Thor Heyerdahl and the Kon-Tiki Expedition

Dr Ruwan M Jayatunge

Thor Heyerdahl – a world renowned Norwegian explorer best known for his famous voyage Kon-Tiki expedition practically showed that ancient people could have crossed much greater distances through ocean for trade and cultural exchange. He was convinced that the ocean was only a barrier to man as long as our ancestors were strictly pedestrians, but it became a conveyor for cultural contact and the growth of diversified civilizations from the moment the first sea-going watercraft was invented. Heyerdahl once stated that “man hoisted sail before he saddled a horse. He poled and paddled among rivers and navigated open seas before he traveled on wheels along roads.

Thor Heyerdahl was born in 1914 in Norway. As a young boy he was interested in biology and had a dream to become an explorer and travel to exotic countries far away. During 1937 – 1938 Thor Heyerdahl received a zoological grant to research animal life on the Marquesas Islands. This journey had a great influence on his life. His interest soon turned as to how these Islands and Polynesia in general, had become populated. He was highly interested in marine migration and studied the cultural diffusion which occurred through ancient sea roots.

Thor Heyerdahl speculated that the food plants cultivated in aboriginal Polynesia appeared to have spread from South America prior to European arrival. This idea was condemned by the eminent archeologists’ claming that there were no possible sea travel between the South America and Polynesia. Also they emphasized that the Peruvian balsa rafts could not have floated there in pre-Columbian times.
Heyerdahl studied the cultural similarities of ancient Peru and Polynesia and formed a theory which was highly controversial at that time. He proclaimed that Polynesian Islands had been populated from South America. The main argument against Heyerdahl’s theory was the lack of evidence of Pre-Colombian Indians in South America having had sea-going vessels capable of crossing the expanse of ocean between South America and Polynesia. According to the accepted theory Polynesian islands had been populated from the east, from Indonesia. But Thor Heyerdahl challenged this theory and decided to prove that the ancient Peruvians traveled to Polynesia by small rafts. This new theory he called “American Indians in the Pacific”.

Heyerdahl claimed that in Incan legend there was a sun-god named Con-Tici Viracocha who was the supreme head of the mythical fair-skinned 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. Heyerdahl proposed that Tiki’s neolithic 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 and Tonga a
round A.D. 500. But many scholars refused to adopt this theory.

In order to prove his controversial theory Thor Heyerdahl and five fellow adventurers went to Peru, where they constructed a 45 foot pae-pae raft from balsa wood and other native materials. They called this raft Kon Tiki. The Kon-Tiki expedition was inspired by old reports and drawings made by the Spanish Conquistadors of Inca rafts, and by native legends.

In 1947 along with Heyerdahl five companions left Callio harbor- Peru and traveled 8000 km across the Pacific Ocean. After 101 days they reached Polynesia (Raroia atoll, Tuamotu Archipelago). Hence Heyerdahl and his crew demonstrated that early contact between South Americans and Pacific Islanders was technically possible. Kon Tiki expedition practically proved that the ancient Peruvians could have reached Polynesia by small balsa rafts.

Kon-Tiki demonstrated that it was possible for a primitive raft to sail the Pacific Ocean with relative ease and safety, especially to the west with the wind and there was no technical reasons to prevent people from South America from having settled the Polynesian Islands.

Thor Heyerdahl was a practical scientist; iconoclast and a courageous explorer visited Sri Lanka in mid eighties. The international promoter of cooperation and understanding between people across the globe Thor Heyerdahl died in 2002, at the age of 87.

In 2007 after five years of Heyerdahl ‘s death evidence was released by the University of Auckland showing that a specific mutation in chickens native to Samoa and Tonga was seen in chicken bones found in Chile and dated to about 1400 AD. This provides very strong evidence that there was trade between Polynesia and South America.

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