Who is Thor Heyerdahl? The Navigator in search of Forgotten Civilizations

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Introduction 

Thor Heyerdahl (1914 - 2002) is one of the greatest explorers of the 20th century, and surely one of the most controversial. The Norwegian navigator, ethnographer and anthropologist is notably known for having crossed in 1947 a good part of the Pacific Ocean on an open boat, the Kon-tiki, built in balsa wood, in order to question the origins of the Polynesian people. Twenty years later, he repeated the feat with the boats Ra II and Tigris, this time made of reeds, with which he crossed the Atlantic with Ra II and sailed along the gulfs of Oman, Persia and finally Aden with Tigris.

Throughout his life, he tried to overturn the scientific consensus on the origin of the Polynesian peoples by trying to prove that they did not originate in East Asia but in South America. He alienated the scientific community with his work, but he participated largely in the popularization of these themes and of science in general. In particular, he contributed to popularizing the idea that there were probably contacts and therefore transoceanic links between the ancient cultures of the world

Identity Card

Name : Thor Heyerdahl

Born : October 6, 1914, Larvik, Norway

Died : April 18, 2002 (aged 87), Colla Micheri, Italy

Nationality: Norwegian

Children: 5 - Bjørn Heyerdahl, Marian Heyerdahl, Annette Heyerdahl, Helene Elisabeth Heyerdahl and Thor Heyerdahl Jr.

Spouses: Liv Coucheron-Torp (m. 1936; div. 1947)​, Yvonne Dedekam-Simonsen (m. 1949; div. 1969)​, Jacqueline Beer (m. 1991)

Job : Norwegian navigator, ethnographer and anthropologist

His Youth Marked by a Deep Love of Nature 

Thor Heyerdahl was born on October 6, 1914 in Larvik, a small coastal town south of Oslo. Son of Thor Heyerdahl (1869-1957), a local brewmaster and manager of a mineral water factory, and Alison Lyng (1873-1965), who headed the local museum association, he came from a local upper-class family

thor heyerdahl's house

Steingata 7 i Larvik - barndomshjemmet til Thor Heyerdahl, 27 December 2008, Arnstein Rønning, Own Work (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Repeated visits to these museums and his mother's studies of zoology, folk art and primitive cultures, who was particularly interested in Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, quickly sparked the imagination of young Thor, who already dreamed of exploring the seas of the world and discovering its ancestral cultures. He quickly built his own animal "museum" in an outbuilding of his father's brewery.

A sportsman from his earliest childhood, Thor was particularly fond of nature, in which he enjoyed cross-country skiing, sledding and long hikes. He takes advantage of Norwegian nature and the summer vacations spent with his family in a log cabin in the wilderness to discover the mountains of the region, in which he trains to live alone (with his Greenlandic dog Kazan), in autonomy for increasingly long periods. He met a hermit who transmitted him the love of nature. He sometimes left accompanied by his friend Erik Hesselberg with whom he explored new regions in the Jotunheim massif and tried new survival techniques

Lofoten Islands Norway

He began to tell his adventures in the weekly newspaper of his region and in various magazines. He used to illustrate his stories with his own photographs and drawings. His writing quickly became more refined and his content more and more educational, so much so that he quickly became a reference in the field of outdoor activities.

In 1933, he entered the University of Oslo, in the faculty of biological sciences and quickly specialized in zoology and geography. Thor used to spend part of his free time at the home of a close friend of his parents, Bjarne Kroepelien, with whom he discovered a passion for Polynesia, its history and culture, through numerous objects and books, Bjarne having at the time the largest private collection of artifacts on Polynesia. Bjarne had the opportunity to travel to Polynesia during World War I, to Tahiti, where he married Tuimata, one of the daughters of the Tahitian chief Tereiireoo. She lost her life in 1918 as a result of the Spanish flu pandemic.

