A 50 year retrospective of the Kon-Tiki Expedition.*
On August 7,1947, a strange vessel crashed on the coral reefs of the Raroia atoll in the Tuamotu Islands. Its tanned and weather-beaten crew of six Scandinavians survived the experience and cheerfully planted a souvenir from the source of their journey, a coconut palm carried on board their vessel from South America. This extraordinary voyage across the Pacific on a raft of balsa wood named "Kon-Tiki" would have an enduring effect on both the scholarly world and popular culture. Fifty years later, the name "Kon-Tiki" is still recognized by millions and the expeditions leader, Thor Heyerdahl, remains one of the most well-known and popular people of the 20th century. Despite its public popularity, the original aims and accomplishments of the expedition have been somewhat obscured by the sheer epic drama of the event. In some segments of the academic world, a long pattern of misinformation has developed a negative mythology around the Kon-Tiki and its captain which has been perpetuated now for decades. This article will consider the origins of the expedition, its results, and its immediate and long-term effects. In doing so, it is hoped that a more fair appraisal of the Kon-Tiki will be reported.
Thor Heyerdahl was born in 1914 and raised in Larvik, Norway.1 In his youth, he was greatly attracted to the outdoors and the wonders of nature. Not surprisingly, he chose to study zoology while attending the University of Oslo. With an interest in the island biogeography of plants, animals and humans, and a longing for a taste of a simpler life, Heyerdahl and his new bride stranded themselves for a year on the island of Fatu Hiva in the Marquesas to collect zoological specimens and to experience Polynesia (Heyerdahl 1938, 1941b, 1996b). It was during that stay in 1937 that he became particularly impressed by the impact of the natural forces of the winds and ocean currents which tended to flow from east to west. At the same time, he was also exposed to local stories that suggested that the islanders ancestors may have followed such routes to colonize the islands from the east, a scenario in complete contradiction to the prevailing scientific viewpoint of the day.
Heyerdahl returned to Norway with an impressive collection of specimens including human crania, and actively began to pursue an idea that continues to provoke controversy to this day - the idea that many of the people who settled the islands of Polynesia did so by traveling from or by way of the Americas. With the comprehensive Kroepelian Polynesian Library in Oslo at his disposal, he immersed himself thoroughly in the study of cultural parallels, winds and currents, plant and animal dispersals and of course, the early physical means by which the Pacific might have been traversed.
Although a connection with South America was his original focus, he never rejected the Southeast Asiatic origins of the historically known Polynesians. After his first year in Polynesia, he traveled to British Columbia to search for possible traces of the route he favored, from the Philippine Sea to Polynesia by way of the Pacific Northwest Coast. The onset of World War II temporarily allayed his inquiries, but not before he published the earliest formal expression of his ideas about American connections in the colonization of Polynesia. The article was called "Did Polynesian culture originate in America?" and was published in 1941 in a serious and very well-refereed new journal called International Science. The journal was apparently another casualty of the War and few scholars today are aware of this early article by Heyerdahl which clearly spells out the scientific foundation from which the Kon-Tiki expedition would ultimately be derived. In this first paper, he stresses the theories he has subsequently maintained - that the South-American element in Polynesia was a sub-stratum, and that the present Polynesian populations entered the Polynesian territory by way of Hawaii from the north.
After the war, Heyerdahl further elaborated his ideas in a scholarly manuscript entitled "Polynesia and America: a study of prehistoric relations." Traveling to the United States, he presented his manuscript to a variety of scholars and his ideas were very poorly received. Many of the scholars were especially convinced that he was mistaken on the basis of a central question, the ability of South American seafarers to survive the required voyage or voyages in vessels perceived as primitive. The work of Samuel Lothrop was often cited. In his 1932 work Aboriginal navigation off the west coast of South America, Lothrop concluded that the balsa rafts noted by the early Spaniards would absorb water and sink well before ever reaching an island in the Pacific.
Having been issued a challenge, Heyerdahl initiated what would be known as the Kon-Tiki expedition. This classic case of experimental archaeology would, as accurately as possible, replicate and test a South American balsa raft sailing vessel. The experiment would test ideas both about the seaworthiness of the vessels and the directional forces of currents and winds to propel such a vehicle to Polynesia.
