Thor Heyerdahl (1914–2002) is one of history’s most famous explorers. In 1947 he crossed the Pacific Ocean on the balsawood raft Kon-Tiki. This was his first expedition to be captured on film, and was later awarded Academy Award for best documentary in 1951. He later completed similar achievements with the reed boats Ra, Ra II and Tigris, through which he championed his deep involvement for both the environment and world peace.
About Thor Heyerdahl
Thor Heyerdahl was born on 6 October 1914 in Larvik (a small coastal city south of Oslo), where he also grew up. His father, also called Thor, was a brewer, and his mother, Alison, was head of the Larvik area museums association. It was Alison who inspired Thor’s life-long interest in animals and the natural sciences. At one point he even had a zoological museum in his father’s old brewery. Thor was good at drawing, and by the age of eight he was drawing imaginative pictures of South Sea islands and had resolved to become an explorer when he grew up.
Love of nature
Thor enjoyed cross-country running and long hikes in the wilderness. In his youth there were many outings in the mountains of southern and central Norway where he learned how to survive on his own in nature with limited means. Later on he and his friend Erik Hesselberg went on long treks together, exploring the Rondane and Jotunheimen mountain regions, camping under open skies – or in snow caves.
Thor always had his dog, Kazan, along with him on these trips. Heyerdahl was very much a dog person and had dogs most of his life. Kazan was behind Thor’s one and only appearance in an advertisement – for a brand of dog biscuit. And on one of their wilderness treks, when weather conditions forced Heyerdahl and a companion to remain encamped in their snow cave, dog biscuits were their only food.
Thor wrote about his treks in articles that were published in the weekly magazine Tidens Tegn (Sign of the Times) and a variety of other publications, often illustrated with his own photographs or his subtle and witty line drawings. Gradually the articles he wrote became more pedagogical in tone, with such topics as “How to build an igloo”, and Heyerdahl gained experience in communicating ideas while becoming a familiar presence in a network of outdoor enthusiasts.
Fatu Hiva—and home again
After secondary school Heyerdahl began to study biology and geography at the University of Oslo in 1933. At the university he came in contact with Bjarne Kroepelien. Kroepelien had traveled around Polynesia during WWI, and while living on Tahiti he fell in love with and married Tuimata, one of the daughters of a Tahitian chief, Tereiieroo. The 1918 influenza pandemic (“Spanish flu”) struck Tahiti, and half of the island’s residents died, including Tuimata. Kroepelien subsequently amassed a unique collection of books on Polynesia, and years later he bequeathed his “Polynesia Library” to the University of Oslo. Heyerdahl’s access to these books as well as Kroepelien’s friendship with Chief Tereiieroo would have a major impact on his life and career.
In 1933 Thor Heyerdahl met Liv Coucheron Torp. They married on Christmas Eve 1936, and on Christmas Day they set sail for an island in French Polynesia. They shared a desire to escape Western civilization and “return to nature”. Before reaching their idyllic paradise, Thor and Liv visited Tahiti, where they met Chief Tereiieroo who gave counsel to the young couple.
Heyerdahl’s theory that indigenous South American peoples were the first to populate Polynesia took shape after he and Liv made several interesting discoveries on Fatu Hiva and the neighboring island of Hivoa.
Thor and Liv stayed on Fatu Hiva for the better part of a year. Austere living conditions and problems with the native residents led to their decision to return to Norway, well aware that “paradise on earth” is an illusion.
Back in Norway, Heyerdahl began writing his scholarly work which was to be titled American Indians in The South Pacific (published in 1952). Living on Fatu Hiva had instilled in the young man an interest in how the remote Polynesian islands of the Pacific Ocean came to be inhabited. This conundrum was a defining topic in Pacific Ocean research for many years, and Heyerdahl was convinced that the first humans to reach Easter Island – and other islands in the eastern part of Polynesia – came from South America. Only later did people come to Polynesia from the west, and then via the northwest coast of Canada and Hawaii. Many disagreed with Heyerdahl; nevertheless this question would be central to much of his research work.