With his partner of the time, Liv Coucheron-Torp (1916-1969), he decided to leave the University and set up an expedition to the isolated islands of the Pacific, which his father financed and which was sponsored by two of his professors (Pr. Bonnevie and Pr. Broch). Thor and Liv got married on Christmas Eve 1936, then aged respectively 22 and 20, and took off the next day for Fatu Hiva, in the Marquesas Islands.

While there, he discovered that Peruvian travelers had visited the island in the past. He also heard local stories and legends about Kon-tiki, the “white and bearded sun king” who arrived by sea. He quickly made the correlation between these events and, refusing to believe in a coincidence, began to question the origins of the people who populate these islands. Then started his long quest which was the thread of his life.

Fatu Hiva: A Troubling Experience in the Garden of Eden

The purpose of this expedition, to study the propagation of animal species between the islands, actually hid the couple's desire to escape Western civilization and "return to nature". After spending some time in Tahiti where they met the chief Tereiireoo, they arrived in Fatu Hiva in 1937, without provisions or weapons (except for a machete and a cooking pot bought on the spot) and decided to settle in the middle of the island, in a small valley, the Uia valley, surrounded by mountains.

Marquesas Islands

The six communes of the Marquessas Islands, 2 May , Godefroy, Own Work,  (CC BY-SA 3.0)

They lived for months from the Earth, taking advantage of their environment to conduct their academic research by collecting information on the specimens surrounding them but also by listening to the ancestral stories of the local populations and by analyzing the direction of the winds and currents

It is in this particular context that the first drafts of Thor's theory emerged in his mind. Studying his immediate environment, surrounded by ruins of the ancient Marquesan civilization, he theorized the possibility of a transoceanic contact between the first Polynesian populations and South American peoples. 

Fatu Hiva Marquesas

Baie des Vierges (Hanavave), Fatu Hiva, Marquesas Islands, French Polynesia, 17 January 2018, Monster4711, Own Work,  (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Their idyll in this nature did not last though. Poorly prepared for this rigorous and primitive environment, they were quickly confronted with the vagaries of the climate, complicated relations with the natives and tropical diseases which pushed them, one year later, to return to civilization, in Norway.

This allowed them to work on a book retracing their adventures during this year in autarky. These events were told in "På Jakt etter Paradiset (The Hunt for Paradise)", published in 1938 in Norway and whose translation into English was aborted by the outbreak of the First World War, and never resumed. It was not until almost 40 years later that, thanks to a growing reputation, Thor published "Fatu Hiva: Back to Nature" in 1974.

The important thing for Heyerdahl was that he had found his way and that he now had to prove the prevailing scientific opinion wrong

The Kon-Tiki Expedition : The Proof by Experience

Thor was faced with almost the entire academic sphere, which documented an arrival of peoples to the Polynesian islands from East Asia, based in part on the presence of pottery from the Lapita culture, extending from west to east. In addition, scientists of the time relied on the direction of the Pacific winds and currents to support their consensus. Thor thought that the first Polynesians might have sailed from South America.

In 1938, after returning from Fatu Hiva , the couple settled near Lillehammer to study the migrations of the Amerindian tribes of British Columbia in Canada. He thought that two successive waves of migrations would have allowed the colonization of Polynesia. The first one would be a wave coming from North America, and one from South America. He presented these theories to American anthropologists, including Herbert Spinden, who challenged him by saying "of course, you could very well try to sail from Peru to the Pacific Islands on a balsa wood raft".

The scientists of the time contradict Heyerdahl head-on, arguing that the primitive peoples of America did not have the technology and the boats necessary to navigate across the oceans over such long distances. They also argue that meteorology and the direction of winds and currents prevented any east-west sailing.

File:Expedition Kon-Tiki 1947. Across the Pacific

Expedition Kon-Tiki 1947. Across the Pacific, 16 April 2013, Uploaded by palnatoke, Nasjonalbiblioteket from Norway (CC BY-SA 4.0)

What could be better than experience to prove him right? He elaborated an expedition that had never been carried out before: to sail from Peru to Polynesia on a boat respecting the know-how of the time in order to prove that this journey was possible.

