He set off from Iraq, across the Arabian Sea, onward to the Persian Gulf, and finally to the Red Sea. The expedition was to establish the possibility of contact between the people of Mesopotamia (Pakistan), the Indus Valley (Western India), and Egypt.

The voyage was on track for another success. But four months and 6,400km into their voyage, the crew set their raft alight in protest of the wars raging through the Middle East.

Heyerdahl later led further expeditions to Easter Island, the Maldives, and an archaeological project in Peru.

His life’s work was entirely devoted to gathering proof of his wayward theories. While elements of his expeditions had been successful, his theories were never credited. Researchers maintained that his successful voyages owed to luck and the use of additional modern resources and that ultimately his claims proved nothing.

One of the main criticisms of Heyerdahl’s theories was that the Galapagos Islands (so much easier to reach by raft than Polynesia) had no known signs of South American settlement. Heyerdahl rebutted those claims when he found four early South American settlements, including artifacts, during a visit to the Galapagos Islands.

Unwavering commitment to flawed theories

Heyerdahl’s commitment never wavered. Not only had he successfully sailed vast oceans in open boats, drifting with the winds, currents, and tides. He had also found South American history on Galapagos islands.

Scientists eventually had the final glory when DNA advances made it increasingly easy to discredit Heyerdahl’s opinion. In the late 1990s, genetic testing concluded that Polynesian DNA is more similar to people from South East Asia than to people from South America.

Some studies have detected traces of South American ancestry among Polynesian cultures, but they have always been counter-proved by greater evidence of Asian origin.

Anthropologist Wade Davis went a step further by publicly criticizing Heyerdahl’s theory in his 2009 book, The Wayfinders. Davis claimed that Heyerdahl “ignored the overwhelming body of linguistic, ethnographic, and ethnobotanical evidence, augmented today by genetic and archaeological data, indicating that he was patently wrong”.

For Heyerdahl, it was less important to be right or wrong, than it was to draw attention to ancient history and anthropology. He proved that even though the origin of Polynesian ancestry might not be exactly as he believes, it is certainly possible to cross large oceans in ancient boats.

An Academy Award

Documentaries have followed his numerous books, including a 1951 documentary about his Kon-Tiki expedition, which received an Academy Award. The Kon-Tiki Museum in Oslo displays items used in his expeditions, including the original Kon-Tiki and Ra II rafts. In 2000, The Thor Heyerdahl Institute was established to promulgate Heyerdahl’s ideas even after his death.

When Heyerdahl received news of his ill health, he didn’t fight his impending death. He chose to refrain from medication or food, allowing his brain tumor to overcome him naturally in 2002. He was surrounded by his closest family members.

Heyerdahl may have been proven wrong on his key theories, but he left one unanswered question: Did Pacific Islanders and Native Americans ever have contact?

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About the Author

Chasing Dreams Travel

Alex Myall

After 22 years in the exercise industry, offset by long-haul adventures around the world, Alex Myall found a better option a few years ago and has never looked back. She took a diploma in travel journalism, backed it up with travel industry certificates, then launched Chasing Dreams Travel NZ, her own travel agency.

Now she combines her love of writing and world travel with running her business from her home on the spectacular South Coast of Wellington, New Zealand, while simultaneously being mum to a gorgeous baby girl. She maintains a “life’s too short to do things by halves” attitude.

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Montana
Montana
15 days ago

Thank you Alex for remembering Thor Heyerdahl! His science is flawed, but as an explorer and wise human being his work is brilliant. I loved his books “Kon Tiki” and “The Ra expeditions” (crossing from Peru to Polynesia, and crossing from Africa to the Caribbean) as adventure and exploration reads. In them you find a bunch of people turned explorers. One is an elite climber, another is a hero of Norwegian resistance, but most of them are at first sight “ordinary”. What makes them extraordinary is their willingness to face the unknown and to engage with team-mates different from themselves.… Read more »

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