Thor Heyerdahl

Thor Heyerdahl (October 6, 1914 in Larvik, Norway – April 18, 2002 in Colla Micheri, Italy) was a marine biologist with a great interest in anthropology, who became famous for his Kon-Tiki Expedition in which he sailed by raft 4,300 miles from South America to the Tuamotu Islands. National Geographic best summarizes his life by these words: “He crossed three oceans in primitive rafts and boats to prove theories about where man has been and how he got there… Heyerdahl said his life was dominated by three challenges: to live in harmony with nature and improve it, to make his mark on the scientific community, and to build on his conception of the basic unity of mankind.”  Heyerdahls’s voyages across the Atlantic and across the Pacific proves that pre-Columban exchange between Africa, Europe and the Americas and between the Americas and the islands of the Pacific is historically probable and that the ancient world was more aware of the global interdependence of human life than has usually been assumed. While his voyages did not conclusively prove that such exchange actually took place, alongside other evidence, such as similarities in the archeological record and in mythology, it makes it highly likely. In proving that non-European cultures had the technology to cross the world before Europeans did, Heyerdahl also challenged ethnocentric notions of cultural and racial superiority.

Fatu Hiva: Back to Nature

Fatu Hiva: Back to Nature is the name of a book, published in 1974, by Thor Heyerdahl, detailing his experiences and reflections during a one-and-a-half-year stay on the Marquesan island of Fatu Hiva in 1937-1938.


On the occasion of their honeymoon, Thor Heyerdahl and his first wife Liv, determined to escape from civilization, and to “return to nature.” The couple arrived at Fatu Hiva in 1937, in the valley of Omo’a. Finding that civilization, albeit on a vastly reduced scale, was still present there, they decided to cross over the island’s mountainous interior to settle in one of the small, nearly abandoned, valleys on the eastern side of the island. There, they made their thatch-covered stilted home in the valley of Uia.

Development of Heyerdahl’s Ideas about the Origins of the Polynesians

It was in this setting, surrounded by the ruins of the formerly glorious Marquesan civilization, that Heyerdahl first developed his theories regarding the possibility of trans-oceanic contact between the pre-European Polynesians, and the peoples and cultures of South America.

During several exchanges with an elderly Marquesan man who lived in Uia with them, Heyerdahl determined that, although prior to the arrival of Europeans, cats were not to be found in Polynesia, the Marquesans were nonetheless familiar with the creatures, and indeed, certain of the carved tiki figures seemed very much to represent felines:

To our surprise, the reliefs of two human figures with hands above their heads appeared, and between them, two large quadrupeds in profile, each with an eye, a mouth, erected ears, and a tail. Two quadrupeds!…A cat?…Felines yes, but not rats (173). ‘The ccoa was an important figure in the Andean cultures. In the Mayan language, toh is the name for the puma. In Polynesia, toa is the word for “brave.” Cats are not native to Polynesia, but somehow feline icons are found in their primitive sculptures and figures. In Samoa, pusi is an English derivative that was adopted with the newly arrived cat. In Fatu-Hiva, the name for cat is poto. The fact that cats seem to display some sense of keen intellect probably caused the natives to name the new arrivals poto after the Polynesian word for smart, poto.

The observation prompted Heyerdahl to ask Tei Tetua from whence his people had come, to which he replied “the east”:

“From where?” I asked, and was curious to hear the old man’s reply. “From Te Fiti” (The East), answered the old man and nodded toward that part of the horizon where the sun rose, the direction in which there was no other land except South America. (217)

Heyerdahl went on to explore this possibility a number of years later, as is detailed in his books Kon-Tiki, Aku-Aku: The Secret of Easter Island, and Easter Island: The Mystery Solved.

The Kon-Tiki expedition

In the Kon-Tiki Expedition, Heyerdahl and a small team went to South America, where they used balsawood and other native materials to construct the Kon-Tiki raft. Kon-Tiki was inspired by old drawings of Inca rafts made by the Spanish conquistadors. After a 101-day, 4,300-mile journey across the Pacific Ocean, it smashed into the reef at Raroia in the Tuamotu Islands on August 7, 1947, showing that pre-historic peoples could have traveled from South America. The only modern technology the expedition had was a radio, food in the form of military rations, and fresh water in 56 small cans. While en route, the crew supplemented their diet by fishing. The documentary of the expedition, itself entitled Kon-Tiki, won an Academy Award in 1951.

