archaeologist, author and explorer
Did you make miniature boats from bark when you were a kid? Thor Heyerdahl probably did that, too... as a grown-up man, Thor Heyerdahl took miniature boats making one step further. He built a raft, made of timber balsa. And he sailed it. 8 000 kilometres, from Peru to the atolls of Raroia in Polynesia.
Thor had an idea: He wanted to prove the possibility of contact between widely separated people in ancient times. For instance, he wanted to find out if Polynesia might have been populated from South America.
To prove this, he had to go back in time, imagining how these people travelled by sea at that time.
Thor Heyerdahl was a collector. Born in Oslo in 1914, he was fascinated by the lives of beetles, worms, seashells, butterflies, bats, lemmings, and hedgehogs. He collected them and kept them in his own museum which he had furnished in an old shed at his father's brewery.
Strongly influenced by his mother, who was a zoologist and leader of Larvik Museum, Thor Heyerdahl was an eager zoology-pupil.
«My mother brought me up on Darwin and evolution instead of Norwegian fairy tales», he once told The Washington Post.
Thor Heyerdahl and his parents were outdoor fanatics, spending most of their spare time and holidays in their cabin or in the mountains like Jotunheimen and Rondane. He loved sledging and skiing with his dog, Kazan, to remote places. Throughout his early life, Thor Heyerdahl was determined to live in a more primitive setting.
He was constantly curious about how it all was connected: how did people move about in ancient times, how did new settlements arise on new continents? How did they get there? And what types of vessels carried them over troubled seas?
He was particularly fascinated by the Polynesian people.
In 1936, Thor Heyerdahl travelled together with his first wife, Liv, to the island of Fatu Hiva, in French Polynesia in the Pacific. They studied plants and animals and lived a lifestyle in harmony with nature, eluding the Western way of living. It was here that Heyerdahl’s theory of South American Indians was the first population of Polynesia was born.
The illusion of a Paradise, however, was soon over – it was a hard life and difficulties arose with the local people. The couple returned to Norway after a year.
But for Heyerdahl, the stay at Fatu Hiva sparked a lifelong fascination with the culture and myths of ancient civilisations. He disagreed with the idea that people had migrated from Asia or the Middle East to come to Polynesia. What if they had come from the Western side of North and South America?
He wanted to find out.
The Indians in South America did not have rafts or boats that could sail to the Polynesian islands, researchers claimed. But Heyerdahl wanted to prove that they were wrong. He decided to build a timber balsa raft and sail it himself.
So, on April 28, 1947, Thor Heyerdahl and a crew of five men left Callao in Peru, heading for Polynesia. They named the raft Kon-Tiki after a Peruvian Sun God.
I guess you may call Thor Heyerdahl an enthusiast. But would you spend almost three months of your life in an open raft, with medieval safety and comfort standard? In addition, sharks, storms, primitive food …
Kon-Tiki reached Raroia in Polynesia after 101 days at open sea. Eventually, they crashed into an atoll and then took shelter on a small island in the South Sea. But Heyerdahl had proved his opponents wrong, those who claimed that such a move was impossible.
After the Kon-Tiki adventure, Thor Heyerdahl became famous. He was a great storyteller and his bestselling book, Kon-Tiki, is translated into more than 65 languages. A documentary about the voyage also won an Academy Award in 1951. Now famous and popular, Heyerdahl found himself being attacked by the scientific community. The common opinion was that Heyerdahl's adventure contributed little to substantiate his claims regarding the cultural ancestry of Polynesia.
All through his life, Thor Heyerdahl had questions he needed to find the answers to which resulted in even more dangerous expeditions – which then again resulted in numerous books.
In 1969, he sailed the balsa boat Ra I from Morocco 5,000 kilometres across the Atlantic Ocean in eight weeks before he had to interrupt the expedition.
Ten months later, Ra II was launched in Morocco and Thor Heyerdahl sailed the 6,100 kilometres to Barbados in 57 days.
In 1977, Heyerdahl built his largest ship, Tigris, and conducted an expedition from Iraq to The Persian Gulf and into the Indian Ocean. Furthermore, the trip continued to Pakistan and across the Indian Ocean to Africa. The journey ended in Djibouti when the expedition was surrounded by war on all sides, and the expedition members decided to burn the boat.
Thor Heyerdahl also visited Easter Island, the Galapagos Islands and Machu Picchu.
Thor Heyerdahl was an explorer giant – stubborn, enthusiastic, willing to take risks where others would not dare. In 2005 it was confirmed through DNA-tests that Thor Heyerdahl was wrong regarding the theory that Polynesians originated from South America. They originated most probably from Taiwan. However, the researchers agreed with him that Polynesians had contact with South Americans.
Thor Heyerdahl had great respect and affection for all life on earth – plants, animals, humans. He continued to travel and study until he was a very old man. He won many awards and was happy doing the thing he loved most – exploring and learning.
«You cannot buy a ticket to Paradise. It is something you find inside of yourself».
- Thor Heyerdahl
Facts Thor Heyerdahl
- Born 6th October 1914 in Larvik, Norway, died April 18, 2002, in Colla Micheri, Italy.
- Studied zoology and geography at the University of Oslo.
- The original Kon-Tiki raft is displayed at the Kon-Tiki Museum at Bygdøy in Oslo.
- Conducted numerous expeditions on rafts and boats made of balsa and papyrus.
- Published several books of which ‘The Kon-Tiki Expedition‘, ‘The Tigris Expedition‘, ‘Fatu-Hiva – Back to Nature‘ and ‘The Ra Expeditions’ are the most known.