In 1947, he built a boat, a pae-pae raft made of balsa wood available in Callao, Peru, based on ancient drawings of conquistadors depicting Inca rafts, on archaeological remains and on native legends. He named it the Kon-Tiki, in honor of the Polynesian legend. On April 28, 1947, he set sail with 5 other adventurers and a parrot towards the Tuamotu Islands.

📷 Credit: The Kon-Tiki Museum 's Youtube Channel

After 101 days at sea and 8000 km to be exact, and while Thor had a sickly fear of water (he almost drowned twice in his childhood), the Kon-tiki crashed on a coral reef in Raoira on August 7, 1947. Despite this "wreck", Thor proved to the world that it was quite possible to sail westward on the Pacific with the help of trade winds on a primitive raft. The boat itself is now in a museum in Oslo.

The Kon-Tiki in the Kon-Tiki Museum in Oslo, Norway

Kon-Tiki, on display inside the Kon-Tiki Museum, Oslo, 30 August 2019, Bahnfrend, Own Work (CC BY-SA 4.0)

He recounted his journey in the book "The Kon-Tiki Expedition: By Raft Across the South Seas", which was a huge success, selling more than 20 million copies and translated into nearly 70 languages. It was also the first voyage of its kind to be filmed, giving rise to an eponymous documentary film, earning it an Academy Award in 1951. A second version will be released posthumously in 2012 and will be nominated for an Oscar and a Golden Globe.

📷 Credit: Movieclips Trailers' Youtube Channel

Even if Thor had just proved that trans-oceanic travel on primitive ships was possible, there was no evidence that such travel had actually taken place

Archaeological expeditions to the Galapagos Islands and Easter Island: In search of forgotten proofs (1953 - 1956)

Once the experience of sailing across the oceans was validated, Thor had to accumulate tangible evidence of the passage of South American populations on the Pacific islands. For that, he goes 5 years later, in 1953, with two archaeologists (Arne Skølsvold and Erik Reed) on the Galapagos Islands, where they found an Inca boat, particular shards of potteries corresponding to the prehistoric South American craft industry and a musical instrument which was very frankly close to an Inca flute. These discoveries attested of a passage of South American people on these islands before Christopher Columbus reached America.

Pano Anakena beach

Panorama of Anakena, Easter Island with two Ahu: the one in the foreground has one Moai; the one in the background has several.Unknown date, Rivi, Own Work,  (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Strengthened by these discoveries which seemed to confirm his theory, he organized a second expedition, this time on Easter Island, from 1955 to 1956, with 5 other scientists in search of traces of the first people who arrived on the island. They spent many months traveling around the island and studying the main archaeological sites in order to learn more about the practices of the island's primitive inhabitants (whether in terms of lifestyle, art, transportation or the creation and erection of the famous moai). 

Among their findings, they presented an engraving on one of the stone statues, representing a boat with a sail, similar to those represented on several artifacts previously discovered in South America. The team published two scientific reports, to which Thor added a third, "The Art of Easter Island", and published a popular book on this research, "Aku-Aku: The Secret of Easter Island", which was a worldwide commercial success.

thor heyerdahl in front of a eastern island moai

On Easter Island, 1997, АНО «Центр Стаса Намина», (CC BY-SA 3.0)

According to his research, and based on both his archaeological research and his conversations with local people, Thor believes that the island was originally settled by the "Hanau eepe", which can be translated as "long ears". This people would have originated from South America. Subsequently, the island would have known new waves of migrations, in particular of "Hanau momoko" in the 16th century, the "short ears", a people originating from Polynesia.

A difference between the accounts of Admiral Roggeveen and those of James Cook, who respectively visited Easter Island in 1722 and 1774, questions Thor Heyerdahl. Indeed, while Admiral Roggeveen described his encounters with an extremely mixed population, composed of whites, Polynesians and Indians, Cook described a population much smaller in number, living on deprivation and surprisingly composed mainly of Polynesians.

