Thor Heyerdahl and the Kon-Tiki Expedition

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Podcast Transcript

In 1947, a Norwegian adventurer named Thor Heyerdahl set out to prove a theory of his that the people of Polynesia came there from South America.

To prove his theory, he built a raft out of local materials in Peru and set sail across the Pacific.

His voyage was successful, but the same couldn’t be said for his theories. 

Learn more about Thor Heyerdahl and the Kon-Tiki Expedition on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

The story of the Kon-Tiki begins with its creator, the Norwegian Thor Heyerdhal.

Heyerdhal was born on October 6, 1914, in Larvik, Norway. He grew up with a love for adventure and exploration, which would shape his career and life’s work.

Heyerdahl’s interest in exploration began during his childhood, where he would often explore the nearby forests and costal areas. He was also fascinated by archaeology and anthropology, which led him to study these subjects at the University of Oslo. 

During his university years, Heyerdahl also became interested in the cultural and historical connections between different parts of the world, which would later inform his theories and expeditions. 

In 1936, Heyerdahl moved to the Marquesas Islands in French Polynesia, where he researched local Polynesian culture and wrote his thesis on the area’s prehistoric people. Heyerdahl’s experience living among the Polynesians and his fascination with their seafaring culture would later inspire his Kon-Tiki Expedition. 

During World War II, Heyerdahl served in the Norwegian army and worked as a radio operator. After the war, he moved to New York City, where he met his future wife, Liv Coucheron-Torp, a member of the Norwegian consulate. The couple would go on to have four children.

While these biographical facts help explain how Thor Heyerdahl became the persona he was, what makes him interesting enough for a podcast episode are the theories that he developed while in French Polynesia. 

The origin of the Polynesians was an open question in the first half of the 20th century. Somehow, these people managed the greatest feats of navigation in history to populate some of the most remote islands in the world in the Pacific Ocean. 

The big question amongst anthropologists was, where did they come from? 

The prevailing view amongst anthropologists was that the Polynesians arrived in the Pacific by traveling east from somewhere in Southeast or East Asia.  This theory was popularized by the great New Zealand Maori anthropologist Te Rangi Hiroa, also known as Sir Peter Buck. 

Buck analyzed the stories of navigation from the people of the Pacific and concluded that the origin of the people in the Pacific was Southeast Asia. He published his findings in the landmark book Vikings of the Sunrise.

Heyerdahl thought that Buck and others had it backward. He thought that Polynesians sailed west from the coast of South America. 

While Heyerdahl’s theory wasn’t in the mainstream, it also wasn’t crazy. At the time, many theories were floated about the origin of the Polynesian people, including that they came from North America, India, and even, believe it or not, Europe.

Heyerdahl’s biggest piece of evidence was the moai statues on Easter Island. He felt that they were closer to the type of art found in South America rather than anything found in Southeast Asia. 

In fact, he had a rather elaborate theory that the first inhabitants of Easter Island were a people known as the Tiki people. He referenced an Incan legend of a sun god named Kon-Tiki Viracocha.

According to the legend, Kon-Tiki Viracocha sailed into the sunset with his people from Peru. 

He claimed that the Tiki people would have sailed from South America via “drift voyaging.” Basically, they would have built rafts and then let the winds and currents take them wherever they did. 

That wasn’t all. According to Heyerdahl, the Tiki people populated the Americas by sailing across the Atlantic. 

If you’ve listened to my previous episodes touching on these topics, you will not be surprised to find that most anthropologists completely dismissed Hyerdahl’s ideas. 

In fact, one anthropologist, Herbert Spinden, told Hyerdahl, “Sure, see how far you get yourself sailing from Peru to the South Pacific on a balsa Raft!

So, that is exactly what Thor Hyerdahl did. 

He was going to prove his theory by building a raft out of balsa wood in South America and sailing it into the Pacific. 

The raft and the expedition were going to be named the Kon-Tiki, after the Incan sun god who supposedly sailed into the sunset.

Hyerdahl assembled a crew of six, including himself, consisting of five Norwegians and one Swede. 

The raft was constructed out of native materials. The primary component of the raft was the trunks of nine balsa wood trees lashed together with hemp rope.

There was an A-frame shelter on the raft, with a long steering oar and a sail.

They stored 1000 liters of water in both ancient and modern containers, and their food consisted of what would have been available to ancient South American sailors. Primarily sweet potatoes and coconuts.

The one modern thing they did have with them was a radio which they could use in case of emergency.

They set sail on April 28, 1947. They were towed 50 miles out to see to avoid coastal maritime traffic.

They were mainly carried westward by the Humbolt Current, which travels up the coast of South America and turns west near the equator.

On July 2, they encountered a rare event at sea. They hit a rouge wave. They were in calm seas, then three massive waves swept over the raft, and then things were calm again.

