Thor Heyerdahl

Through his oceanic expeditions on primitive rafts and boats, documented in books, films, and television programs, Norwegian anthropologist Thor Heyerdahl (born 1914) has popularized ideas about common links among ancient cultures worldwide.

Since his voyage across the Pacific on the Kon-Tikiin 1947, Thor Heyerdahl has been the modern world's most renowned explorer-adventurer. He has made four oceanic trips in primitive vessels to demonstrate his theories that ancient civilizations may have spread from a common source through sea voyages. His expeditions to sites of ancient stone statues in the Pacific Ocean and pyramids in Peru have also attracted great interest. More than a dozen books about his adventures have sold tens of millions of copies worldwide. Heyerdahl's work has included several documentary films and hundreds of articles for journals and magazines. But while he has gained more popular attention than any contemporary anthropologist, the scientific community largely has rejected his controversial theories.

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Early Love of Nature

Heyerdahl was born into an upper-class family in the coastal village of Larvik, Norway, in 1914. His father, Thor, was president of a brewery and a mineral water plant, and his mother, Alison Lyng Heyerdahl, was chairman of the Larvik Museum. His mother, an ardent atheist, studied zoology, folk art, and primitive cultures, and influenced her son greatly. His father was an avid outdoorsman. By age seven, young Thor had started his own zoological museum, filled with specimens of sea shells, butterflies, bats, lemmings, and hedgehogs. It was housed in an old outhouse at his father's brewery.

Heyerdahl and his parents spent summer holidays at a log cabin in the wilderness, where Thor made friends with a hermit and learned much about nature. He also made many winter camping trips by sled and ski to remote locations with his schoolmates. According to his school friend Arnold Jacoby, in his book Senor Kon-Tiki, "Thor was convinced that modern man had … an over-loaded brain and reduced powers of observation. Primitive man, on the other hand, was an extrovert and alert, with keen instincts and all his senses alive…. Civilization might be compared with a house full of people who had never been outside the building." Throughout his early life, Heyerdahl was determined to go "outside the building" and live in a more primitive setting.

In 1933, Heyerdahl entered the University of Oslo and specialized in zoology and geography. In Oslo, he spent a lot of time in the home of a wealthy wine merchant and family friend who had a huge library of Polynesian artifacts. With his girlfriend Liv Torp, Heyerdahl decided to quit college and make an expedition to the South Seas. His father agreed to finance the trip. Heyerdahl and Torp were married on Christmas Eve in 1936, and the next day they set out for Fatu Hiva in the Marquesas Islands, their hand-picked Garden of Eden. On the island Heyerdahl discovered evidence that Peruvian aboriginal voyagers had visited the islands. The inhabitants told him stories of Kon-tiki, a bearded, white sun king who arrived over the sea. Heyerdahl's stay on Fatu Hiva is recounted in his 1996 book, Green Was the Earth on the Seventh Day.

Daring Raft Voyage

In 1938, the Heyerdahls returned to Norway and settled in a log cabin in a mountain wilderness near Lillehammer. He wrote a book in Norwegian about their expedition to Fatu Hiva, Pa Jakt efter Paradiset (On the Hunt for Paradise). The couple had two sons, Thor and Bjorn. Heyerdahl did field research among American Indian tribes in British Columbia in 1939 and 1940, trying to support his theory that two waves of migration from the Americas had settled Polynesia, one from the northern hemisphere and one from the south. During World War II, Heyerdahl trained as a wireless radio operator in Canada and was active for a few months in the Norwegian resistance behind German lines.

