Childhood and education (1914-1937)
Thor Heyerdahl was born in Larvik on 6th October 1914. His father, also called Thor, was a master brewer and his mother, Alison (née Lyng), was, among other things, the chairwoman of the city’s museum association. She was a strong proponent of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and inspired her son’s interest in zoology and anthropology. Thor was also allowed to create a small ‘zoo/museum’ in his father’s brewery.
He was extremely good at drawing and by the age of eight had already produced imaginative drawings of the South Sea Islands, and decided to become an explorer.
After completing his upper secondary education in 1933 he started studying biology and geography at the University of Oslo. While a student at the University of Oslo he made the acquaintance of Bjarne Kroepelien (born 1890) in Bergen. During World War I Kroepelien had travelled around Polynesia, including Tahiti. He became engaged to Tuimata, one of the daughters of Chief Teriieroo.
In 1918, Spanish Flu arrived in Tahiti and half of the island’s inhabitants died, including Tuimata.
Kroepelien bequeathed his famous Polynesian Library to the University of Oslo in memory of Tuimata.
Thor Heyerdahl’s access to this library and Kroepelien’s letter of recommendation sent to Chief Teriieroo were of great significance with respect to Thor Heyerdahl’s subsequent life and career.
On Christmas Eve 1936, he married Liv and on Christmas Day they left for Marseille by train where they took a passenger ship across the Atlantic Ocean, through the Panama Canal, and then across the Pacific Ocean to Tahiti.
The first stay in Polynesia (1937-1938)
Organised in collaboration with the University of Oslo's Zoological Faculty, this was his first study trip to Polynesia. The purpose of the expedition was to investigate how a previously deserted Pacific island’s fauna could have reached it. Thanks to a month of practical training with Chief Teriieroo in his Polynesian home on Tahiti, the young pair managed to survive for a year on the lonely mountain island of Fatu-Hiva in the Marquesas island group. They lived completely self-sufficiently, totally without modern civilisation’s tools. However, they did fall ill from insect bites and had to seek medical help from the neighbouring island of Hivaoa. Here they were introduced to another Norwegian, Henry Lie. He had jumped ship from a clipper in 1906, married a local beauty, and was now running a coconut plantation. He showed Thor some stone statues in the jungle. No one knew where they had come from or who had made them. Henry Lie told him that the same type of statues could be found in Colombia, 6,000 km away to the east in South America.
While living together with the Polynesians in their own environment Heyerdahl became aware of how the prevailing winds and ocean currents from America totally determined the flora and fauna. He therefore began to have his doubts about the incompatible theories that postulated that the Polynesian's forefathers had arrived against the wind and weather from Asia, thousands of nautical miles away. He thought that even though South East Asia was the land of origin of all of the peoples around the Pacific, the route from there to Polynesia must have followed the prevailing winds and currents from Northwest America. Finding the stone statues on Hivaoa proved to be the start of his extraordinary career.
In search of the migration route from Asia to Polynesia (1939-1940)
When Heyerdahl returned from Polynesia he left the University of Oslo and at the same time turned his back on the study of plant and animal life in order to investigate the related problem of how primitive seafarers could have crossed the ocean in open vessels. In 1939, he travelled to British Columbia where he obtained a study place at the museum in Victoria. Here he learned about the Native Americans on the northwest coast and their culture. During his trip Heyerdahl also lived with the Native Americans.
Like all previous researchers, Thor found confirmation that there had been two different migrations to the Polynesian islands. Unlike the others though, he claimed that the oldest one had not arrived from Asia by canoe, but instead by balsa wood raft from South America. Such a theory proposed by a young, unknown student was too controversial, and Thor met with solid resistance from other scientists. Anthropologists the world over had based their theories on the accepted dogma that no American type of prehistoric vessel could have brought people to Polynesia alive.
The Kon-Tiki Expedition
Across the Pacific Ocean by balsa wood raft (1947)
In 1947 the balsa wood raft Kon-Tiki was launched. It was named after a legendary seafaring sun-king common to both the old Inca kingdom and the islands of Polynesia. The raft hoisted sail outside the port of Callào in Peru with 6 men onboard. With Thor were 4 other Norwegians, Herman Watzinger, Knut Haugland, Torstein Raaby and Erik Hesselberg, and a Swede, Bengt Danielsson.
