Heyerdahl’s Expedition Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Described by many as one of the greatest ocean adventures of the twentieth century, Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki Expedition was undertaken to test his theory that, originally, Polynesian peoples came from the Americas, not from Asia as had previously been believed.

Summary of Event

As a child, Thor Heyerdahl showed a precocious interest in biology. He majored in zoology at the University of Oslo from 1933 to 1936, becoming particularly interested in the origins of animal life on isolated islands. Consequently, Heyerdahl and his wife Liv Coucheron Torp left Norway in 1936 to study animal life on Fatu Hiva in the Marquesas Islands, an isolated group of French-owned islands in the Polynesian archipelago. Heyerdahl lived among the Marquesans, studying their crafts and listening to their legends. One legend was of the hero Tiki, called the Son of the Sun, a fair-haired, white-skinned god who brought his people to the island from the east. Heyerdahl was shown a six-foot-long petroglyph of a fish, surrounded by sun symbols. Elsewhere on the rock face were carvings of human figures and a crescent-shaped ship. Kon-Tiki (ship)[Kon Tiki (ship)] Polynesian peoples, origins of [kw]Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki Expedition (Apr. 28-Aug. 7, 1947)[Heyerdahls Kon Tiki Expedition] [kw]Kon-Tiki Expedition, Heyerdahl’s (Apr. 28-Aug. 7, 1947)[Kon Tiki Expedition, Heyerdahls] [kw]Expedition, Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki (Apr. 28-Aug. 7, 1947)[Expedition, Heyerdahls Kon Tiki] Kon-Tiki (ship)[Kon Tiki (ship)] Polynesian peoples, origins of [g]Latin America;Apr. 28-Aug. 7, 1947: Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki Expedition[02040] [g]Pacific;Apr. 28-Aug. 7, 1947: Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki Expedition[02040] [g]Ecuador;Apr. 28-Aug. 7, 1947: Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki Expedition[02040] [g]Peru;Apr. 28-Aug. 7, 1947: Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki Expedition[02040] [g]Polynesia;Apr. 28-Aug. 7, 1947: Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki Expedition[02040] [c]Anthropology;Apr. 28-Aug. 7, 1947: Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki Expedition[02040] [c]Exploration and discovery;Apr. 28-Aug. 7, 1947: Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki Expedition[02040] Heyerdahl, Thor Danielsson, Bengt Haugland, Knut Hesselberg, Erik Raaby, Torstein Watzinger, Herman

Heyerdahl questioned the Marquesans as to the origins of these carvings. On Hiva Oa, a neighboring island, Heyerdahl saw giant red stone statues called colossi; there was nothing like them on the other islands. There were also reliefs, including one of a creature that looked like a cat. Since there were no such animals on the islands, Heyerdahl wondered how an artist could have carved them. He formulated a theory to answer his questions: Ancient, pre-Incan people had sailed from South America to settle the Polynesian Islands. Cultural anthropologists were of two schools concerning the origin of the Polynesian people: The “isolationists” believed the culture had arisen spontaneously; the “diffusionists” said the people had migrated from Asia.

In March, 1938, Heyerdahl returned to Norway and began serious study of how Stone Age people might have come to Polynesia. He discovered stone carvings of people with a striking resemblance to those he had met on the islands, but the carvings were of Northwest Coast Indians from the Bella Coola Valley of British Columbia. Heyerdahl publicly introduced his theory in International Science in an article titled “Did Polynesian Culture Originate in America?” "Did Polynesian Culture Originate in America?" (Heyerdahl)[Did Polynesian Culture Originate in America] (1941). He asserted that two separate migrations from the American mainland had populated Polynesia; the first was a pre-Incan civilization from near Lake Titicaca and along the Peruvian coast; the second, later, migration was from Bella Coola, British Columbia, via the Hawaiian Islands. His theory was contrary to those of ethnologists, who insisted that the inhabitants of Polynesia must have migrated solely from Asia, because it would have been impossible for ancient peoples to sail far enough to reach Polynesia from the Americas.

During World War II, Heyerdahl was occupied as a soldier in the Free Norwegian Forces, but after the war, despite the skepticism of the experts, he set out to prove that primitive people could have traveled from South America to Polynesia. Heyerdahl had studied legends of Virakocha, originally known as Kon-Tiki (Sun-Tiki), the leader of a group of tribes who were white and tall, with long, flowing beards. They were builders and erected stone monuments. According to legends and historical accounts, the tribes were massacred at Lake Titicaca, Peru, around 500 c.e., but Kon-Tiki escaped with some of his followers by sailing westward across the Pacific Ocean in a small boat.

Armed with knowledge of the legends and having seen evidence of people with strong similarities to those ancient tribes of Peru in Polynesia, Heyerdahl set out to prove his theory with a practical demonstration. He would re-create an ancient sailing vessel using authentic materials and sail it from the coast of South America to the Polynesian Islands. At a meeting of the New York City Explorers Club New York City Explorers Club , he enlisted the support of Danish polar explorer Peter Freuchen Freuchen, Peter , who, unlike others, believed in the capabilities of primitive vessels. To Heyerdahl, Freuchen’s greatest contribution to the expedition was to take it seriously. Thanks to Freuchen’s support, financial backers appeared. Heyerdahl assembled a crew of five fellow Norwegians: Herman Watzinger, second in command, would record meteorological and hydrographic data on the voyage. Knut Haugland and Torstein Raaby were to be radio operators, and Erik Hesselberg would be the ship’s navigator. A Swede, Bengt Danielsson, in charge of supplies, joined the crew in Peru.

