Thor Heyerdahls Kon Tiki Expedition

If you had happened to pass by the dockyard in the Peruvian port of Callao, Lima, in early August 1947, you might have spotted a homely little Inca raft bobbing about merrily amidst the huge tankers and warships. This was the Kon-Tiki, named by explorer and scientist Thor Heyerdahl after a pre-Inca sun god. Every expert in the land had condemned the tiny raft as hopelessly unfit for its mission: to carry six men 4300 miles across the Pacific Ocean to Polynesia. Heyerdahl eagerly invited the crew of a visiting Norwegian ship to come and see the Kon-Tiki, only to be informed the raft was doomed to fall apart within two weeks of departure!

Heyerdahl, a zoologist who had shifted his attention to anthropology, firmly believed that ancient peoples had safely crossed the same ocean by raft centuries earlier and populated the South Sea Islands. He based his theory on observations of the similarities between the ancient cultures of Peru and Polynesia, written and verbal historical accounts, and knowledge of wind and currents. Heyerdahl’s theory challenged the orthodox opinion that Polynesia’s population had originated solely in South-East Asia, and so far none of the experts had taken his work seriously. The main purpose of the Kon-Tiki Expedition was to remove once and for all the primary objection to the theory: the supposed practical impossibility of crossing the Pacific on a primitive craft.

On 7th August 1947 a tug towed the Kon-Tiki and her crew out of the harbour and away from the main shipping routes. Once alone, the craft began to gain momentum thanks to the Humboldt Current and the trade winds which blew eternally westward. The six Scandinavians were relieved to find that in high seas the huge breakers, which would have swamped a boat the same size, simply drained through the cracks in the huge balsa logs. Ocean creatures evidently looked on the raft as some sort of shark or whale, as she quickly gained her own retinue of colorful pilot fish and other marine hangers-on. Food was therefore never a problem for the crew (though they also had military rations). They ate the flying fish which landed regularly on deck, dolphin, and even plankton, for which they had special nets. They also used considerably less drinking water than they had brought; instead of taking salt tablets, they drank diluted sea water, despite its vile taste, whenever they needed to replenish their body salt.

After 101 days at sea the Kon-Tiki delivered Heyerdahl and his crew dramatically but safely on an uninhabited island in the Tuamotu group, where they were rescued by neighboring islanders. The raft herself foundered on the coral reef surrounding the windward side of the island, but was later restored for posterity. Not one of the disasters foreseen by the experts had come to pass; Heyerdahl’s faith in the seafaring knowledge and expertise of the Incas was well rewarded.

Interestingly, despite the success of his mission, most experts continued (and still do) to view Heyerdahl’s migration theory with skepticism. The general public, however, lapped up the book and documentary which followed in the wake of this incredible feat: quite a tonic for those post-war recovery years! Science and the military also benefited from the expedition, as it provided a unique opportunity to test new equipment and make numerous scientific observations.

During his long life Heyerdahl organised many archaeological expeditions, most famously to Easter Island where the mysterious moai, huge stone statues, have excited curiosity to this day. He also undertook sea voyages in papyrus reed boats: in 1969-70 he crossed the Atlantic from Morocco to Barbados with an international crew, first in Ra I, which sank just short of its destination, then in the successful Ra II, to prove that Mediterranean vessels built prior to Columbus could have crossed the Atlantic.

Later in the same decade Heyerdahl attempted a crossing from Mesopotamia to Pakistan, in a papyrus reed boat he named Tigris, but was thwarted by wars raging around the Red Sea. He burnt the Tigris there and then in protest of the “inhuman elements in the world of 1978” (letter to the Secretary of the United Nations, same year). Heyerdahl was a tireless supporter of international peace and the environment.

Thor Heyerdahl’s most impressive trophies, the victorious vessels Kon-Tiki and Ra II, are now housed in the Kon-Tiki Museum in Norway’s capital, Oslo, just 60 miles north of the little town of Larvik where he was born nearly a century ago. The museum also displays letters from many of the world’s leaders, commemorating the sixtieth anniversary (2007) of Heyerdahl’s first and best-known voyage, the Kon-Tiki Expedition. In one of the letters, Gaston Tong Sang, ex-president of French Polynesia, writes “The museum houses Thor Heyerdahl’s vision of a world where borders are artificial creations; a vision of human contact and interaction, a vision of peace and mutual understanding”. Heyerdahl died in 2002, having spent his whole life in passionate pursuit of this lofty ideal.