This expedition demonstrated there were no technical reasons to prevent people from South America from having settled the Polynesian Islands. Nevertheless most anthropologists continue to believe, based on linguistic, physical and genetic evidence, that Polynesia was settled from west to east, migration having begun from the Asian mainland.

Heyerdahl’s theory of Polynesian origins

Heyerdahl claimed that in Incan legend there was a sun god named Con-Tici Viracocha who was the supreme head of the mythical white people in Peru. The original name for Virakocha was Kon-Tiki or Illa-Tiki, which means Sun-Tiki or Fire-Tiki. Kon-Tiki was high priest and sun-king of these legendary “white men” who left enormous ruins on the shores of Lake Titicaca. The legend continues with the mysterious bearded white men being attacked by a chief named Cari who came from the Coquimbo Valley. They had a battle on an island in Lake Titicaca, and the fair race was massacred. However, Kon-Tiki and his closest companions managed to escape and later arrived on the Pacific coast. The legend ends with Kon-Tiki and his companions disappearing westward out to sea.

When the Spaniards came to Peru, Heyerdahl asserted, the Incas told them that the colossal monuments that stood deserted about the landscape were erected by a race of white gods who had lived there before the Incas themselves became rulers. The Incas described these “white gods” as wise, peaceful instructors who had originally come from the north in the “morning of time” and taught the Incas’ primitive forefathers architecture as well as manners and customs. They were unlike other Native Americans in that they had “white skins and long beards” and were taller than the Incas. They also had Semitic facial features. The Incas said that the “white gods” had then left as suddenly as they had come and fled westward across the Pacific. After they had left, the Incas themselves took over power in the country.

Heyerdahl said that when the Europeans first came to the Pacific islands, they were astonished that they found some of the natives to have relatively light skins and beards. There were whole families that had pale skin, hair varying in color from reddish to blonde, and almost Semitic, hook-nosed faces. In contrast, most of the Polynesians had golden-brown skin, raven-black hair, and rather flat noses. Heyerdahl claimed that when Roggeveen first discovered Easter Island in 1722, he supposedly noticed that many of the natives were white-skinned. Heyerdahl claimed that these people could count their ancestors who were “white-skinned” right back to the time of Tiki and Hotu Matua, when they first came sailing across the sea “from a mountainous land in the east which was scorched by the sun.” There is no ethnographic evidence to back up these claims.

Heyerdahl proposed that Tiki’s Stone Age people colonized the then-uninhabited Polynesian islands as far north as Hawaii, as far south as New Zealand, as far east as Easter Island, and as far west as Samoa around 500 C.E. They supposedly sailed from Peru to the Polynesian islands on pae-paes, which were large rafts built from balsa logs complete with sails and each with a small cottage. They built enormous stone statues carved in the image of human beings on Pitcairn, the Marquesas, and Easter Island that exactly resembled those in Peru. They also built huge pyramids on Tahiti and Samoa with steps like those in Peru. But all over Polynesia, Heyerdahl found indications that Tiki’s peaceable race had not been able to hold the islands alone for long. He found evidence that suggested that seagoing war canoes as large as Viking ships and lashed together two and two had brought Stone Age Northwest American Indians to Polynesia around 1100 C.E., and they mingled with Tiki’s people.


The Kon-Tiki was crewed by six men, all Norwegian except for Bengt Danielsson, who was from Sweden.

  • Thor Heyerdahl was the expedition leader.
  • Erik Hesselberg was the navigator and artist. He painted the large Kon-Tiki figure on the raft’s sail.
  • Bengt Danielsson took on the role of steward, in charge of supplies and daily rations. Danielsson was a sociologist interested in human migration theory. He also served as translator, as he was the only member of the crew who spoke Spanish.
  • Knut Haugland was a radio expert, decorated by the British in World War II for actions that stalled Germany’s plans to develop the atomic bomb.
  • Torstein Raaby was also in charge of radio transmissions. He gained radio experience while hiding behind German lines during WWII, spying on the German battleship Tirpitz. His secret radio transmissions eventually helped guide in British bombers to sink the ship.
  • Herman Watzinger was an engineer whose area of expertise was in technical measurements. He recorded meteorological and hydrographical data while underway.