During the course of 101 days the raft sailed approx. 8,000 km over the open Pacific Ocean and landed on the Raroia Atoll in the Tuamotu Archipelago. The voyage put the existing view of the balsa wood raft to shame and proved that Polynesia was well within the range of prehistoric South American seafarers. Some scientists refused to believe that the incredible voyage had actually taken place until a documentary film about the expedition was released. The film won an Oscar for best documentary feature film. Thor’s popular book The Kon-Tiki Expedition was later translated into 70 languages.
Even though Thor had now received recognition for his theories, not all the opposition was silenced.
His opponents now claimed that even though balsa wood rafts could cross the open ocean the lack of pre-European settlements on the Galapagos Islands proved that the rafts were only used for traffic along the continent's coast.
The Galapagos Islands lie closer to the coast of South America than any island in Polynesia only 1,000 km from Ecuador. The question was therefore: why weren't these islands populated if South American rafters had reached as far as distant Polynesia? This gave rise to Thor’s next expedition.
The Galapagos Islands
The first archaeological expedition (1952)
In 1952, Thor organised and led the first archaeological expedition to the Galapagos Islands. He was accompanied by two professional archaeologists: E. K. Reed (USA) and A. Skjølsvold (Norway). The expedition was financed from the earnings from the Kon-Tiki book, and the documentary of the same name.
Many scientists had already visited the islands (including Darwin), but no archaeologists. The expedition confirmed that several voyages had taken place from pre-Columbian South America to the Galapagos Islands. It also proved that permanent habitation of the islands was impossible because drinking water was only available during the rainy season. The Galapagos expedition drew South American archaeology far out into the Pacific Ocean for the first time.
Back in Ecuador, Heyerdahl's expeditionary team undertook experiments with ‘guara’ keels. These keels were a system for navigating rafts that had previously been used by the Incas. The forgotten technique of sailing against the wind with these keels, that was tried but not understood during the Kon-Tiki voyage, was now rediscovered. The experiments showed that South American rafters could change course and turn into the wind as precisely as some of the contemporary European sailing ships of the time. The results of this expedition were a documentary and a scientific dissertation.
The first archaeological excavations (1955-1956)
In 1955, Heyerdahl left on a yearlong expedition to Easter Island and Eastern Polynesia. The Expedition was patronised by King Olav V and financed by Heyerdahl, who had 5 archaeologists with him: A. Skjølsvold (Norway), E.N. Ferdon, W. Molly, C.S. Smith (USA), and G. Figueroa (Chile). The lack of a permanent water supply on the Galapagos Islands made Easter Island the nearest habitable island for the original seafarers from South America.
Colossal statues and stonewalls of unknown origin can be found all over the open landscape of Easter Island. According to the Polynesian population, these structures were erected by an earlier people who had come to the islands. Excavations revealed that the famous giant heads were tall statues with enormous bodies and arms buried up to their necks in windblown sand from the surrounding eroded landscape. A tribe on the island called the “Long Ears” claimed to have descended from the earliest colonists who had sculpted the long-eared statues. They were called the “Long Ears” because of their forefathers’ custom of elongating their ears. The “Long Ears” could show how, in practice, the colossal stone figures had been made, transported, and raised onto tall stone platforms.
The expedition also discovered previously unknown statues and stone houses of the same type as from the pre-Inca period in South America. The expedition’s members were permitted to enter secret family caves where small sculptures of a totally unknown kind had been kept safe and passed down from generation to generation as sacred heirlooms.
A popular new book and a documentary resulted from the expedition, as well as three large scientific volumes written collectively by the expedition’s scientists.
The Ra Expeditions
Across the Atlantic Ocean by papyrus boat (1969-1970)
During the expedition to Easter Island in 1955-1956, Heyerdahl became interested in reed boats and their seagoing properties. The archaeologists’ excavations had uncovered pictures of large reed boats with masts and sails engraved in the buried statues and painted on flagstones in prehistoric houses. It soon became clear to Heyerdahl that not only balsa wood rafts, but also reed boats, with pre-Incan sailors could have carried the earliest South Americans out over the open Pacific Ocean.
Other researchers had pointed out the obvious similarity between the old reed boats from Mexico and Peru, and the papyrus boats from the earliest civilisations in the Mediterranean region. These anthropologists, who were known as ‘diffusionists’, had listed reed boats as one of the many cultural parallels between the great civilisations of pre-Columbian times on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. They used the reed boat as an argument in the discussion about transoceanic-contact prior to the arrival of the Europeans. Their opponents meanwhile, the ‘isolationists’, pointed to the accepted view that reed boats could not cross oceans. They believed that cultural parallels could be ascribed to independent development.
