THE LITERARY WORK
A nonfiction narrative about a 1947 voyage from the coast of Peru to the islands of Polynesia; published in 1950.
A Norwegian-born anthropologist and explorer, Thor Heyerdahl is best known for his daring journey across the Pacific Ocean on a balsa wood raft. As a child Heyerdahl dreamed of fleeing the small sedate Norwegian town of Larvik, where he was born, to seek adventure in distant exotic lands. In 1937, after three years at the university in Oslo, Heyerdahl left Norway with his young wife Liv to live on Fatu Hiva, one of the islands of Polynesia. Returning to Norway after a year, Heyerdahl decided to study the unsolved mystery of Polynesian origins. His studies were interrupted, however, by the Nazi invasion of Norway, and for five years Heyerdahl fought in the underground resistance until the war ended and he resumed his work. To support his theory that the Polynesian islands were settled by pre-Inca Peruvians, Heyerdahl sailed, along with six other intrepid explorers, from the coast of South America to Polynesia on a small balsa raft. Kon-Tiki describes his adventures at sea and his arrival in Polynesia.
The “Viracocha” people
When Spanish explorers led by Francisco Pizarro arrived in what is now Peru in 1527, they noticed that although the majority of Incas, a tribe of native South Americans, were dark-skinned, some had lighter skins and even red hair. The Incas explained that the lighter-skinned people descended from a white people who had mostly been massacred by an Inca chief. During a battle at Lake Titicaca, almost all these lighter-skinned people had perished, but their leader, Kon-Tiki, had escaped on a raft into the sea.
When the Spaniards ventured up to Lake Titicaca, high in the Andean mountains, they discovered tremendous pyramids along with large statues of humans. The Incas explained that these structures had been erected by the race of white men long before the Incas had come to power. European explorers would not find similar structures until landing on islands in the South Pacific.
The islands in the South Pacific
Having crossed the continents of North and South America, European explorers embarked across the Pacific Ocean toward Asia. Halfway through their journey across the world’s largest ocean, they discovered strings of islands stretching from the coasts of Australia and Asia thousands of miles east into the Pacific. To the surprise of the explorers, even the islands most distant from Asia were inhabited. Research into the languages, myths, and physical characteristics of the islanders revealed three separate ethnic groups living within distinct geographical areas. The islands of Melanesia (meaning “dark islands”) northeast of Australia were inhabited by dark-skinned people who, it is now believed, migrated from Indonesia or Africa, possibly across land bridges that now lie beneath the surface level of the Pacific. North of Melanesia, farther into the Pacific, lie the islands of Micronesia (meaning “small islands”). The slightly lighter-skinned inhabitants of these small islands show some affinity with Indonesians, and it is assumed that they migrated from Asia. Polynesia (“many islands”), a triangle of islands stretching from New Zealand in the southwest to Easter Island in the southeast to Hawaii in the north, was inhabited by dark-skinned people—but also by fair-skinned people who resembled, much to the surprise of the explorers, Europeans themselves.
Theories regarding the origins of the Polynesians
Perplexed by the great mix of features and colors among the Polynesians, the explorers proposed various theories concerning the origins of the lighter-skinned inhabitants. Some suggested that they were descended from Mongols, while others theorized that their ancestors were Indonesians. A few bold theorists proposed that Europeans had migrated south to the Persian Gulf and then crossed the Indian Ocean into the Pacific and continued eastward, mixing with the populations of Melanesia and Micronesia, before settling in the islands of Polynesia. This range of theories indicates how problematic, as well as enigmatic, the question of Polynesia was.
Thor Heyerdahl’s theory
While living on the Polynesian island of Fatu Hiva, Thor Heyerdahl heard tales of Polynesian lore. Intrigued by the legends of a white-skinned, red-bearded forefather named Kon-Tiki, Heyerdahl began to ponder the question of the origins of Polynesians. Noticing that the surf on the eastern side of the island was rough and blustery, he realized that the prevailing winds blew from the east. Strong ocean currents threw waves against the cliffs on the eastern side of the island. This, along with the fact that native legends maintained that the original settlers of the island came from the east, convinced Heyerdahl that the ancestors of Polynesians had arrived neither from Asia nor Africa, but from the coast of South America.