After the war, Heyerdahl found little acceptance of his ideas in academic circles. He planned a dramatic experiment to convince his critics that a voyage by ancient peoples from Peru to Polynesia was possible. In 1947, he and a crew traveled to Peru and built a raft made of nine balsa logs, which they named the Kon-Tiki. Following the Humboldt Current, the voyagers covered 4, 300 miles of ocean in 101 days. Heyerdahl detailed the extraordinary journey in his book, The Kon-Tiki Expedition. The book was "the first great post-war adventure story to catch the imagination of the world, " according to biographer Christopher Ralling. It was translated into dozens of languages and sold more than 20 million copies. Heyerdahl's documentary movie of the voyage won him an Academy Award in 1951. "That film won the Oscar because it was so badly shot they knew it couldn't have been faked, " Heyerdahl told Pope Brock of People. "It was done after 20 minutes instruction from a Bell & Howell dealer, and I filmed at the wrong speed."

Brock noted that the book and film created a global audience for Heyerdahl's adventures: "They saw a Ulysses, the last of the bold and bearded seafarers. Ever since then, Heyerdahl has shown that same genius for attracting followers and funding; he has transformed a crabbed and insular science into world theater." But while the Kon-Tiki voyage captured public attention, it was met with scientific disdain. To advance his theories further, Heyerdahl wrote an 800-page scholarly work, American Indians in the Pacific: The Theory behind the Kon-Tiki Expedition, published in 1952.

While Heyerdahl was achieving fame, his constant travels had weakened his marriage. The couple divorced, and he married Yvonne Dedekam-Simonsen in 1949. They had three daughters, Anette, Marian, and Elisabeth, and in 1958 settled in a remote Italian Alpine village. They divorced in 1969.

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Explorations Worldwide

In 1953, Heyerdahl went to the Galapagos Islands, off the South American coast. There, he and his companions found evidence that indigenous people of South America had visited the islands long before the Incan Empire. In 1955, Heyerdahl led an expedition to Easter Island, the remote Polynesian island where enormous stone statues of unknown origin had been discovered in 1722. His team found a carving of a reed ship at the base of one of the statues and much other evidence that the island had been populated by at least three migrations from South America, the earliest in the fourth century. He wrote about this expedition in two books, Aku-Aku: The Secret of Easter Island and The Archaeology of Easter Island.

Heyerdahl was among a group of scientists called "diffusionists, " who believed that ancient cultures had come from a common source through land and sea migrations. The opposing camp, called "isolationists, " thought that civilizations had cropped up around the world independently of one another. The isolationist theory has remained the dominant one, and Heyerdahl's work did not disprove it. Still, as writer Thomas Morrow noted in U.S. News & World Report, Heyerdahl "has turned up a surprising amount of convincing evidence suggesting sea contacts among remote ancient cultures, for which he gets little credit."

As a proponent of a single global prehistorical culture, Heyerdahl also became, through his work and notoriety around the globe, a symbol of multiculturalism. He learned to speak fluent Spanish, English, French, German, and Italian as well as his native Norwegian.

In 1969, Heyerdahl organized a new expedition. In Egypt, he and a multinational six-man crew built a papyrus reed boat which they named Ra, after the Egyptian sun god. Under the flag of the United Nations, they sailed across the Atlantic, a voyage of 2, 700 miles, but the boat broke apart 600 miles short of Barbados. The next year, Heyerdahl tried again, sailing the Ra II all the way from Morocco to Barbados in 57 days. His account of these expeditions is found in his 1970 book The Ra Expeditions. It is also documented in a 1971 Swedish Broadcasting Corporation film. To Heyerdahl, the voyages were evidence that Egyptians or other sailors could have crossed to the Americas several thousand years before Columbus.

His voyages led Heyerdahl to become active internationally in fighting pollution of the oceans. In Green was the Earth on the Seventh Day, Heyerdahl wrote about how his voyage on the Kon-Tiki had increased his awareness of threats to the environment: "My childhood fear of the ocean had left me on the balsa raft. My fear was now instead that man should destroy the ocean. A dead ocean meant a dead planet." He wrote eloquently about the poisoning of ocean plankton and its effects on the food chain: "What the farmers and the housewives spray out of plastic bottles, the fishermen and the middlemen serve us on our own plates."