The Papyrus Institute in Egypt had determined that papyrus-reed rotted and dissolved after two weeks in a water tank.
Despite this, Heyerdahl was convinced that ship builders in the time of the pharaohs would never have used this reed to built enormous seagoing vessels if they had only stayed afloat on the ocean for two weeks. He decided to build a reed boat and cross the Atlantic Ocean with it to see whether or not his assumption was correct.
Ra was launched in the spring of 1969 in the old Phoenician seaport of Safi, Morocco. In order to show that people from different nations could work together even under pressure and difficult circumstances, Heyerdahl picked a crew of 7 men from 7 nations and sailed under the flag of the UN. Ra sailed west with the trade winds and the Northern Equatorial Stream. The reed bundles proved to be incredibly buoyant. Despite broken steering oars and poor weather, Ra had sailed 5,000 km in 8 weeks before the loss of bundles on the starboard side made Heyerdahl call off the experiment, just one week before they would have reached Barbados, in the West Indies.
Ten months later Heyerdahl launched a new papyrus boat Ra II from the same Moroccan seaport.
This time he had brought four Aymara Indians over from Lake Titicaca in South America to build the vessel.
The Aymara still built reed boats on the shores of this stormy mountain lake in the Andes, 4,000 m above sea level, using the same methods used in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt.
The entire crew from the first Ra voyage wanted to repeat the experiment and, with the addition of a representative from yet another nation, Heyerdahl hoisted the sail on Ra II. This boat was only 12 m long, but was structurally far stronger than Ra.
Ra II crossed the Atlantic Ocean and sailed the approx. 6,100 km from Safi in Morocco to Barbados in the West Indies in 57 days. Since this time the experiment had been successful, anthropologists across the entire world had to forget the old dogma that papyrus boats could not have brought cultural impulses from North Africa to Central America in pre-Columbian times.
During the Ra voyage, Heyerdahl wrote his first letter to the UN about the fact that the oceans of the world were becoming polluted. He was asked by the Secretary-General of the UN to make daily pollution observations during the Ra II voyage. Hardened clumps of tar were collected on 43 days of the 57-day voyage. In this way the voyage helped to raise awareness of the need to stop the pollution of the world’s seas.
Heyerdahl presented reports about the pollution problem to the UN’s first conference on oceanic law, committees of the USA’s senate and congress, the USSR’s scientific academy and in a long series of campaigns for the conservation of the world’s seas.
Following the expedition a book was published about the Ra expeditions, as well as a documentary, which was nominated for an Oscar.
The Tigris Expedition
Across the Indian Ocean by reed boat (1978)
In ancient times, reed boats were used as vessels in the Mediterranean from the Middle East to the Atlantic coast.
Thor Heyerdahl now became interested in the highly controversial question concerning whether or not there had originally been contact between the three ‘mother’ civilisations in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Indus Valley.
In all of these three culturally related regions prehistoric artists had left behind illustrations of the same kind of reed boat on which he himself had crossed the Atlantic Ocean.
Heyerdahl had learnt from the Marsh Arabs in the former Sumerian region of Iraq that the reeds would only retain their buoyancy properties if they were cut in the month of August. Heyerdahl decided to try this, and at the same time experiment with the navigation of a reed ship. His previous sea voyages had been purely drifting voyages.
In 1977, Heyerdahl built his largest reed vessel, 18 m long, where the Euphrates and Tigris rivers meet in the former Mesopotamia, now Iraq. The vessel was named Tigris.
Tigris was constructed of reed bundles lashed together by marsh Arabs under the leadership of the same South American Indians who had built Ra II. Once again Heyerdahl sailed under the flag of the UN, with an international crew of 11 men, of whom 3 were earlier companions from the two Ra voyages: Norman Baker (USA), Yuri Senkevich (USSR), and Carlo Mauri (Italy).
Tigris sailed 6,800 km. First they sailed down Shatt-el-Arab in Iraq to the Persian Gulf and out into the Indian Ocean. Thereafter the voyage took them, via Muscat in Oman, to the Indus Valley in Pakistan, before finally leaving Asia and sailing across the Indian Ocean to Africa.