“One can’t buy a ticket to paradise. You have to find it within yourself.”
– Thor Heyerdahl
The Kon-Tiki expedition—and in its wake
The peoples of South America did not have seaworthy rafts or boats that could take them as far as the Polynesian islands, according to scholars with whom Heyerdahl discussed the subject. So in order to prove that it was possible, he decided to build a raft and make the journey himself. On 28 April 1947 Thor and five other men left Callao in Peru on a balsawood raft called the Kon-Tiki, destined for Polynesia. The raft ran aground on the Raroia atoll in Polynesia after 101 days in open waters. Heyerdahl had disproved the skeptics who had insisted such a journey was impossible.
Archaeological expedition to the Galápagos Islands
The Kon-Tiki expedition demonstrated that it was indeed possible for South American peoples to have traveled to the islands of the South Pacific, but it could not prove that they had in fact done so. Heyerdahl needed to travel once again to the Pacific and carry out archeological excavations on one of the islands to find concrete evidence. In 1953 he traveled with two archeologists to the Galápagos Islands. Shards of prehistoric South American pottery and an Incan flute were among their findings, the evidence on which Heyerdahl and the two Norwegian archeologists, Arne Skjølsvold and Erik K. Reed, could assert that South American peoples had reached the Galápagos Islands well before Columbus reached the Americas.
Archaeological expedition to Easter Island
The next destination was Easter Island. When Thor was 16 years old he told one of his classmates, Arnold Jacoby, that one day he would solve the mystery of Easter Island. In search of irrefutable proof of his theory about the population of the Polynesian islands, in 1955 Heyerdahl took five archeologists to Easter Island to look for traces of the first people to have arrived there. Among their discoveries was an engraving on one of the island’s hallmark stone statures depicting a boat with sails. It resembled boats depicted on several objects in South America. Heyerdahl believed that the engraving clearly evinced that peoples from South America were the first to settle on Easter Island. While Heyerdahl believed he had found much evidence, not all Pacific researchers were similarly convinced. Nevertheless a solid basis for further investigation into the island’s prehistory had been made.
Return to Easter Island
Many more years passed before Heyerdahl resumed his search for the first inhabitants of the eastern Polynesian islands. It was not until 1986 that he returned to Easter Island, this time with a Czech engineer and archeologists from the Kon-Tiki Museum.
This expedition is best known for the experiment in moving a 15-ton stone statue, upright – using rope – and succeeding. This was how the natives would have transported the monumental statues around the island several hundred years ago, Heyerdahl claimed.
Excavations at Anakena Beach showed that the first human beings to arrive on the island were Polynesians from the west. This was contrary to Heyerdahl’s theory. Other research however made clear that there must have been contact at a later point in time between Easter Island and areas that today constitute Peru and Bolivia.
Archeological expedition to Peru
The complex of pyramids at Túcume in Peru was in 1988 the site of Heyerdahl’s largest archeological undertaking – and the largest of its kind to date. The most important discovery was a temple wall with a relief that depicted two sailboats and several mythological birdmen; some of these birdmen are holding a round object in their hands. This temple wall dates from 1200–1300 AD.
Men with bird heads holding eggs were known to have played an important role in religious practices on Easter Island in ancient times. Thor Heyerdahl put two and two together: the earliest inhabitants of Easter Island must have sailed from South American beaches. The excavations also revealed the first archeological evidence of the existence of an early maritime culture in Peru.
The expedition to Túcume concluded Thor Heyerdahl’s research into the origins of the first inhabitants of the eastern Polynesian islands. He was convinced that the answer lay in the early maritime culture that he had uncovered in Túcume. Other scholars believed that the first inhabitants of these islands came from the west, but today it is commonly accepted that around 1300 AD there was contact between Polynesian and South American groups. Because of this contact, the sweet potato came to Polynesia, and today South American DNA can be traced on some of the easternmost islands.