They sighted the Puka-Puka atoll on July 30th and then passed the Angatau atoll on August 4th but couldn’t land. 

The voyage finally ended on August 7 when they beached themselves on the Raroia atoll in the Tuamotus Islands. The island was uninhabited, so they stayed there for several days before a man from a neighboring island visited. 

They were eventually picked up by a French ship, and the Kon-Tiki was towed behind it. 

Hyerdahl proved that it was possible to sail a ship made of natural materials from South America to Polynesia. The problem was he didn’t really prove anything. While it was possible for people to sail from South America, it doesn’t mean that is, in fact, what happened. 

Whatever shortfalls Hyerdahl had as an anthropologist, he made up for it in marketing. He and the crew documented their voyage by taking copious notes and filming everything with a 16mm video camera.

In 1948 he published a book, The Kon-Tiki Expedition: By Raft Across the South Seas. The book was a best seller in Norway, where it was first released and sold out in two weeks. It was released in English in 1950, where it was also a hit.

As of today, it has been translated into 70 languages and has sold more than 50 million copies worldwide.

In 1950, a documentary film was released about the Kon-Tiki Expedition. It, too, was successful, winning the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1951.

The success of the book and the movie made Thor Hyerdahl a household name. However, it did nothing to prove his theories. 

In 1955 and 1956, he led an expedition to Easter Island, overseeing several excavations. He interpreted his findings to support his theory of South Americans traveling to Polynesia and then wrote another international best seller, Aku-Aku.

In 1969, he created another boat to travel across the ocean, but this time he intended to sail across the Atlantic to try and prove the other part of his theory. 

He called this new boat the Ra, after the Egyptian sun god. It was made out of papyrus reeds and assembled by boat builders from Lake Chad. It had an international crew and set off from Morocco.

Unfortunately, after a few weeks, it took on water and eventually disintegrated in the open ocean. The crew was picked up by a passing yacht.

He tried again in 1970 with the Ra II. The Ra II was lost at sea for days sparking an international rescue mission, but it eventually arrived on the shores of Barbados, again proving it was possible to cross the Atlantic Ocean just using ocean currents.

In 1977, he took part in yet another expedition, this time trying to prove that the people of Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley could have had direct contact with each other. 

This ship was called the Tigris, and it was built and launched in Iraq.

They sailed the ship through the Persian Gulf but never made it to Pakistan, which was the destination. After five months a sea, they arrived in Djibouti, where they burned the ship in protest of all the wars going on in the region.

Later in his life, he worked on something he called the Odin Hypothesis. This holds that the Norse gods, such as Odin, were actual people who migrated to Scandinavia from somewhere in Russia or perhaps as far south as Azerbaijan. 

He also had other theories, such as there were pyramids on the island of Tenerife in the Canary Islands and that Sri Lanka and the Maldives were once part of a global seafaring civilization. 

Thor Hyderdahl passed away in 2002 at the age of 87. 

Despite having developed international renown for his expeditions, his theories added almost nothing to our understanding of archeology.

Pretty much everything he believed has been debunked, as more and more evidence has been discovered.

DNA testing, radiometric dating, and other archeological finds have not provided evidence for any of his theories. Pretty much everything he believed has been relegated to the realm of pseudoscience.

Despite his inability to advance science, Thor Hyderdahl is still remembered as an adventurer. 

Oslo, Norway, is the home to the Kon-Tiki Museum. It houses some of the original vessels used in his voyages as well as his archives.

In 2015, another expedition took place called Kon-Tiki 2. It was also a raft made of balsa trees and managed to sail from Peru to Easter Island. They tried to sail back to South America but had to abandon ship midway through the return.

The lesson of Thor Hyderdahl is that just because you prove something could be done doesn’t mean that it was actually done. While he did cross an ocean with primitive materials, he knew that there was something on the other end before his voyages started. 

That simple fact that ancient people lacked probably prevented them from ever attempting such a voyage in the first place. 

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

Today’s review comes from listener Jprats over on Apple Podcasts in the United States They write:

If you regret not paying attention in history class, this is for you

I discovered this podcast recently, and I’m enjoying scrolling down and just randomly listening to episodes. I love the wide variety of topics, but have a suggestion. I just listened to the Christmas Foods one, and there was no mention of COQUITO which is the most delicious variation of eggnog made in Puerto Rico. That brings me to the point that you could write so many episodes about that small island. Thanks again for coming up with this podcast. Don’t you quit!

Thanks, Jprats! There is a very good reason why I never mentioned COQUITO in that episode. That is because I’ve never heard of it before. I might be heading to Puerto Rico later this year, and if I’m there, I will certainly inquire about it.

Also, there will certainly be episodes about Puerto Rico at some point in the future. 

Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.