The 5 month long journey ended in Djibouti at the mouth of the Red Sea. Surrounded by wars on all sides, the expedition’s members decided in April 1978 to burn the vessel.
At the same time the expedition’s members also sent a unanimous appeal to the UN asking it to stop arms deliveries to developing countries in the region of the world where the foundations of our own civilisation were laid.
Tigris had, unlike Kon-Tiki and the two Ra boats, sailed to predetermined harbours independent of the wind and current conditions, and lay high enough in the water to be consumed by flames.
A popular book and four TV programmes resulted from the expedition.
Archaeological evidence of prehistoric sea travel (1981-1984)
The 1,200 coral islands that form a 960 km long double chain lie like a barrier against primitive vessels that try to round the southern tip of the Indian subcontinent. The only good passage for prehistoric seafarers would have been along the equator where a broad channel runs from east to west. Well aware that the earliest seafarers were sun worshipers and would therefore pay special attention to the equator, Heyerdahl decided to investigate the atolls that lie along this equatorial channel.
Hidden in the jungle on the uninhabited island of Gaaf-Gan he found the ruins of a 9 m tall pyramid shaped structure that was astronomically aligned with the sun, and which had once been covered by sun designs carved in relief.
On the island of Nilandu at the centre of the Maldives the expedition discovered another prehistoric temple building. Radiocarbon dating from the wall around the temple square dated the finds as being from approx. 550 AD. The advanced architectural decoration on this structure showed that an advanced civilisation had established itself on the Maldives at least 1,000 years before Europeans sailed into the Indian Ocean. Among the various types of pot shards found by the archaeologists were also a form of ceramics that Asian experts dated as originating from mainland cultures around the year 2000 BC.
The large number of temple ruins which were discovered in the Maldives, as well as their impressive dimensions and rich décor, bore witness to the high prosperity of these oceanic islands in the pre-Muslim period. The excavations showed that the local economy was based on close contact with large civilisations on the mainland. The archaeological discoveries in the Maldives island kingdom also prove that the sea has been a link and a public highway for the world’s cultures ever since the earliest known civilisations began to build seagoing vessels.
Back to Easter Island after thirty years
Yet another book, several scientific reports and a two-hour TV documentary resulted from the expedition to the Maldives.
In 1986-1988, Heyerdahl organised archaeological excavations on Easter Island.
During his first stay on the Easter Island experiments were conducted by the Czech engineer Pavel Pavel who shed light on the century old mystery of how the colossal stone statues had been moved.
Using ropes fastened to the head and to the lower part of the statue, it was possible for a small group of men to move a 15 tonne heavy stone giant in an upraised position by first tipping it on its edge, and then swinging its opposite side forward.
Following his final stay on Easter Island in 1988 Heyerdahl wrote the book: Easter Island: The Mystery Solved.
Heyerdahl administered the archaeological excavations in Túcume in Northern Peru from 1988.
The site of the ruins, La Raya, which is located just outside Túcume, is one of the largest and most impressive prehistoric sites in the whole of South America.
The site contains, among other things, 26 pyramid-like structures built of sun-dried clay (adobe).
The project was organised as a partnership between the Kon-Tiki Museum and Museo Bruning in Lambayeque, Peru.
Back to the Pacific
Thor Heyerdahl lived his last years at Tenerife, Canary Island . Until he past away in 2002 Thor Heyerdahl worked with many projects among them a project in Azow in Russia. Here he was looking at where had the Vikings come from. His last project was to go back to The Pacific and do more reseach about when and the people in Polynesia could have come from South America .
General information about Thor Heyerdahl
As an anthropologist and a world citizen, Thor Heyerdahl believed in the unity of mankind and actively worked to build bridges between nations and people of different races, religions, and political persuasions.
He was the Vice-President of the World Association of World Federalists, which works to improve international co-operation under the leadership of a stronger UN organisation. Furthermore he was the Vice-President of the Worldview International Foundation, which through practical education, attempts to improve understanding between developing and developed countries.
He was also an international patron of the United World Colleges, which brings students with different cultural backgrounds together in schools in many countries.
As a natural scientist he held lectures and published articles about the threat to the global environment, especially with regard to the pollution of the seas.
He was an advisor to the World Wildlife Fund International, and a member of the committee that annually selects the winners of the UN’s environmental protection prize.
Thor Heyerdahl published a number of books. His book about the Kon-Tiki expedition, for example, has been published in 70 languages and has sold around 1000,000,000 copies.