“Borders? I have never seen one. But I have heard they exist in the minds of some people.”
– Thor Heyerdahl
Paths across the ocean
Thor Heyerdahl’s voyage on the Kon-Tiki raft in 1947 reinforced the prevailing scholarship on the role of the oceans in the dissemination of culture in ancient times. Later Heyerdahl repeated the crossing on other primitive vessels, to again demonstrate that the world’s oceans were conduits for the ancient civilizations, rather than insurmountable obstacles. In the process, he established a new methodology that later became an accepted discipline: maritime experimental archaeology.
The reed boat expeditions
In 1966 John Howland Rowe contended that the ancient civilizations around the Mediterranean Sea could not possibly have been influenced by those in Central American insofar as the former did not have boats capable of carrying them over the Atlantic Ocean to, for example, Mexico. In the years following the Kon-Tiki expedition, Heyerdahl studied the history and widespread use of another primitive vessel, namely the reed boat. In 1969 with assistance from craftsmen from Chad, Heyerdahl built the reed boat he called Ra, and then he and a crew of seven men set out from Safi in Morocco to sail to Barbados. En route the reed bundles absorbed water, the boat began to sink, and the crew had to be evacuated approximately 1000 kilometers from their destination. Ra II, built the following year using different construction methods, made the journey successfully.
Tigris, built in 1977, was the largest reed ship to have been made in four thousand years. When Heyerdahl carried out the Ra expeditions in 1969 and 1970, his main problem was that the bundled reeds quickly absorbed water, and therefore both Ra and Ra II lost their buoyancy faster than expected. On a visit to Iraq, Heyerdahl learned that if one harvested the reeds in September, the boat would float for several years. Heyerdahl then determined to build a new reed boat, the Tigris, and sail between the regions of the three ancient civilizations: Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley and Egypt. His objective was to show that they could have had contact via sea routes. In addition, he wanted to test the maneuverability of such a boat; in Ra and Ra II, the crew had steered mainly with the current.
A Global Citizen
As human beings we are all the same, we all face the same practical challenges in life. This was one of Thor Heyerdahl’s fundamental beliefs with respect to humanity. Furthermore, he believed in the capability of people to live and work together harmoniously, all ethnic, political, and religious differences notwithstanding.
By the end of the 1950s and up until the beginning of the 1990s Heyerdahl was particularly devoted to working for global peace. He appealed to the highest authorities and most powerful politicians in several countries, including Andrej Gromyko and John F. Kennedy.
Heyerdahl’s ideas and values resonated with those of the World Federalist Movement, and he became a dedicated member. WFM is an organization that works for peace, for cooperation across national borders, and for a world order grounded in international law and justice. Thor was eventually appointed honorary vice president of the organization.
Heyerdahl was also involved in the work of World United Colleges. This organization runs several secondary schools around the world where youths from different countries live and study together. The organization was founded during the Cold War on the idea that such schools would stimulate young people with varied cultural backgrounds to learn from and about each other.
In 1978 Heyerdahl and an international crew sailed from Iraq to Djibouti on the reed boat Tigris. Heyerdahl intended to sail into the Red Sea as well, but warfare in the region prevented him from doing so. Instead he chose to burn the Tigris and send an impassioned letter to then Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kurt Waldheim, signed by the boat’s entire crew:
“Our planet is bigger than the reed bundles that have carried us across the seas and yet small enough to run the same risks unless those of us still alive open our eyes and minds to the desperate need of intelligent collaboration to save ourselves and our common civilization from what we are about to convert into a sinking ship.”
“In fighting nature, man can win every battle except the last.”
– Thor Heyerdahl
During the crossing on the Ra the crew witnessed the degree to which the Atlantic Ocean had become polluted. They encountered oil clumps, large and small, on the ocean’s surface and reported their discoveries to the UN. On their subsequent crossing with Ra II Heyerdahl was asked by the UN’s Secretary-General to record on a daily basis his observations regarding oceanic pollution. Ra II encountered masses of oil on as many as 43 days of the 57-day journey.
