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Great European Lives: Thor Heyerdahl

(Original Caption) Thor Heyerdahl with crew on the bow of the "Ra," Safi, Morocco. 5/22/69. - Credit: Bettmann Archive

The tall, blond, tanned adventurer who travelled the Pacific and became a spokesperson for global issues

There isn’t much to commend Larvik, a small town on the southwestern coast of Norway, to anyone from outside the area. Spread around the shoreline with a view out between headlands to the Skagerrak, it’s the kind of place that invites an exit: if you’re standing in the right place, you can make out in the distance a short stretch of horizon where the sea meets the sky, a natural suggestion of possibilities elsewhere.

Thor Heyerdahl would while away hours sitting by the shoreline, knees drawn up to his chin, staring out at the sea, his thoughts travelling beyond Larvik and beyond the Skagerrak to the world beyond and the wonders it might contain.

Larvik in the early 20th century wasn’t the most exciting place to grow up for anyone, especially for a bright boy with an innate curiosity and a restless wanderlust. A partial view of a distant horizon was never going to be enough for Thor Heyerdahl, who would go on to see much wider horizons on oceans all around the world, most famously on the remarkable 1947 Kon-Tiki expedition, a 4,300-mile, 101-day odyssey from Peru to Polynesia on a primitive sailing raft that he felt gave tangible credence to his revolutionary ideas about early human navigation and migration. But for those early Norwegian years he was hemmed in by the hills around Larvik and the sea that lapped at its fringe.

‘All my ancestors came from inland,’ he told an interviewer in 1979. ‘I was dead scared of the water as a young man: if I had been a sailor I would never have believed you could cross the ocean in the Kon-Tiki. My ignorance proved to be very lucky for me.’

He came from a comfortable background with no connection to the sea: his father owned a local brewery while his mother ran a museum, helping to stoke her son’s interests in anthropology and the natural world.

‘My mother brought me up on Darwin and evolution instead of Norwegian fairy tales,’ he would recall. His parents’ marriage wasn’t a happy one, however, and they separated early in Heyerdahl’s childhood, an unusual occurrence in the early 20th century that served only to fuel the future explorer’s sense of restless isolation in Larvik.

It was while studying for a zoology degree at the University of Oslo in the mid-1930s that Heyerdahl embarked on his first major expedition. As part of his studies in 1936 he travelled with his wife Liv to the Marquesas archipelago in the South Pacific to spend a year living off the land on the island of Fatu-Hiva.

It wasn’t the happiest experience, the limited diet and boredom making the year seem a very long one indeed, but it was on Fatu-Hiva that Heyerdahl first began his idiosyncratic theorising on the origins of the Polynesians.

The Second World War, in which Heyerdahl served in the parachute regiment of the Free Norwegian Army, meant that his investigations into whether the Polynesians hadn’t come from Asia, as most research indicated, but from the other side of the Pacific in South America had to be postponed until after the end of the conflict.

So unlikely was Heyerdahl’s Polynesian theory that neither publishers nor academic institutions showed any interest whatsoever in the ideas he’d formulated on Fatu-Hiva.

The concept of diffusionism – in which cultural similarities among respective peoples separated by hundreds of miles of ocean are regarded as the product of remarkable early migration rather than coincidence – had been out of fashion for many years, so Heyerdahl determined to prove the plausibility of his thesis by extreme methods: a practical demonstration.

On April 28, 1947, Heyerdahl and a crew of five friends left Callao, Peru, on a 40ft raft constructed in the style of an ancient Polynesian craft and headed into the Pacific where, a little over three months of riding the Humboldt current later, the Kon-Tiki ran gently aground on Raroia, a coral island not far from Tahiti. As he whooped and danced on the sand with his shipmates, Heyerdahl knew he couldn’t claim the journey as incontrovertible proof that the first Polynesians had arrived from South America the same way but felt strongly that his theory was now at least worthy of serious discussion.

The universities closed ranks, citing linguistic, genetic and cultural evidence pointing to the contrary, but the public was smitten by the tall, blond, tanned adventurer and his remarkable trans-Pacific voyage. Heyerdahl’s account of the expedition Kon-Tiki became a global bestseller, shifting more than 20 million copies worldwide, translated into 67 languages. The royalties permitted further adventures in the name of anthropological research.

Six years after the voyage of the Kon-Tiki Heyerdahl led an expedition to the Galapagos Islands where he found pottery he claimed originated in Peru and Ecuador (academics proffered an alternative theory that the pottery might have been the result of Polynesians travelling to South America and returning) while in 1958 he led one of the first archaeological explorations of Easter Island, also finding artefacts thought to have originated in South America.

In 1969 Heyerdahl set out again on one of the world’s major oceans in a craft built to ancient specifications, this time an Egyptian reed raft called the Ra. Convinced there was evidence in South America that the Egyptians had been there centuries before Europeans arrived – just look at those giant pyramid structures, he enthused – he set out from Morocco to recreate an ancient voyage. But hundreds of miles into the Atlantic he discovered that an important piece of Egyptian design was missing: a tether to keep the stern raised. Despite this, the Ra still managed to travel more than 4,000 miles before storms and high seas necessitated rescue near the Caribbean islands by a passing yacht.

Short by 600 miles, Heyerdahl tried again the following year in the Ra II and reached Barbados, proof enough to support his theory, he felt, but again nowhere near conclusive enough for academia.

His final major expedition was in 1977 when he set out in another reed boat from the Tigris river to show how the Mesopotamians might have navigated the Indian Ocean to reach western India and what’s now Pakistan. After five months of drifting, the raft, called the Tigris, was still seaworthy but when Heyerdahl put in at Djibouti he burnt the vessel on the shore in protest at the wars he encountered along the Horn of Africa that prevented him travelling further into the Red Sea.

His theories about early migration may have been wrongheaded – archaeologists on his own expeditions found evidence confounding his theories – but in many ways Heyerdahl was ahead of his time. On the Ra expeditions he was appalled by the amount of pollution he found in the ocean, for example.

‘On Kon-Tiki for 101 days we saw no sign of man until we saw a wreck on the beach of one of the atolls close to our destination,’ he recalled. ‘But on the Ra we had hardly been at sea for three days before discovering we were in something approximating a city sewer. On the second voyage I decided to make a daily survey, using a dipper to take samples of the oil clots. We found oil pollution on 43 of the 57 days of that voyage as well as plastic containers and bags, empty bottles and all sorts of refuse.’

Heyerdahl grew increasingly disillusioned with humanity’s disregard for both human life and the natural world. From burning the Tigris in protest at the futility of war to warning years before the idea gained traction that man was destroying the delicate, life-sustaining balance of nature, he became an important spokesman on global issues long after his adventures had come to an end.

In 1974 he looked back at his year spent on Fatu-Hiva at a time when the world was descending into chaos and war, barely two decades after the conflict that was supposed to end all wars.

‘We hated going back to civilisation,’ he wrote, ‘but we had to do it. We were sure then, and I still am, that the only place where it is possible to find nature is within yourself. There it is, unchanged, now as always.’

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