With a foundation of large balsa logs retrieved from the jungles of Ecuador, Heyerdahl set out to build the raft he named "Kon-Tiki". The raft left the Peruvian port of Callao on April 27, 1947 with Heyerdahl and a crew of four fellow Norwegians and a Swede. The Kon-Tiki performed admirably, safely whisking its human cargo westward across the Pacific (Heyerdahl 1950a, 1950b). Large waves could break and wash neatly right through the deck and the raft remained reassuringly buoyant and intact through storms and the passing of many days. On July 30th, land was finally sighted, the island of Puka Puka in the Tuamotu Archipelago. A week later, after 101 days at sea, the raft crashed onto a reef at the Raroia atoll. The Kon-Tiki had traveled 4300 nautical miles at an average speed of 42 ½ miles per day. Apart from the damage incurred on the reef, the vessel remained seaworthy and the crew intact, thus negating the views of the skeptics who thought such a voyage impossible. Not surprisingly, there were many reactions from the scientific community.
Prior to the expedition, American archaeologist Ralph Linton, perpetuating the notions of Lothrop, advised Heyerdahl that a raft voyage would be dangerous as the balsa logs would soon absorb water and sink. After the successful voyage, Linton would erroneously claim that the expedition was invalid because balsa could not be found on the western side of the Andes. In a rebuttal to Linton, Heyerdahl wrote:
"Before the Kon-Tiki expedition, it was said that neither the Indians nor we would be able to survive an overseas voyage of this kind, because the raft was made of light and porous balsa wood, which was only suitable for coastal sailing since it absorbed water. After our voyage was successfully completed, it was said, also right away, that we had succeeded because our raft was made of balsa, a kind of wood which was suddenly supposed to have been unknown to the Indians of the western coast of South America" [Evensberget 1994:104-105; Jacoby 1968:198-199].
Even still, there are some skeptics that maintain that the Kon-Tiki raft was modeled after a non-Peruvian vessel or a post-Spanish raft with post-Spanish sails and that the South American seafarers were actually shore huggers (Bahn and Flenley 1992:46-48). The validity of these claims is quite arguable (Heyerdahl 1952:513-620, 1996a).
Some criticized the fact that the Kon-Tiki had to be towed well away from the coast before it could begin its voyage. Heyerdahl, however, was required to do so to avoid port traffic in his untested vessel. Secondly, the knowledge of how to steer the raft using the centerboards was unknown at the time thus steering the raft away from shore was a dubious process. Subsequent experiments demonstrated the magnificent versatility of these centerboards and other raft voyagers after Kon-Tiki would be able to maneuver directly from their departure points using this method. There were also complaints that the Kon-Tiki crew invalidated their experiment by carrying along such modern survival conveniences as a life raft, canned food provisions and a radio. Such comments seem to ignore the fact that the intent of the expedition was to test the seaworthiness of the vessel, and not a culinary test to see how Scandinavians cope with native food. In Heyerdahls own words: "We did not mean to eat aged llama flesh or dried kumara potatoes on our trip, for we were not making it to prove that we had once been Indians ourselves"(Heyerdahl 1950a:27). The tiny rubber dinghy, by the way, was quite inadequate for saving the lives of six people but could be used for filming or for exploring landing situations (Thor Heyerdahl, personal communication, 1997).
Other early critics included the eminent Polynesian scholar Sir
Peter Buck who referred to "that Kon-Tiki raft business"
as "a nice adventure. But you dont expect anyone to
call that a scientific expedition. Now do you?" ( Evensberget
1994:102-103; Jacoby 1968:198).
Heyerdahls synopsis of the ideas behind the Kon-Tiki expedition in the pages of the Geographical Journal prompted vigorous responses from the Austrian scholar Robert Heine-Geldern. (Heine-Geldern 1950, 1952; Heyerdahl 1950b, 1951). Heine-Geldern was himself an advocate of transoceanic contacts with the New World, but from the west to the east, from Asia to the Americas. If anything, he argued, the Polynesians probably visited the New World and not the other way around.
The international public, however, loved the expedition book Kon-Tiki which has sold many millions of copies and has been translated into well over 50 languages. The Kon-Tiki film was likewise popular. This film, skillfully edited from the results of a simple hand-held camera, won an Oscar Award for Best Documentary in 1950. The book and film, although describing the theoretical underpinnings of the project, primarily emphasized the adventure aspects of the expedition. This may have unintentionally dampened the scientific motivations of the expedition in the minds of some readers.