📷 Credit: The Ancient Explorer's Youtube Channel

According to the accounts of the people that Thor himself met on the island, the Polynesians would have risen up against the South Americans and would have massacred them after a final attempt to entrench the "long ears" on a part of the island, behind a "flame barrier". Archaeological traces of this escape, in particular the discovery of a ditch filled with traces of a former great fire seems to corroborate this history. This bloody civil war would have participated in the extinction of the South American peoples on Easter Island, leaving the Polynesian populations to expand and persist. 

What is certain is that recent studies and DNA tests have demonstrated the presence of South American genes in the genome composition of Easter Islanders. However, it is difficult to know if this presence is an ancient heritage or due to recent population mixing, even though recent excavations at Anakena Beach have shown that the first humans present on the island appear to be Polynesians. Other recent researches confirm however the hypothesis of contact between the island and an area that is today Peru and Bolivia. 

These traces of contact will also be found in Peru, during an expedition of Thor in 1988 in Túcume, where he uncovered a gigantic mural fresco dating from 1200-1300 AD, depicting boats with sails and mythological icons of bird-men holding an egg in their hands, a figure that is abundantly found in religious and ritual practices on Easter Island. 

birdman holding an egg

Stone Exhumed From Orongo, 1914. Bird-man in low relief with egg in hand. Length of carving, 36.5 cm. British Museum. Katherine Routledge: The Mystery of Easter Island, 1919, Unknown author, Public domain

Herydahl believes that this primitive people, the "Tiki" people would have colonized the Pacific islands from Peru, then uninhabited around 500 AD, using these pae-pae rafts made of balsa wood. They would have built huge stone statues on Easter Island, but also in the Marquesas and would have erected pyramids in Samoa and Tahiti, similar to those found in Peru. These Tiki would have been joined around 1100 AD by Indians from North-West America, who arrived on large canoes, similar to Viking ships.

He believes that the Asian strain, which represents the overwhelming majority of the genome of these islands today, would have migrated from East Asia but through Canada, leaving behind traces of their passage so that Heyerdahl finds cultural similarities between the Canadian Tlingit and Haida tribes, the Polynesians and the primitive South American peoples.

Recent DNA studies show that the Polynesian genome is closer to people from Southeast Asia than to those from South America. Many scientists and anthropologists, such as Robert Carl Suggs or Wade Davis, violently criticized Heyerdahl both for his controversial results and for his scientific methodology, which he considered to be flawed and incomplete.

However, other studies confirm the close relationship between South Americans and Polynesians. A study published in Nature in July 2020, suggests a contact event, around 1200 AD A second one even estimates that "the South American component dates from about 1280 to 1495, shortly after the first colonization of the island by the Polynesians around 1200". 

The Ra and Ra II Expeditions: From one Ocean to the Other, the Question of Connections Persists (1969 - 1970)

Over time, his ideas expanded and Thor now believes that it was possible for contact to have taken place between the primitive peoples of America and Africa, based on cultural similarities such as the worship of the pyramids by the Mexicans and the Egyptians for example. In 1966, John H. Rowe asserted that the ancient civilizations bordering the Mediterranean basin could not influence or have influenced the American one because of the lack of technological means.

📷 Credit: The Kon-Tiki Museum 's Youtube Channel

Almost 10 years after his first great adventure, he set himself a new challenge in 1969 to prove his theories: to cross the Atlantic Ocean from Morocco on a papyrus reed boat based on the models of ancient Egyptian boats. To do this, Thor built a first boat, at the foot of the pyramids, with the help of boat builders coming directly from Lake Chad, which he named Ra, in honor of the sun god. 