The crew sent an appeal to then UN Secretary-General U Thant, and oil pollution in the world’s seas and oceans garnered much attention, especially from the American media. Thor Heyerdahl was called to give testimony at a US Congressional hearing. He also worked for the Foreign Ministry of Norway, as one of their representatives, in preparatory meetings for the UN’s first conference on the environment held in Stockholm in 1972. Among the resolutions passed at the conference was a ban on ocean dumping of waste oil – a direct consequence of the impassioned plea the international crew had sent from the sinking reed boat Ra. Thor Heyerdahl never ceased working for a better environment, and especially against pollution of the world’s oceans, which he always referred to as the world’s ocean, in the singular, because they are all connected. Heyerdahl considered the Ra expeditions to have been his most meaningful expeditions.
A side of Heyerdahl unfamiliar to most is that of the artist. His interests lay in ancient history, in anthropology and archeology, but his natural talent lay in the ability to engage people in discourse around a particular phenomenon. He was perpetually communicating all that he experienced, and masterfully, through his well-written books, his films, pictures, lectures and presentations.
Like most children, Thor Heyerdahl loved to draw and paint when he was little. His early drawings were illustrations for stories about treks in the Norwegian wilderness published in newspapers and magazines. These drawings were somewhat naive, but nevertheless amusing. While traveling the South Pacific with his wife Liv in 1937–1938 he made a series of caricature drawings based on their experiences. In the following years and up until the time of the Kon-Tiki expedition, his drawings were infused with social commentary, with, for example, respect to perceptions of race, blind faith in progress, and the politics of wealth distribution, and he often added comments or captions.
Wood carving was another skill that captivated Thor Heyerdahl throughout his life. Early in his teens he displayed a talent for this particular handicraft. The Heyerdahl family has preserved a fantastic little tableau of a South Pacific island that Thor carved on the lid of a wooden chest. And when he was much older Heyerdahl carved two Kon-Tiki heads on the immense entrance portal to Casa Kon-Tiki, his home in Túcume, Peru.
Author and spokesperson
Thor Heyerdahl spent the better part of his life behind a desk, either at home writing, or at libraries the world over, in search of and to advance new knowledge. He published many books and over fifty scholarly articles. Heyerdahl may not always have been right, but the essence of science lies in posing questions, and the questions Thor Heyerdahl posed are still of scholarly interest today.
Most people remember Thor Heyerdahl as a great communicator. Thor’s ability to connect with people and engage them in conversations, was unique. He penned fourteen popular science books, many of them best-sellers. Gyldendal Norsk Forlag first published his The Kon-Tiki Expedition in 1948, selling tens of millions of copies worldwide. The film Kon-Tiki won an Academy Award in 1951 for best documentary film, and the film about the Ra expeditions was also an Academy Award nominee.
Thor Heyerdahl was busy working on new projects until the very end. After a few weeks’ illness, he died at home in Colla Micheri on April 18th, 2002, where he was also laid to rest after being given the last great honor, a state funeral in Oslo, Norway.
“We are living in a time where we think everything is technology, everything is pressing buttons, everything is economy, and we are loosing sight in reality.”
– Thor Heyerdahl
Thor Heyerdahl was honorary vice president of the World Federalist Movement, an organization working for peace, collaboration across borders, and for a world order in accordance with international law and justice. He was also vice president of the Worldview International Foundation which works to implement new technical assistance in various educational forms in developing countries, and through practical instruction tries to improve understanding between developing and developed nations. Heyerdahl was also an international trustee of the United World Colleges which brings students with different cultural backgrounds together at schools in many countries. As a natural scientist, he held many presentations and published articles about the threats to the global environment, with a particular view to oceanic pollution. He was an advisor to World Wildlife Fund International and a member of the committee responsible for selecting the annual winner of the UN’s Environment Programme awards. Heyerdahl was also involved in establishment of the Green Cross organization with Mikhail Gorbachev in 1993.