Research into Peruvian mythology supported his theory. He discovered that one name for the Inca sun god, Virakocha, was in fact taken from the name of the race of white men who fled across the sea. (The Incas had called them Viracocha, meaning “sea foam,” because almost all of them had vanished across the ocean.) Furthermore, the original name of the sun god was Kon-Tiki, the name of the legendary white-skinned forefather of the Polynesians. According to Inca legend, some mysterious white men with beards were attacked by a chief named Cari who hailed from the Coquimbo Valley in Peru. His people massacred the whites in a battle on an island in Lake Titicaca, but Kon-Tiki and some close companions managed to escape to the Pacific coast, then disappeared overseas to the west.
Physiological evidence supported Heyerdahl’s theory. Dissimilarities between the Polynesians and the Micronesians or Melanesians seemed to cast doubt on the theory that the Polynesians had arrived from the west. Blood type, for example, suggests no kinship between Polynesians and their neighbors to the west. Whereas a vast majority of Micronesians and Melanesians have blood type B, a variety most commonly found in Asia, the Polynesians have blood type A, a variety dominant among the people of Western Europe. Facial features, such as an aquiline nose and thick beard, further distinguished the Polynesians from the Micronesians or Melanesians.
The variety of crops discovered in the Polynesian islands also seemed to support Heyerdahl’s theory concerning Peruvian migration. The sweet potato, for example, a staple of the Polynesian diet, has been traced back to the Americas, where it was first brought under cultivation. How the sweet potato spread throughout the island world of Oceania has been a matter of much controversy. In support of his theory, Heyerdahl observed that the word for sweet potato was kumar in Ecuador and kumara in Polynesia.
Archeological clues also indicated a link between Polynesia and Peru. Peruvian archaeologists noted that tremendous statues discovered on the easternmost islands of Polynesia are technically like those left by the viracochas on the Andean mountain highlands of Peru. Some archaeologists even suggested that the remarkable resemblances between the pyramids, the megalithic constructions, and the stone statues of Polynesia and the South American Andes regions suggest that Polynesians must have ventured east to Peru. These experts were hesitant, however, to suggest that Peruvians had sailed to Polynesia. This idea had been ruled out by a single and apparently insurmountable objection.
Objection to Heyerdahl’s theory
Heyerdahl was not the first to speculate that Peruvians had journeyed to Polynesia. Other scientists, such as Dr. Roland Dixon and Dr. Kenneth Emory, had previously reached the conclusion, based on agricultural clues, that the Polynesians had come from South America. But an article published by Dr. Samuel K. Lothrop in 1932 entitled Aboriginal Navigation off the West Coast of South America dismissed this idea. The article gave a detailed description of the balsa rafts used by the Peruvians, warning that the porous balsa logs absorbed water so quickly that they had to be taken from the water and left on land to dry. Similarly, the widely read Introduction to Polynesian Anthropology (1945) asserted that the Peruvians had neither the technical skill nor the means of navigating on the ocean. This objection discouraged both Dixon and Emory from pursuing their ideas.
When Heyerdahl boldly approached the renowned archeologist Dr. Herbert Spinden, president of the Explorers Club and director of the Brooklyn Museum, he encountered the same objection. Spinden scoffed at Heyerdahl’s proposal. Insisting that the pre-Inca Peruvians had only flimsy balsa rafts that could never survive a long journey at sea, he refused to listen to Heyerdahl’s arguments. Determined to refute this objection, Heyerdahl resolved to build a balsa raft like those of the Peruvians and sail it from South America to Polynesia.
Lying one evening with his wife on the shores of Fatu Hiva, one of the islands of Polynesia, Thor Heyerdahl realizes that the stone statues of Tiki, the sun god and legendary founder of the Polynesian tribes, resemble statues found in South America. Searching for evidence to support his hunch that the original settlers of the Polynesian islands—red-haired, white-skinned people—arrived from the coast of South America, Heyerdahl uncovers a crucial piece of evidence. Inca legends about a redhaired, white-skinned leader, Kon-Tiki, convince him that the Polynesians are descended from the pre-Inca Peruvians.
