The Voyages and Adventures of Thor Heyerdahl

Thor Heyerdahl – explorer or showman:

Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl’s experimental sea voyages in traditionallybuilt papyrus reed or balsa wood boats were not to prove that ancient man had crossed the oceans of the world, but that they had the capability to do so. His views on colonisation by way of the oceans are still often misunderstood. Heyerdahl was usually lumped in with the new age writers even though he scorned that discipline for their misuse and abuse of archaeology while at the same time often criticising academics for not reaching out beyond their scientific paradigms.

Heyerdahl was an anthropologist and explorer. Born in Larvik, Norway, 1914, he first came to fame when in 1947, he and a group of men sailed from Peru to Polynesia in the balsa-wood raft called Kon-Tiki. He had wanted to investigate whether Polynesian myths about settlers from the East were true. The Kon-Tiki did make it westward to Polynesia, but whether or not ancient Peruvians did sail there would need further archaeological examination. Next, in 1969, Heyerdahl contested the fact that traditional reed boats could only sail on rivers. From Morocco, he used the papyrus-reed boat Ra I to keep him afloat in the ocean for months, rather than the days or weeks that the experts had predicted. In the following year, he sailed in Ra II from Morocco to Barbados. Again, while proving the concept that ancient boats could have crossed the Atlantic, the jury was still out on whether they did. Such voyages gave ammunition to his detractors that he was trying to prove that Egyptians had crossed the ocean and taught the New Worlders how to build pyramids. This was far from the truth, though Heyerdahl did believe that the reed boat was important in spreading ancient culture.

Heyerdahl’s expeditions to Easter Island and the Galapagos in the 1950s found evidence that prePolynesian and preInca societies, respectively, had at least landed on these islands. One of Heyerdahl’s lesser known projects had been his work at Tucume from 1988-1993. Tucume, in northern Peru, is a complex of twenty-six pyramids, the biggest in South America. Heyerdahl helped investigate and uncover the history of the Pre-Inca site including the fact that they had sailing technology and had contact with Easter Island. Heyerdahl’s theories, excavations, and voyages could prove that the Pacific and Atlantic were indeed highways for culture for much longer than generally thought.

The Foundation for Exploration on Cultural Origins (FERCO), which Heyerdahl was a part of, was set up to investigate the climatic and cultural changes around 3000 BC’. During that time Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Mayans and Hindu among others all either started upon the road to civilisation or their calendars began at that time. It is an attempt at trying to piece together a history of man relating to specific environmental periods. Heyerdahl was certainly no showboating New Ager. He wanted to spark debate and understand ancient man and his technology. Heyerdahl’s work, over the years, had also taken him to The Maldives, the Tigris River, and the Canary Islands, among other places, all in the pursuit of knowledge about ancient man’s technological and exploration capabilities. Thor Heyerdahl died, aged 87, in 2002, the Norwegian government honoring him with a State Funeral.

Thor Heyerdahl was a showman in a way, popularising ancient history, but it was also to highlight and discover important aspects of ancient life. There are not many adventurers or explorers in his mould today. Nowadays, anyone attempting to do what he did or some other grandiose expedition would be accompanied by a whole film crew and be filmed like a reality TV programme for self-promotion. Heyerdahl was a practical explorer and anthropologist willing to answer his own questions and physically pull it off. We may never encounter his like again.


Heyerdahl, T. 2000. In The Footsteps of Adam. London: Little, Brown & Company.

Heyerdahl, T., Sandweiss, D.H. & Narvaez, A.1995. Pyramids of Tucume. London: Thames and Hudson.