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Voyage of the Kon Tiki

Updated on June 19, 2012

In 1947, everybody was telling Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl, it couldn’t be done. They were talking about his theory Indians from Peru had sailed to the South Pacific sometime in their distant past. They couldn't get there, they said, because they had no boats. All they had were rafts made of balsa wood.

So, Heyerdahl set out to prove otherwise.His aim was to show ancient Peruvian balsa wood rafts could have sailed from South America to the Polynesian Islands by using only the materials and technologies available at the time.

Heyerdahl was born in Larvik on the 6th of October 1914 to Thor and Alison Heyerdahl. In his youth he became interested in biology and dreamed of one day becoming an explorer. He eventually realized his dream and also became a noted anthropologist and author.

Thor also had a theory Polynesians originated from Peru and not Asia as was generally believed. He had written an 800 page manuscript supporting his argument and went to New York to have it published. But nobody seemed interested.

Thor Heyerdahl

In fact, Heyerdahl's theory of Polynesian origins never gained acceptance among anthropologists. And in the late 1990s his hypothesis suffered another setback when, genetic DNA testing found Polynesians more similar to Southeast Asians than South Americans.

Thor decided there was only one thing to do. He would go to South America, build a balsa wood raft and sail until he reached the South Sea Islands. Everyone thought the idea ridiculous since Thor had been deathly afraid of water as a child and didn’t learn to swim until age 22.

But, he did exactly that on a primitive balsa raft named "Kon-Tiki,”the Inca name for "Sun God.” The Kon-Tiki Expedition consisted of Heyerdahl and five crewmen.The other members of the Kon-Tiki expedition were Herman Watzinger, Bengt Danielsson, Torstein Raaby, Knut Haugland, and ErikHesselberg.

Heyerdahl had been inspired by ancient accounts and Incan raft sketches made by the Spanish Conquistadors. The native legends and archaeological evidence led Heyerdahl to believe there had been past contact between South America and Polynesia. He once stated “…man hoisted sail before he saddled a horse. He poled and paddled among rivers and navigated open seas before he traveled on wheels along roads.”

Thor often recounted his experiences to fascinated audiences. One of his favorites was prior to launching their craft he had experts inspect it. According to them, there wasn't a single stick, rope, or knot that wasn't “guaranteed to send them to the bottom.” The dimensions were all wrong, it would crack in two, the lines would break away and the balsa logs would become water logged. The” experts” were convinced the Kon Tiki was headed for certain doom.

But Heyerdahl and his crew were not to be dissuaded. They left Callio Harbor, Peru on April 28thwith the raft being towed about 50 miles out by tug to avoid shipping lanes and coastal currents.

But, there were other real dangers. Finding steady footing on the raft’s bamboo deck was treacherous. And in rough, stormy seas, waves could easily knock a man overboard…which actually happened. Herman fell in and only quick action of the crew saved him. The Kon Tiki did encounter a few storms, but fortunately none were full blown typhoons. A full blown typhoon could have easily destroyed the raft.

After a 101 day, 4,300 miles journey across the Pacific, Kon-Tiki crash landed on the reef at Raroia Reef in the Tuamotu Islands on August 7, 1947. The only injury sustained by the crew was when the mast fell hitting Danielsson on the head and giving him a minor concussion. However, he quickly recovered.

A few days later a story appeared in the New York Times. Although the basic account was correct, there were a number of errors. First, the crewmembers names didn’t match their backgrounds. But, the most prominent error and perhaps the most amusing, the men were identified as Swedish. Danielsson, the only Swede on board, was said to have found the mistake quite hilarious.

Although he didn’t prove his migration theories the Kon-Tiki voyage showed a primitive raft could safely sail vast distances across the Pacific and entirely possible people from South America could have populated the Polynesian Islands.

The crew of the Kon Tiki returned to America on a Norwegian ship. Upon arriving in San Francisco, the captain promptly handed Heyerdahl a bill for $10,000. However, the ship's owner later told him to forget about it.

Thor later produced a motion picture from actual footage shot on the voyage,which won an Oscar for Best Documentary in 1951. The proceeds helped to pay off many debts incurred by the Kon Tiki voyage.

In later years, Heyerdahl lectured at scientific academies and universities and wrote many publications concerning aboriginal migration from Asia and South America to the East Pacific.

"The Kon-Tiki expedition opened my eyes to what the ocean really is.” Heyerdahl said. “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."

Heyerdahl passed away in Colla Micheri, Italy from cancer April 18, 2002.


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    • Just History profile image

      Just History 6 years ago from England

      Very interesting- as a child in the 60's we lived in Singapore and I can remember visiting a restaurant regulary which had a wall picture of the voyage

    • JY3502 profile image

      John Young 6 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      Thanks you Peter. Glad you enjoyed the read.

    • PETER LUMETTA profile image

      PETER LUMETTA 6 years ago from KENAI, ALAKSA

      Thor was an amazing person, I remember reading "Kon Tiki" when I was in grade school, what an adventure. A real life Robinson Cruso at a time before space flight. Good read, thanks Peter