While this was an interesting experiment that demonstrated the seaworthiness of Heyerdahl’s raft, his theory of the Polynesians’ origins is now widely discounted by anthropologists. Physical and cultural evidence had long suggested that Polynesia was settled from west to east, migration having begun from the Asian mainland, not South America. In the late 1990s, genetic testing found that the mitochondrial DNA of the Polynesians is more similar to people from Southeast Asia than to people from South America, showing that their ancestors most likely came from Asia. The Kon-Tiki adventure is often cited as a classic of pseudoarchaeology, although its daring and inventive nature is still widely acclaimed.

However, it should be noted that Thor Heyerdahl never set out to prove that the current Polynesians were descended from South America. According to Heyerdahl, some Polynesian legends say that Polynesia was originally inhabited by two peoples, the so-called long-eared and the short-eared. In a bloody war, all the long-eared peoples were eliminated and the short-eared people assumed sole control of Polynesia. Heyerdahl asserted that these extinct people were the ones who could have settled Polynesia from the Americas, not the current, short-eared inhabitants. However one of the problems with this argument is that traditions involving long-ears and short-ears are found only at Easter Island, and are unknown in the rest of Polynesia.

Heyerdahl further argues in his book American Indians in the Pacific that the current inhabitants of Polynesia did indeed migrate from an Asian source, but via an alternate route. He proposes that Filipino natives (whom Heyerdahl asserted held cultural and physical affinities with Polynesians) traveled with the wind along the North Pacific current. These migrants then arrived in British Columbia. Heyerdahl points to the contemporary tribes of British Columbia, such as the Tlingit and Haida, as the descendants of these migrants. Again Heyerdahl notes the cultural and physical similarities between these British Columbian tribes, Polynesians, and the Old World source. Heyerdahl suggests how simple it would have been for the British Columbians to travel to Hawaii and even onward to the greater Polynesia from their New World stepping-stone by way of wind and current patterns. Heyerdahl’s claims aside, however, there is no evidence that the Tlingit, Haida or other British Columbian tribes have any special affinity with Filipinos or Polynesians. Linguistically, their morphologically complex languages appear to be far from Austronesian and Polynesian languages and their cultures don’t validate any links to the rest of the peoples of North America.

The Boats Ra and Ra II

Heyerdahl built the boats Ra and Ra II in order to demonstrate that Ancient Egyptians could have communicated with the Americas or transferred pyramid-building technology. The original Ra took on water and had to be abandoned. Heyerdahl thought the cause was that a supporting rope present in the ancient design was omitted in construction. On May 17, 1970, Heyerdahl set sail from Morocco on the papyrus boat Ra II to successfully cross the Atlantic Ocean, covering the 4,000 miles to Barbados in just 57 days. Yuri Senkevich, who was the expedition physician, later became a popular TV host in USSR and Russia.

The Tigris

His next boat, Tigris, was intended to demonstrate that trade and migration could have linked the Indus Valley Civilization in India with Mesopotamia. The Tigris was deliberately burned in Djibouti on April 3, 1978, as a protest against the wars raging on every side in the Red Sea and Horn of Africa. In Heyerdahl’s open letter to the Secretary of the United Nations he said in part:

Today we burn our proud ship… to protest against inhuman elements in the world of 1978… Now we are forced to stop at the entrance to the Red Sea. Surrounded by military airplanes and warships from the world’s most civilized and developed nations, we have been denied permission by friendly governments, for reasons of security, to land anywhere, but in the tiny, and still neutral, Republic of Djibouti. Elsewhere around us, brothers and neighbors are engaged in homicide with means made available to them by those who lead humanity on our joint road into the third millennium. To the innocent masses in all industrialized countries, we direct our appeal. We must wake up to the insane reality of our time…. We are all irresponsible, unless we demand from the responsible decision makers that modern armaments must no longer be made available to people whose former battle axes and swords our ancestors condemned. Our planet is bigger than the reed bundles that have carried us across the seas, and yet small enough to run the same risks unless those of us still alive open our eyes and minds to the desperate need of intelligent collaboration to save ourselves and our common civilization from what we are about to convert into a sinking ship.