Thor and 6 companions from 6 different countries set sail from Safi on May 25, 1969 and traveled more than 6400 kilometers before sinking under the force of the waves, winds and storms and a bad distribution of the cargo, less than 160 km from the arrival. They realized that they had not respected an important element of the construction of the ships of the time allowing the stern to remain high in the water.

ra II expedition boat

Thor Heyerdahl's raft Ra II (Kon-Tiki Museum, Oslo, Norway). The reed is not original, the rest of the vessel is, 22 August 2006, China_Crisis Own Work (CC BY-SA 2.5)

The following year, on May 17, 1970, they used a similar model of boat, the Ra II, but this time built on the shores of Lake Titicaca in Bolivia by Demetrio, Juan and José Limachi, Indians of the Aymaro tribe. This expedition was a great success this time and the navigators reached the coast of Barbados 57 days later, proving that transatlantic travel using the Canary Current was possible. 

Their adventures were recounted in the book "The Ra Expeditions" and in the documentary film "Ra". This voyage also served as a vehicle for important messages for Thor, such as brotherhood, as the crew was made up of people from different nations, religions and situations, and environmental protection, as the crew was commissioned by the United Nations to observe and document the state of marine pollution during their crossing. During their crossing, they encountered piles of oil for 43 of the 57 days of the trip. His position will even be heard in the U.S. Congress or at the Stockholm Conference in 1972 where he will be asked to testify.

The Tigris Expedition: The Advent of his Political Activism (1977)

In 1977, Heyerdahl was now 62 years old and decided to build a final reed boat, using his past experience. He built it in Iraq, in Al Qurnah. The Tigris was the largest reed boat to be built in four thousand years. The crew was composed of 11 people, again from 11 different countries.

Tigris Model Pyramids of Guimar

Model of the reed boat Tigris, boat of Thor Heyerdahl. Pyramids of Güímar, Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain, June 2009, Polylerus, Own work (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Its purpose during this expedition was to show that links could have taken place between the peoples of Mesopotamia, ancient Egypt and those of the Indus Valley, now Pakistan and India. After having traveled for 5 months and 6400 km, descended the Tigris, sailed in the Persian Gulf, then the Arabian Sea until the mouth of the Indus in Pakistan, the crew of the Tigris decided to burn the boat near the coast of Djibouti on April 3, 1978 as a sign of protest against the political instability and the wars which reigned in the region of the Horn of Africa and the approaches of the Red Sea.

📷 Credit: The Kon-Tiki Museum 's Youtube Channel

Over the next few years, Thor became politically involved in the importance of preserving world peace, both with international organizations and through his various books.

After having led other expeditions to the Pacific Islands, Peru or Maldive, Thor turned to a last expedition that would lead him first to Azerbaijan and then to Russia in the footsteps of Odin and an ancient civilization that would have colonized Scandinavia, a quest mixing mythological stories and scientific approximations that did not improve his relationship with the scientific world

Ganoza with Walter Alva. Walter Alva, Thor Heyerdahl and Guillermo Ganoza in Tucume.

Ganoza with Walter Alva. Walter Alva, Thor Heyerdahl and Guillermo Ganoza in Tucume, 13 February 2014, Scarface03, Own Work (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Conclusion

After a life spent trying to prove to the international scientific community that it was wrong, but having largely participated in the popularization of science, Thor died at 87 years old, on April 18, 2002 in Colla Micheri in Italy, where he will be buried, following a brain tumor against which he did not want to fight. The Norwegian government paid tribute to him with a state funeral in Oslo Cathedral on April 26, 2002.

Even though his theories were refuted by most of the academic world, Thor Heyerdahl sailed vast oceans in open boats, drifting with the winds, currents and tides, and asked big questions that allowed science to advance and explore hypotheses that were previously considered unthinkable. For Heyerdahl, it was less important to be right or wrong than to draw attention to ancient history and anthropology. He also transmitted through his works, his love of the world, of Nature and of peace, but also and above all his thirst to pursue his dreams to the end, no matter what obstacles he encountered. 

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Author: Baptiste

Baptiste is a passionate adventurer and lover of old and charming retro objects. Through this blog, he seeks to share his passion for travel and vintage fashion

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