The raft was to replicate ancient vessels and be built of balsa wood. To find the lightweight wood, the crew had to travel deep into the jungles of Ecuador. They cut, trimmed, and debarked twelve giant trees; the logs were then floated to the sea, accompanied by quantities of bamboo and lianas to be used on the finished raft. The raft was built without nails, spikes, or wire at the Lima, Peru, port of Callao. Nine of the thickest logs were used, and grooves were cut into the wood for the hemp ropes that fastened the logs into a raft that was forty-five feet long and eighteen feet wide. The raft had an open bamboo cabin covered with banana leaves and two masts with square sails, painted with the image of Kon-Tiki. Skeptics said the balsa raft would sink, the ropes would disintegrate, and the crew would drown. On April 27, 1947, the fifteen-ton raft was christened Kon-Tiki, in memory of the ancient Sun God, and the next day it was towed by the tug Guardian Rios fifty miles offshore, into the Humboldt Current, and set adrift. At sea, the crew learned how to sail the raft, playing the prevailing winds and the Humboldt and South Equatorial currents.

Heyerdahl expected Kon-Tiki to reach the Marquesas Islands, more than four thousand miles away, in fifteen or sixteen weeks, or by mid-August. Using the radio, the crew stayed in contact with those monitoring their progress. They broadcast weather information and daily progress reports. A running account of the voyage, authored by Heyerdahl, was radioed and published in The New York Times. The first report, May 13, noted that the expedition had covered more than five hundred miles and survived a severe storm lasting five days. “Although each wave looked as if it would roll over us, the raft proved amazingly buoyant,” and the tons of water that fell over the raft quickly dispersed between the logs. The skeptics were proved wrong concerning the seaworthiness of the raft.

Heyerdahl also commented on the number and types of fish: “It is like sailing over an aquarium.” Food was not a problem; using flying fish for bait, the crew could “catch more fish in five minutes than [they could] eat in two days.” Ancient seafarers had carried water in cross-sections of bamboo; Kon-Tiki’s water supply consisted of 275 gallons of crystal-clear spring water from the Andes, supplemented with rain water. Two hundred coconuts were also aboard. Skeptics were also proved wrong about the expedition’s progress. On June 20, the crew radioed a record drift of 132 miles in two days. They reported that they were halfway to their destination, five days ahead of schedule.

On July 9, Heyerdahl reported that after seventy-five days at sea, the raft had drifted thirty-four hundred nautical miles. He noted the balsa raft had “fine sea capacities and impressive speed.” Even in the biggest waves, the raft rode the sea “like a duck.” After two back-to-back gales, the ropes holding the raft together stretched, but they held. Unfortunately, the raft had drifted in such a direction that Heyerdahl was certain they would not see the Marquesas Islands. He hoped instead to make landfall on one of the islands of the Tuamotu Archipelago.

On July 17, the crew saw the first definite sign they were approaching land: Two giant boobies circled the raft. On July 30, they sighted the island of Puka-Puka, an atoll in the Tuamotu Archipelago. However, the “vagaries of wind and tide” prevented their landing. Kon-Tiki drifted another 260 miles into the archipelago before it finally crashed on the Raroia Reef on August 7; all hands were safe.

Significance

The forty-three-hundred-mile, 101-day voyage of the Kon-Tiki proved part of Heyerdahl’s theory: Ancient peoples could have sailed from the Americas to the Polynesian Islands. Anthropologists, however, continued to dispute whether the islands were settled by migrating peoples from prehistoric America. What was not disputable was that six men, none of whom had sailing experience, navigated winds and currents, showing courage to a public thirsty for vicarious adventure. Heyerdahl’s book Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific by Raft (1950) sold more than thirty million copies and was translated into more than seventy languages. In 1951, the documentary film of the voyage won an Academy Award. Kon-Tiki (ship)[Kon Tiki (ship)] Polynesian peoples, origins of

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Heyerdahl, Thor. American Indians in the Pacific: The Theory Behind the Kon-Tiki Expedition. London: Allen & Unwin, 1952. A massive work that examines the facts supporting Heyerdahl’s theory of Polynesian origins in early America.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific by Raft. Translated by F. H. Lyon. Chicago: Rand McNally, 1950. An account of the expedition, including background concerning Heyerdahl’s reasons for undertaking the voyage.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Holton, Graham E. L. “Heyderdahl’s Kon Tiki Theory and the Denial of the Indigenous Past.” Anthropological Forum 14, no. 2 (July, 2004): 163-181. Details the argument against Heyerdahl’s theory.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jacoby, Arnold. Senior Kon-Tiki: The Biography of Thor Heyerdahl. Chicago: Rand McNally, 1967. Biographical information contributes to an understanding of why Heyerdahl developed his theory and undertook the Kon-Tiki Expedition.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ralling, Christopher. The Kon-Tiki Man: Thor Heyerdahl. London: BBC Books, 1990. An illustrated account of Heyerdahl’s travels; provides background material on the Kon-Tiki Expedition.

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