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New Challenges

In 1977, at the age of 62, Heyerdahl took up another challenge. He went to Iraq and with a crew of 11 men and built a reed ship, the Tigris. They sailed it down the Tigris River, through the Persian Gulf and across the Indian Ocean to the mouth of the Indus River in Pakistan, then westward to Djibouti at the mouth of the Red Sea on the eastern African coast. This 4, 200-mile, five-month-long voyage was an attempt to show that the ancient civilizations of Egypt, the Indus Valley, and Mesopotamia could have sprung from a single source. Ironically, Heyerdahl's Tigris trip ended in political turmoil in the Gulf of Aden region, and Heyerdahl burned the ship in protest. In a message to the United Nations Secretary General, Heyerdahl wrote: "There is a desperate need for intelligent co-operation if we are to save ourselves and our common civilization from what we are turning into a sinking ship." The Tigris expedition became a BBC documentary film in 1979.

In 1982, Heyerdahl and several archaeologists undertook an expedition to the remote Maldive islands off the coast of India. There, Heyerdahl was fascinated by stone statues which bore a striking resemblance to the monoliths of Easter Island. His discoveries led him to conclude that the Maldives also had been involved in prehistoric ocean trading and migration. Heyerdahl's 1986 book, The Maldive Mystery, was hailed by some as a great detective story. It, too, was made into a film, as had been his expeditions to the Galapagos and Easter Island.

In 1988, Heyerdahl returned to Peru to explore 26 pre-Incan pyramids at ruins named Tucume. In 1990, Ralling wrote a biography, Kon-Tiki Man, which quotes extensively from Heyerdahl's previous accounts of his travels. A reviewer in Publishers Weekly called the book "a stimulating chronicle of curiosity and wanderlust." A television series was made to accompany the book.

In Green Was the Earth on the Seventh Day, Heyerdahl wrote movingly of the mysteries which fascinated him all his life. "Sailing on a raft in a black night through an explosion of blinking stars and plankton, our horizons widen, " he wrote, referring to the Kon-Tiki voyage. "We live in a fairy tale world and carry heaven and hell within us." Writing about his opposition to nuclear arms and advanced technology, Heyerdahl noted: "At a time when we plunge into the technological era with fairy-tale visions of a manmade environment, science itself begins to see that nature is totally superior to man in its incredible composition of the world's ecosystem. Destroy it, and no brain and no money in the world can put it together again."

In the same book, Heyerdahl composed an eloquent testament for his children and their generation: "You are now to take over this planet; take good care of it. We did not, when we borrowed it before you…. Forgive us for the forests we have depleted. For the waters we have polluted. For the horrible arms we have in store…. Forgive us for the holes we have torn in the ozone layer…. We have narrowed our horizons by hiding ourselves behind walls and blinded the heavenly bodies with neon lights. We have worshiped dead things…. Help to heal the system we have wounded…. All that walk and crawl and swim and fly are members of our extended family."

In one interview, Heyerdahl told Brock of People: "We have the egoistic idea that we in the 20th century are the civilized ones. That people living 1, 000 years ago, not to mention 5, 000 years ago, were greatly inferior to us. I am opposed to that. The people back then were physically and mentally our equal-if not in many ways better…. We couldn't survive using our brains, as ancient people did. But they would certainly have been capable of watching a television."

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Further Reading on Thor Heyerdahl

Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series, Volume 22, Gale, 1988.

Heyerdahl, Thor, Green Was the Earth on the Seventh Day, Random House, 1996.

Heyerdahl, Thor, with Christopher Ralling, Kon-Tiki Man, Chronicle Books, 1990.

Atlantic, December 1989.

Booklist, March 1, 1996.

Modern Maturity, February-March 1992.

People, December 11, 1989.

Publishers Weekly, September 6, 1991.

U.S. News & World Report, April 2, 1990.