Heyerdahl’s theory wins nothing but scorn. Scholars insist the people of South America had only flimsy rafts that could never survive the journey of over four thousand miles from Peru to Polynesia. Realizing that until he counters this one objection his idea will never gain acceptance, Heyerdahl resolves to construct a raft and make the voyage himself. His raft is to be based on the available drawings of the ones used in Peru.
Heyerdahl finds five companions to join him. Herman Watzinger is an engineer eager to measure winds, currents, and waves on the open Pacific. He recommends Erik Hesselberg, a seasoned sailor. Knut Haugland and Torstein Raaby, Norwegians whom Heyerdahl had met during World War II, join the expedition along with Bengt Danielsson, a scholar on Amazon peoples.
To get the balsa logs that Kon-Tiki and his people had used to build their rafts, the adventurers journey high into the Andes Mountains of Ecuador, fell the buoyant trees, and then float with them downriver to the Pacific. Once the raft is built, a mere forty-five feet long, the adventurers pack it with supplies including water, a stove, and a radio. On April 28, ignoring warnings that the porous balsa logs will absorb water and sink and that the motion of the logs will wear through the ropes that hold the raft together, the crew sets out off the coast of Peru for Polynesia.
After tumbling over the troublesome waves near the shore, the boat, christened the Kon-Tiki, sails smoothly on the open Pacific. Caught in the strong westerly currents and the winds, the Kon-Tiki glides onward with little assistance from its crew.
Heyerdahl soon realizes that much of the preparation had been pointless. Food is plentiful. Each morning flying fish litter the deck. The crew slakes their thirst by sucking the water from raw fish. They lure sharks near the boat with flying fish, and, just as the discouraged sharks begin to dive back into the depths, grab their tails and pull them from the waves on board the boat, where they flop helplessly until they die. A dinner of shark steak could always be garnished with plankton strained from any bucketful of sea water.
Strange sights greet the travelers each day. Dolphins glide through the waters around the ship, sometimes followed by tremendous sea turtles. A whale shark, the largest known fish, lurks underneath the Kon-Tiki, threatening to lift the raft on its back. Beneath the thick barnacles that grow on the bottom of the raft teem scores of fish. At night the glowing eyes of huge phosphorescent squid loom in the surge of a wave, only to sink and pass beneath the boat. During the day curious shapes twist in the impenetrable depths of the Pacific.
The crew members amuse themselves by swimming and taking trips in a small rubber dingy. They construct a diving basket, which allows them to linger underwater without fear of sharks. In the diving basket they can study the “floating aquarium” (Heyerdahl, Kon-Tiki, p. 87) of barnacles and fish beneath the raft.
On July 30, after almost one hundred days of travel, the voyagers spot Puka Puka, the farthest west of the Tuatmotu Islands of Polynesia. They are carried by the current too far north of the island to even attempt to land. Three days later they spot another island, but this one is surrounded by treacherous coral reefs. Natives from the island venture out in canoes to help tow the bulky Kon-Tiki through narrow passages in the reefs, but against the surging waves it is impossible. The natives abandon the boat, and the crew of the Kon-Tiki must continue westward past the island.
One morning the crew members awaken to discover that they have drifted too close to the reefs surrounding an island. Convinced they can no longer avoid disaster, they secure their cargo and await the inevitable. Tempestuous waves thrown up by the reef drive the Kon-Tiki toward land. The crew abandons the raft, which gets stuck on the jagged reef, and swim to the island.
They have landed on an uninhabited island less than 600 feet across. It is one of many small islands surrounding a calm lagoon. After about ten days the crew of the Kon-Tiki see sails on the horizon of the lagoon. Inhabitants of one of the nearby islands have spotted the smoke from the crew’s campfires and come to investigate.
