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Thor Heyerdahl, master of the ocean

Thor Heyerdahl opened the world’s eyes to cultural exchange between South Americans and Polynesia, long before anyone had thought it possible. Critics said his theories were wrong, but a recently published study shows otherwise.

Illustration: Mimi Hemsett

The adventurer and ethnographer Thor Heyerdahl was born in 1914, at a time when the world was still at a crossroads between the known and the unknown. Large parts of the world had already been mapped, but there were still areas where people had not set foot. Questions about how the world had been settled and how humans could exist in some of the most remote places on earth were unanswered. These questions shaped much of Heyerdahl’s life, and a recently published study sheds new light on the matter.

Where did the Polynesians come from?

How the archipelago Polynesia was settled became a key question for Thor Heyerdahl. Who were the first to arrive – people from Peru in South America or people from Asia? In his day, the widely accepted theory was that Polynesia must have settled from Asia, as it was closer. Heyerdahl, on the other hand, came to a different conclusion when, in 1937, he went on a combined honeymoon and expedition to the island of Fatu Hiva in Polynesia, together with his first wife Liv. The goal of the journey was to leave civilization and live in complete harmony with nature. During his stay, he noticed that the vegetation, wind and ocean currents indicated that Polynesia could have been settled from South America rather than Asia. The oral storytelling tradition on both sides of the Pacific about a powerful god also supported this theory.

Photo: Archival footage from the Kon Tiki museum

Kon-Tiki

The god Viracocha created the universe, the sun, the moon, the stars and time, and was worshiped by South Americans as the god of the sun and storms. He is said to have risen from Lake Titicaca in South America during the dark times to evoke light. He created humans by blowing life into rocks, but the first humans were brainless giants who displeased him. So he destroyed them with a river and created new, better people from small stones. Viracocha is said to have disappeared across the Pacific Ocean never to return. He is better known as Kon-Tiki. Heyerdahl wondered how stories about the sun god Kon-Tiki could also exist in Polynesia.

After living with the Kwakiutl Indians from 1939-1940, a theory began to form in his head. He decided in 1947 that he would make the same journey that Kon-Tiki made over a thousand years ago to prove that the theory that Polynesia was first settled by South Americans was correct. He had then experienced defeat upon defeat from scientific publishers who refused to publish his theory in their journals. Because no one believed in his theory, he also failed to obtain funding for the expedition. But after gathering a handful of brave adventurers from Norway and Sweden – one of whom, Torstein Raaby, would later die in an attempt to reach the North Pole on skis – he finally managed to convince the President of Peru, Jose Luis Bustamente y Rivero, that Peruvians may have been the first to set foot on Polynesia. Thus, the president raised money through his contacts in the US Navy.

After 101 days at sea, on a balsa raft that everyone thought would sink, Heyerdahl and the crew managed to get ashore on the Raroia atoll. Although the expedition spawned two books and an Oscar-winning documentary, he never managed to convince other scientists that he was right. Until now.

New findings

A recently published research article in the journal Nature shows that there has been contact between Polynesians and people from what is today Colombia around the year 1200 A.D after all. It was an irony of fate that the first South Americans appear to have landed on Fatu Hiva, which was also Heyerdahl’s first encounter with Polynesia. This means that Heyerdahl was right that the world’s oceans were crossed by people from ancient civilizations in South America. The fact that DNA from South America is found in today’s Polynesians means that the people not only exchanged culture when they met – for example pineapple, which is originally a South American fruit – but also had children together.

Reidar Solsvik, curator at the Kon-Tiki Museum, believes that this study has a lot to say for Heyerdahl’s legacy.

– The study proves that there must have been contact between South Americans and Polynesians. If it turns out in later investigations that South American Indians have actually sailed out into the Pacific Ocean and arrived in Polynesia before supposedly Asian civilizations, then it would be even more significant, says Solsvik. He believes that Heyerdahl would be very happy with the study.

– He would at least have focused on the fact that the questions he asked for all those years were well thought out, and that the new study means that they can now finally be discussed properly.

Galapagos

In 1953, shortly after the Kon-Tiki expedition, Heyerdahl travelled with two archaeologists to the Galapagos Islands. Heyerdahl believed that these islands were first inhabited by South Americans. They found Inca flutes and shards of glass from ceramics that supported this theory. After the DNA findings in Polynesia, it seems likely that he may have been right here as well. Previous studies have shown that DNA that originates from South America exists in the population on Easter Island. The research magazine Apollon wrote about such findings in 2007.

In 1999, over forty years later, Heyerdahl launched the Heyerdahl Prize. To qualify for the award, the nominee must have made an outstanding contribution for the environment. Heyerdahl was thus decades ahead of the rest of the world when it came to realizing that we are destroying the planet with pollution. Heyerdahl died three years after the launch of the Heyerdahl Prize, in Colla Michieri in Italy, where he celebrated Easter with his family.

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