Other work

Thor Heyerdahl also investigated the pyramidal mounds found on the Maldive Islands in the Indian Ocean. There, he found sun-oriented mounds and courtyards, as well as statues with elongated earlobes. Both of these archeological finds fit with his theory of a sea-faring civilization which originated in what is now Sri Lanka, colonized the Maldives, and influenced or founded the cultures of ancient South America and Easter Island. His discoveries are detailed in his book, The Maldive Mystery.

In 1991, he studied the pyramids of Güímar on Tenerife and discovered that they cannot be random stone heaps, but actual pyramids. He also discovered their special astronomical orientation. Heyerdahl advanced a theory according to which the Canary Islands had been bases of ancient shipping between America and the Mediterranean.

His last project was presented in the Norweigan book Jakten på Odin—På sporet av vår fortid, (“The Hunt for Odin”), in which Heyerdahl initiated excavations in Azov, near the Sea of Azov at the northeast of the Black Sea. He searched for the possible remains of a civilization to match the account of Snorri Sturluson in Ynglinga saga, where Snorri describes how a chief called Odin led a tribe, called the Æsir in a migration northwards through Saxland, to Fyn in Denmark, settling in Sweden. There, according to Snorri, he so impressed the natives with his diverse skills that they started worshipping him as a god after his death. Heyerdahl accepted Snorri’s story as literal truth. This project generated harsh criticism and accusations of pseudo-science from historians, archaeologists and linguists in Norway, who accused Heyerdahl of selective use of sources, and a basic lack of scientific methodology in his work. The central claims in this book is based on similarities of names in Norse mythology and geographic names in the Black Sea region, such as Azov and æsir, Udi and Odin, Tyr and Turkey. Philologists and historians reject these parallels as mere coincidences, and also anachronisms. For instance, the city of Azov did not have that name until over 1,000 years after Heyerdahl claims the æsir dwelt there. The controversy surrounding the The Search for Odin project was in many ways typical of the relationship between Heyerdahl and the academic community. His theories rarely won any scientific acceptance, whereas Heyerdahl himself rejected all scientific criticism and concentrated on publishing his theories in best-selling books to the larger masses.

Subsequent years

In subsequent years, Heyerdahl was involved with many other expeditions and archaeological projects. However, he remained best known for his boat-building, and for his emphasis on cultural diffusion which is the spread of cultural items, such as ideas, styles, religions, technologies, etc., between individuals, whether it is within a single culture or from one culture to another.

Heyerdahl’s expeditions were spectacular, and his heroic journeys in flimsy boats caught the public imagination. But his diffusionist theories were considered eccentric and old-fashioned by some archaeologists. His central claims that migrations linked comparable ancient civilizations have not been supported by more recent evidence. Heyerdahl undoubtedly increased public interest in ancient history and in the achievements of various cultures and peoples around the world. He also showed that long distance ocean voyages were technically possible even with ancient designs.

Thor Heyerdahl was a member of the Foundation for Exploration and Research on Cultural Origins (FERCO). Another member of FERCO, fellow researcher, and writer, Donald P. Ryan, describes Heyerdahl (in 1997):

In Scandinavia and elsewhere, Thor Heyerdahl is revered as an example of many of the highest of human qualities: courage, strength, intelligence, creativity, humility and compassion. He is the confidant of world leaders and at the same time, perfectly at home in the simplest of villages anywhere in the world. Despite his extraordinary accomplishments, he sees himself as an ordinary man and it is clear to me that even fifty years after the Kon-Tiki expedition, he remains slightly embarrassed if not perplexed by his celebrity. Resigned to this unintended role, he has accepted his public responsibilities with dignity. In his writings, Heyerdahl has emphasized the unity of all human beings and other living things on this planet and he has become an advocate of international cooperation and a spokesman for global environmental issues.

Biographer Christopher Ralling wrote,

Apart from heads of state, I doubt if there is another man on earth who would find it so easy, if he chose, to travel the world without a passport. It is not just that Thor Heyerdahl is known and admired almost everywhere, by schoolchildren and scientists alike; in some unidentifiable way he actually seems to have become a citizen of the world. (Ralling 1991, 323-324)

Thor Heyerdahl died at his home in Colla Machari, Italy, at the age of 87 on April 18, 2002; he had been diagnosed with a fatal brain tumor in early April. He died in his sleep surrounded by relatives. Amazingly, according to his relatives, Heyerdahl had made more than seventy airplane trips around the world during the last year of his life.



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