Galapagos Expedition 70 years ago: Re-evaluating the evidence

The first archaeological work on the Galapagos Islands were done when Thor Heyerdahl, in the autumn of 1952 funded and organized an expedition consisting of archaeologists Erik K. Reed and Arne Skjølsvold. Heyerdahl and his colleagues claimed that people from South America had been visiting the Galápagos – long before Christopher Columbus reached the Americas.

The expedition team: From left: Erik Reed, Thor Heyerdahl, Arne Skjølsvold. Behind: Karl Angemeyer and Erling Graffer.

The expedition party left Guayaquil on January 10th, 1953, and worked on the islands of Floreana, Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, and Santiago from January 19th to March 18th. The object of the expedition was to seearch for archaeological evidence of prehistoric visits to these islands. Sites for excavation was selected based on the premis that prehistoric visitors needed a good landing place to beach their craft and needed access to fresh water near by.  Local fishermen were also consulted.

Five sites on Floreana, Santiago, and Santa Cruz produced over 1.900 ceramic sherds and some historic artefacts as flint and glass. The main part of the ceramic sherds recovered was of a common, red-slipped type that is difficult to acertain to any strict chronological type. Fragments of ceramic pots mainly from the North Coast of Peru, but also from Ecuador, from the Chimu and Inca periods were identified.

The expedition team flying home.

The expedition concluded: “It is therefore our belief, on the basis of archaeological material available from the Galapagos Islands at the present time, that the exceptionally rich fishing grounds around the islands attracted fishermen from the mainland coast from the earliest days of deep-sea nevigation off North Peru and Ecuador. These fishermen would seem to have made casual or perhaps even seasonal visits to the Galapagos group for centuries before the arrival of the first European visitors, and from different points on the mainland ranging from Coastal Ecuador to the Casma Valley area on the southern extremity of the North Peruvian Coast” (Heyerdahl and Skjølsvold 1990:67).

Excavations underway.

Critics of this conclusion have made two general observations: (1) that all excavated artefacts were found in the same, general level, and should therefore be contemporaneous; (2) the scarcity of painted and ornamented pots makes it possible that these were brought to the islands by buccanairs in post-Columbian times.

Arne Skjølsvold playing an Inca-flute found in the excavation.

In 2005, a team from the Australian National University lead by archaeologist Atholl Anderson together with archaeologists Helene Martinsson-Wallin and Paul Wallin from the Kon-Tiki Museum reexcavated the sites visited by Heyerdahl, Reed, and Skjølsvold in 1953. The investigations supported the view that all the finds came from the same stratigraphical layer. Later, analysis of the plain, red-slipped, pottery sherds by optically-stimulated luminescence dating, indicated an historical age for this group of pottery.

Ceramic frog found.

Therefore, the researchers concluded in a paper entitled “Reconsidering Precolumbian Human Colonization in the Galápagos Islands, Republic of Ecuador (Andersson et.al. 2015:169) that based upon current evidence “there was no human occupation in the Galápagos Islands until the historical era”.