Fortunately one of the Polynesians speaks French. The crew explains to him the purpose of their expedition, and he smiles with delight. Joining the friendly natives, the crew of the Kon-Tiki sails across the lagoon to their rescuers’ island, where 127 people live. They too are delighted to find that these six explorers have set out to prove that the legends about Kon-Tiki are true. “We were,” Heyerdahl realized, “the first whites who admitted that [the natives’] fathers had spoken the truth” (Kon-Tiki, p. 153).
After a few days among the natives, the crew of the Kon-Tiki hail radio operators in Tahiti, the largest of the Polynesian islands. The crew leaves to meet the cheering crowds in the harbor of Tahiti, represented by the head of the seventeen Tahiti chiefs. “You come with good news,” he says to Heyerdahl, “Your [raft] has in truth brought blue sky to Tahiti, for now we know where our fathers came from” (Kon-Tiki, p. 162).
Heyerdahl challenges the experts
p>Although the few scientists aware of Heyerdahl’s undertaking regarded it as little more than a foolish publicity stunt, Heyerdahl himself was determined to fully support his theory. By bringing with him sweet potatoes and coconuts, common plants in both Peru and Polynesia, Heyerdahl proved more than the fact that balsa rafts were indeed seaworthy. Neither the potatoes nor the coconuts survived when left to float in the salty ocean water. Thus, they could not simply have floated from South America to Polynesia, but rather would have had to have been carried by travelers.
In order to prove that the pre-Inca Peruvians had crossed the Pacific, Heyerdahl had ignored the warnings of fellow anthropologists as well as experienced sailors. He had not, as many recommended, drained the sap from the balsa logs to make them more buoyant, nor had he lashed the logs together with steel cables. Faithfully recreating the type of raft used by the Peruvians, he had bound freshly cut balsa logs together with ropes woven from twine. Other sailors warned that the motion of the logs would wear through the ropes long before the seawater saturated the porous wood. “The raft [will] not hold together for a fortnight before every single rope [is] worn through,” they scoffed (Kon-Tiki, p. 43).
“I could not counter the warnings one by one myself,” Heyerdahl realized. “But I had in reserve one single trump in my hand, on which the whole voyage was founded. I knew all the time in my heart that a prehistoric civilization had been spread from Peru and across to the islands at a time when rafts like ours were the only vessels on that coast. And I drew the general conclusion that, if balsa wood had floated and lashings held for Kon-Tiki…, they would do the same for us” (Kon–Tiki, p. 43).
In fact, had Heyerdahl followed the advice of other sailors, both he and his crew would likely have perished. The sap in the balsa wood prevented the sea water from penetrating the logs and kept them buoyant. Also, as the waves lifted the boat, the ropes used to lash the logs together dug into the soft wood, forming grooves that protected the ropes. Steel cables or wire would have sawed through the logs and left the crew clutching small stumps to survive.
Even as a child Heyerdahl had dreamt of the exotic islands of the South Pacific. When one of his friends lamented that there were no strange lands left to discover, Heyerdahl responded, “It’s not only in geography that we can make discoveries.… There are still many great challenges in the world, among other things the mystery of Easter Island” (Jacoby, p. 38). Heyerdahl first went to Polynesia with the intention of discovering the simple pleasures of life in the untamed tropics. After contracting several diseases, he returned to Norway.
In Norway, Heyerdahl pondered the tales he had heard while in Polynesia. “The unsolved mysteries of the South Seas had fascinated me,” he admitted. “There must be a rational solution of them, and I had made my objective the identification of the legendary hero Tiki” (Jacoby, p. 96). Thereafter he gathered enough evidence to convince himself that the pre-Inca Peruvians had sailed the Pacific to Polynesia.
The Kon-Tiki voyage might have never taken place, however, had not Dr. Spinden scornfully dismissed Heyerdahl’s idea. “It’s quite true that South America was the home of the most curious civilizations of antiquity,” the Explorers Club president admitted, “and we know neither who they were or where they vanished to when the Incas came to power. But one thing we do know for certain—that none of the peoples of South America got over to the islands in the Pacific. Do you know why? They had no boats!” (Spinden in Jacoby, p. 219).
“They had rafts,” Heyerdahl countered.
