- The Washington Times - Monday, April 22, 2002

(Editor's note: Thor Heyerdahl, the scientist-adventurer who gained fame by making a monumental journey across the Pacific in the raft Kon-Tiki, died last Thursday at age 87. An AP reporter had recently interviewed him at his home in the Canary Islands.)


GUIMAR, Canary Islands It has been a half century since Thor Heyerdahl and five other Scandinavians made history by sailing the Kon-Tiki raft across the Pacific, nearly drowning at the end of the 101-day voyage when they smashed into a coral reef of an uninhabited Polynesian atoll.
The first ham radio operator to pick up their distress call didn't believe them, so they sent another: "All well. All well. All well."
To which another ham answered, "If all's well, why worry?"
As Mr. Heyerdahl would later describe it, it was a somewhat comical finale to a 5,000-mile odyssey in pursuit of an answer to one of Earth's abiding mysteries: How did humankind spread from one continent to the next?
"The Kon-Tiki expedition opened my eyes to what the ocean really is. It is a conveyor and not an isolator. The ocean has been man's highway from the days he built the first buoyant ships, long before he tamed the horse, invented wheels and cut roads through the virgin jungles," he wrote in the foreword to the 35th edition of "Kon-Tiki, Across the Pacific by Raft," the best seller that catapulted him and the balsa log raft to international fame.
Mr. Heyerdahl, a Norwegian who moved to the Spanish island of Tenerife off the west coast of Africa in 1990, has spent his life gathering evidence from astronomically oriented pyramids to ancient art depicting reed boats that seafaring sun worshippers crossed the oceans in prehistoric times.
Seeking to prove his theories, Mr. Heyerdahl made other voyages after Kon-Tiki, sailing reed boats woven by Peru's Aymara Indians from North Africa to the Caribbean and from Iraq to the Red Sea. His rafting travels continued into the late 1970s.
It was 1947 when Kon-Tiki left Callao, Peru, acting on Mr. Heyerdahl's radical idea that ancient Peruvians could have made the same trip 1,400 years earlier and settled Polynesia. He also argued that 600 years later, Southeast Asian-descended people who reached Hawaii via western Canada then spread over Polynesia. The prevailing theory among other scientists is that Polynesia was populated directly from Southeast Asia.
The idea for the Kon-Tiki was ridiculed by mainstream scientists who said the logs would become waterlogged and sink. But to a public emerging from the wreckage of World War II and eager for peacetime heroes, the voyage was something of the moon landing of its time.
The crew braved raging storms and ocean calms with a shortwave radio as their only contact with the outside world. They often breakfasted on flying fish that landed on deck. Whales played games with the raft, and circling sharks were constant companions. The voyage ended when wind and currents forced them aground on uninhabited Raroia atoll in the Tuamoto Archipelago.
Mr. Heyerdahl's book, published in 67 languages, has become a classic. A black-and-white documentary film of the journey won an Oscar in 1951.
Kon-Tiki, named after a pre-Inca sun god, became a household word. Mr. Heyerdahl was dubbed "Senor Kon-Tiki" and "The Kon-Tiki Man" in two biographies. He is a national hero in his native Norway, and his raft is on display in Oslo's Kon-Tiki Museum.
Now 87, Mr. Heyerdahl has continued to pursue and defend his theories. It has taken a half century for the scientific establishment to appreciate his early work and grasp the full significance of the idea behind the Kon-Tiki voyage. Admiration now comes even from some who say his theories are not proven.
"Very few people have the courage or energy to cross the boundaries between disciplines. I think Heyerdahl is one of these people, and should be admired for it," said Erika Hagelberg, a geneticist at the University of Oslo who has studied the DNA of American Indians and Polynesians.
On Feb. 25, weeks before he fell seriously ill, Mr. Heyerdahl sat down for an interview at a picnic table beside an ancient South American tree on his secluded estate in the Canary Islands, Spanish territory off Africa.
Slim, with white hair, he looked fit and alert as he expounded his much-debated view that the earliest known civilizations in Mesopotamia, Egypt, China and the Mediterranean sailed in reed ships, as depicted in their ancient art.
"That's how civilization grew. By sea, you got contact, new raw materials and inspiration," he said.
"I believe that these first navigating people were sun worshippers and that their form of temple was a step pyramid, sometimes built over the tombs of some important royalty and always astronomically oriented, with ceremonial stairways or ramps to the summit where ceremonies were performed to the rising sun," he said.
He added that "these navigators also made links with Mexico and Peru possible and from Peru again all the way [across the Pacific] to Western Samoa."
He scoffed at the idea that Leif Ericson or Christopher Columbus was the first to sail to America.
"We Europeans are so one-track minded when it comes to our own history that we say to the world that Europe discovered the whole world," he said. "I say that no European has discovered anything but Europe."
The academic world reacted to the Kon-Tiki trip by accusing him of ignoring established knowledge that Polynesia was first settled by Asians.
"You will find that [accusation] repeated 10,000 times," he said. "That is a sheer lie and I can prove it."
Mr. Heyerdahl said his critics read his book "Kon-Tiki" part science, part adventure story but ignored his academic manuscript, "American Indians in the Pacific: The Theory Behind the Kon-Tiki Expedition," which he couldn't get published until 1952. The 800-page book uses genetic evidence such as blood types and cultivated plants to posit that settlers from Peru arrived in Polynesia before the Asian-descended people.
The Kon-Tiki voyage upset scientists by undermining their pet theories, Mr. Heyerdahl said. "When I sailed Kon-Tiki, that started the bombardment. I shouldn't have proven my theory correct."
Mr. Heyerdahl has remained involved in the study of step pyramids which along with reed boats and prevailing winds and currents support his theories about the spread of civilization by ancient seafarers.
In the 1980s, he directed excavation of South America's largest pyramid complex, Tucume in Peru, where researchers found reliefs of bird-headed men navigating reed ships, evidence that men sailed along the Pacific coast before the Spanish conquest.
He first came to Tenerife to excavate six pyramids thought to be only piles of rocks built by early Spanish farmers. But Mr. Heyerdahl recognized them as step pyramids, and now 120,000 visitors a year come to see the Chacona Pyramid Ethnological Park.
Mr. Heyerdahl recently was excavating a structure in West Samoa that he believes could be "the western extremity" of step pyramids built by sun worshippers.
Step pyramids are found mainly in Egypt, Mesopotamia, Mexico and Peru. Mr. Heyerdahl says there is evidence they existed around the Mediterranean including some along the North Africa coast that were destroyed and rebuilt into Greek temples. The largest is Peru's Akapana near Lake Titicaca, where the Aymara people still weave reed boats.
"I don't know if it's me following the step pyramids or it's the step pyramids following me. There has been a chain of them my whole life," Mr. Heyerdahl said.
"Usually you consider yourself fortunate to find some potsherds when you look for archaeology, but it is rather unusual to stumble over step pyramids, and still, this has happened to me in three world oceans."

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