Historical Badass: Anthropologist Thor Heyerdahl

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Thor Heyerdahl was Norwegian, but as far as he was concerned, he was hardly of Viking ancestry, even though he’d go on to do things his ancestors would’ve found immensely bold. Heyerdahl, who controversially sailed across both the Pacific and the Atlantic in crafts more primitive than what the Vikings used, said, “I was dead scared of the water as a young man. If I had been a sailor, I wouldn’t have believed that you couldn’t cross the ocean in the Kon-Tiki. My ignorance was very lucky.”

The Kon-Tiki (above) was the name of the craft he and five crew used to cross the Pacific from Peru to Tahiti in 1947, when the young anthropologist sought to prove his theory that the Southeast Asian archipelagos were settled not from the Asian mainland, but from South America. In fact Heyerdahl believed that all of our ancestors were much more adventurous than his contemporaries in the scientific community — and rather than argue or pontificate, he boldly set out to show rather than tell.

So he built a 40-by-40-foot balsa wood raft held together using materials that would have been at hand to any ancient Peruvian and set sail for the middle of the Pacific. 101 days later, after drifting 4,300 miles, he and his crew landed on the Tahitian island of Raroia. Not only did this set the scientific community afire with the possibility that South Americans could have travelled to Asia, it made Heyerdahl a household name worldwide. And it didn’t hurt that Heyerdahl’s best-selling book, Kon-Tiki, was read worldwide, in 65 languages and that a documentary of the same title won an Oscar in 1950.

One thing you learn watching the film is that, as with any expedition, Heyerdahl and his men nearly met disasters several times, sometimes of their own making. At one point early in the expedition, a few men got bored and decided to row around in the rubber rescue dinghy (yes, they did bring modern conveniences, including a radio to signal their position), only to discover that the Kon-Tiki was moving at such an incredible clip they could scarcely keep up even rowing all out…which they had to do for an hour to get back on the craft and were almost lost at sea.

You also learn that while most of the men existed on a diet of plankton and other sea life, two men carried out an experiment of eating only rations provided by the U.S. Army (Spam?), but the narrator, Heyerdahl himself, glibly tells viewers the food was “quite excellent” since these two brave guinea pigs suffered no ill effects from what they ate.

When the Kon-Tiki did finally make landfall it ran aground at the edge of a tiny atoll. Heyerdahl says, “I don’t think any of us will ever forget the wonderful feeling of stepping on warm, dry sand, and walking on solid ground, after spending 101 days on a heaving raft.”

Heyerdahl was hardly done exploring, though.

In 1970, now in his mid-50s, Heyerdahl again set out across an ocean, this time attempting to cross the Atlantic from Morocco on a ship called the Ra (after the ancient Egyptian sun god). The boat was made of papyrus, and although it didn’t make it, a subsequent voyage in the Ra II did make landfall in Barbados. It was Heyerdahl’s aim to prove that ancient Egyptians could’ve sailed to South America and left behind the idea of building pyramids as tombs.

Even into his 60s Heyerdahl took on controversial and challenging expeditions. In 1977 he set sail in a boat made of reeds, in the style of Mesopotamian sailors from 3,000 B.C., to prove that it was possible that Mesopotamia (present-day Syria, Jordan, Turkey) and Pakistan/India could’ve been linked via the sea. Heyerdahl then burned that ship, the Tigris, in protest over war in the region that engulfed nearly all of the nations on the Red Sea.

Heyerdahl wrote an open letter to the U.N. suggesting that while he was out trying to prove how the ancient civilizations of the world had managed to trade and learn from each other, the modern nations had learned nothing from their history.

One aspect of Hyerdahl’s life that’s often forgotten is that even before Kon-Tiki he and his first wife went off to Polynesia, in 1937-38 to live as “Adam and Eve,” trying to prove how people could live happily but very primitively.

Which maybe worked out a little less ideally than the very “first marriage,” in recorded history, since Heyerdahl ended that marriage in divorce (he was married three times).

As for his most famous theory, a year after his death, in 2003 scientists studied inhabitants of Polynesia and discovered DNA similarities to Peruvians. However a much more recent link was also discovered: In 1862 Peruvians put forth an ill-conceived effort to enslave Polynesians; a slave ship they sent was overpowered and a few of the Peruvians were put on trial. Meanwhile, the Peruvians were also killing off the locals with smallpox which they unwittingly brought to the islands with them. The surviving Peruvians, more immune to the disease, wiped out a good portion of the local population, and therefore their DNA shows up fairly prominently.

But it still doesn’t explain how some South American vegetables, like the sweet potato, are found in some parts of Southeast Asia, which even prevailing science has yet to fathom.

Nor does it blunt the unshakeable search for discovery of Thor Heyerdahl, a guy who spent his entire life on adventures and in many ways was a modern, if more peace-loving and complex Indiana Jones.

Photos via Wikimedia Commons

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