Chasing Thor Heyerdahl and the Kon-Tiki Raft

Today (August 7, 2017) marks the 70th anniversary of Thor Heyerdahl’s amazing 4300-mile, 101-day sailing of a balsa wood raft named Kon-Tiki from Peru to an island near Tahiti. And I got to see Kon-Tiki in Oslo recently.

Heyerdahl was a Norwegian anthropologist. He and his wife spent a year living on the island of Fatu Hiva in the South Pacific. They noticed that the ocean waves always struck the eastern shore of the island, which got them wondering if the original inhabitants had settled from the east, not the western lands that were closer. After 11 years of getting no support for his theory, Thor decided the best way was to prove it was possible that prehistoric South Americans could have colonized the Polynesian islands by drifting on ocean currents.

Kon-Tiki raft, Oslo

And the Kon-Tiki raft was born.

Using balsa wood and other indigenous materials from the Peruvian coast, Heyerdahl and a five-person crew built a 40-square foot raft and named it after a “mythical white chieftain.” Not surprisingly, the trip was rather eventful as they survived many storms, sharks, whales, and ambling men overboard. After leaving Peru on April 28, on August 7, 1947 they smashed into a reef on Raroia, an atoll in the Tuamotu Archipelago that makes up part of French Polynesia. They had made it!

Heyerdahl went on to write a bestselling book about the expedition, which I eagerly read as a budding marine biologist in my youth. He also produced a documentary film that won an Academy Award. These widely publicized his theory and the adventure, which led to further exploits including sailing a reed raft named Ra from Morocco to Barbados. Ra was also in the Kon-Tiki Museum in Oslo.

Kon-Tiki, Oslo

It was thrilling for me to see in person both Ra and Kon-Tiki given they played a role in my youth inspiring me to marine biology. As for Heyerdahl’s theory that the Pacific islands were settled by drifting South Americans, that idea has never really gained favor. More recent studies relying on DNA and genome identification show clearly that the dominant genetic make up is Polynesian, meaning that the prevalent idea that Heyerdahl was trying to disprove is probably the right one after all.

David J. Kent is an avid traveler and the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, now available. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (both Fall River Press). He has also written two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.

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8 thoughts on “Chasing Thor Heyerdahl and the Kon-Tiki Raft

  1. I was a big Heyerdahl fan as a kid, too. 🙂

    One of the reasons his theory for the origin of Polynesians didn’t gain favor was that long before DNA evidence settled the matter, linguistic evidence strongly pointed to Maritime Southern Asia. The Austronesian language family was recognized and described in the first half of the 20th century.

    • The language evidence should have been a tip off, but I guess that’s why Heyerdahl’s hypothesis was never really supported. But here is a guy who both was willing to put his life on the line to prove something was possible, and then managed to talk others into supporting the expedition. That in itself is impressive.

      Seeing the Kon-Tiki and the Ra in Oslo was a real thrill for me after all these years.

  2. Heyerdahl’s idea reminds me of the “Solutrean hypothesis” that paleo-Europeans might have followed the edges of ice sheets to North America, reversing an accepted direction of migration — at least in part. Probably a not much more likely idea than Heyerdahl’s, but it speaks to how little we understand about own origins.

    Japanese language is fairly unique in production, grammar and structure, seemingly unrelated to much else (Korean is grammatically similar). However, the Zuni (Native American) language is surprisingly similar, which has resulted in some pretty farfetched theories. But humans have been around long enough to have witnessed a pretty different environment, and it would be interesting to know more of what went on along those now submerged shorelines. I suspect that we have been partners with the seas for much longer than we might think.

  3. Just looked up the Solutrean hypothesis, which I wasn’t familiar with. I learned something new.

    I assume there are paleolinguists (or whatever they would be called) who have studied the language groupings of the world. I wonder how many groupings could be lumped together (e.g., germanic vs romantic vs cyrillic/slavic, etc.), each of which then got parsed apart by regional seclusion and other factors that cause dialects to form.

    Still so much we don’t know.

    • I first heard about the Solutrean hypothesis from one of its original proponents, Dennis Stanford of the Smithsonian. They had a collection of large (too big to be useful) spear points that had been ceremonially buried at sites along the east coast. He showed one to a European archaeologist and asked if he’d ever seen anything like it. The response was, “Oh yeah, we dig these things up all over the (European) coastline.”

      Languages… the only way to historically connect Japanese to any language groups it to assume it’s lost about a third of its sounds. It’s also grammatically odd, similar only to Korean, Ryukyuan (Okinawa), and Zuni. It’s also a rhythmically timed language (“moras”).

      Japan was populated three times, by the Ainu (maybe 40,000 years ago), the Jōmon (about 1,200 BC), and the “Yayoi” (about 400 BC). The “Ainu” language, still spoken by a few people in Hokkaido, is considered a paleolithic remnant unrelated to any other existing language. As for Japanese, I suspect it’s actually an amalgamation… kind of like English.

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