“Well, you can try a trip from Peru to the Pacific islands on a balsa-wood raft,” Spinden replied. A few months later Heyerdahl wrote to a friend in Norway: “If I cannot gain a hearing in any other way, my plan is to build a faithful copy of the log rafts…. I intend to reenact a voyage from South America to the South Sea islands on a primitive … raft” (Heyerdahl in Jacoby, p. 218).
Kon-Tiki won acclaim as a story of adventure on the high seas. “It will be a rare reader,” one critic contended, “who will be able to put the book down once he has read beyond the first page … once aboard that raft, even for a few safe paragraphs, the reader can no more get off than could Heyerdahl and his companions” (Sawyer in Stine, p. 190). Another critic predicted that present-day readers would gain from Heyerdahl’s account a new appreciation of the intelligence and vigor of Neolithic peoples. President Harry S Truman wrote to Heyerdahl, “it certainly is a wonderful thing to have people in the world who can still take hardship and do an exploration job just as the one you young men did” (Truman in Jacoby, p. 267).
Reception in the scientific community
In spite of Heyerdahl’s popularity as an explorer, many critics derided him, and one described the Kon-Tiki expedition as nothing more than “six Boy Scouts … sending their greetings to Dad and Mom” (Jacoby, p. 262). Sir Peter Buck, the author of An Introduction to Polynesian Anthropology, who in 1945 had written, “the South American Indians had neither the vessels nor the navigating ability to cross the ocean space between their shores and the nearest Polynesian islands,” belittled Heyerdahl and his crew (Buck in Jacoby, pp. 214–15). “A nice adventure,” he said, “but you don’t expect anybody to call that a scientific expedition” (Buck in Jacoby, p. 288). Various headlines in the Scandinavian press, like “The Kon-Tiki Humbug” or “Is the Kon-Tiki Theory a Publicity Stunt?” inclined the public to scoff at Heyerdahl.
Heyerdahl challenged his opponents. Armed with a folio of pictures taken both in Peru and in Polynesia, Heyerdahl visited the French ethnologist, Alfred Métraux, who had dismissed Heyerdahl as a poor scientist. He challenged Métraux, an expert on the Polynesian statues, to distinguish pictures of statues from Polynesia from pictures of statues from South America. After Métraux sorted the pictures into two piles, Heyerdahl declared “you have put statues from both areas in each pile. When even you—as an expert—fail to tell the difference, you must admit that there is a resemblance” (Heyerdahl in Jacoby, p. 302). The experts grew embarrassed. In their debate with Heyerdahl, they made some obvious mistakes.
Many scientists, impressed by Heyerdahl’s research as well as his tenacity, embraced his ideas and revised their theories. Dr. W. C. Bennett, an American archeologist who had originally opposed Heyerdahl, admitted “the quantity and quality of the material which Mr. Heyerdahl has assembled are too great to be ignored. Henceforth, American contributions to the Polynesian cultures will have to be considered” (Bennett in Jacoby, p. 293).
Whether or not Heyerdahl had proven his theory, he had introduced a new possibility into the discussion of Polynesian origins. Heyerdahl had certainly demonstrated that the pre-Inca Peruvians were capable of making an ocean voyage. “One lesson modern man needs to learn,” he pointed out, “is to be unprejudiced in his judgment of people of the past. Their abilities should not be underestimated” (Heyerdahl, Easter Island, p. 7). To further support his idea, Heyerdahl continued to document his claims in subsequent books, including The Art of Easter Island and American Indians in the South Pacific.
Bain, Paul, and John Flenley. Easter Island, Earth Island. New York: Thames & Hudson, 1992.
Heyerdahl, Thor. Kon-Tiki. New York: Rand McNally, 1950.
Heyerdahl, Thor. American Indians in the Pacific. London: Allen & Unwin, 1952.
Heyerdahl, Thor. The Art of Easter Island. New York: Doubleday, 1975.
Heyerdahl, Thor. Easter Island. New York: Random House, 1989.
Jacoby, Arnold. Sénor Kon-Tiki. Chicago: Rand McNally, 1967.
Stine, Jean C, ed. Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 26. Detroit: Gale Research, 1983.