While there remained skeptics in the scientific world, Heyerdahl urged them to await the publication of a full explanation of his theses, a book entitled American Indians in the Pacific: the scientific theory behind the Kon-Tiki Expedition (Heyerdahl 1952). This large book, over 800 pages of single-spaced print and over a thousand scholarly references, would spell out his ideas in detail. Not surprisingly, the book, like the expedition itself, received widely mixed reviews. French ethnologist Alfred Métraux, who had earlier referred to Heyerdahl as a "mauvais savant"(bad scholar), later praised him in a book review of American Indians in the Pacific and was especially impressed by his interdisciplinary approach to the topic (Evensberget 1994:106-107; Jacoby 1968:206-209). Others were not so complimentary (e.g. Firth 1953; Linton 1953).
Heyerdahl did not shy away from scholarly debate and in the summer
of 1952 delivered lectures on his ideas before the 30th International
Americanist Congress in Cambridge (Heyerdahl 1953a,b,c) and the
4th International Congress of Anthropologists and Ethnologists
in Vienna. In the years that followed, he would read papers at
a number of similar forums, most of which have been published
in Congress proceedings or in volumes of his collected works.
Invitations to speak before scholarly societies became very common.
Heyerdahls first major recognition for his work came in
1950 when he was awarded the Anders Retzius Medal by the Swedish
Society of Anthropology and Geography followed by numerous other
awards, decorations and degrees for his achievements which continue
to this day. He would also be elected to the Academies of Sciences
in New York, Norway and the USSR. In 1961 he was honored with
a doctorate from the University of Oslo, the first of several
from a variety of universities. That same year, Heyerdahl addressed
the scholarly 10th Pacific Congress held in Honolulu 1961. During
that Congress, the following resolution was passed acknowledging
a South American contribution to Pacific prehistory:
This declaration seems to have since been ignored, lost or
forgotten by many scholars.
Another misconception is the notion that Heyerdahl believed that
the expedition proved that contact actually took place between
South America and Polynesia. This, of course, is nonsense. The
expedition clearly demonstrated the possibility that such contacts
could have taken place by disproving the prevailing notion that
early South American watercraft were incapable of surviving an
The perceived results of the expedition are well-articulated in the same volume:
"The discoveries of the expedition with a bearing on the problem under discussion may be summarized as follows: 1. Polynesia was well within the range of coastal craft in aboriginal Peru. 2. Weather-driven balsa rafts trapped in the Peru Current will automatically convey crew and cargo from South America to Polynesia, and food and water may be replenished in the course of the transfer. 3. The South American balsa raft was capacious, commodious, exceedingly seaworthy and safe for down-wind sailings and drifts in the high seas even when carrying a numerically inadequate crew or a crew wholly inexperienced in maritime activities or raft navigation" [p.602].
Perhaps most pervasive among scholars is the erroneous notion that Heyerdahl believes that the Polynesian people are South Americans. A serious reading of his ideas will demonstrate that he does clearly advocate South American populations and influence in the Pacific, in some cases as a pre-Polynesian substratum. However, he also argues that the Polynesians are indeed derived from Southeast Asia, but a different route is proposed and from a direction contrary to convention; a route from South East Asia - one which follows the currents and winds to Polynesia by way of the Pacific Northwest Coast of America. This idea concerning the Northwest Coast is much less well known than the South American aspects which were emphasized by the Kon-Tiki along with some of Heyerdahls subsequent archaeological expeditions.
Heyerdahls interest in Polynesia did not end with the Kon-Tiki expedition. There was yet no definite archaeological proof of South American seafaring away from the coast and well into the Pacific. In 1952 he conducted the first archaeological expedition to the Galápagos Islands, 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, and located a large quantity of pre-European South American aboriginal pottery at different sites (Heyerdahl 1955, 1963). The material was positively identified as such by the worlds leading authorities on the pottery of the Northwest coast of South America at the Smithsonian Institution (Heyerdahl and Skjolsvold 1956). These discoveries seem to indicate that pre-European mariners had at least survived voyages on their vessels this far into the ocean, if not having made round-trip journeys. This important work in the Galápagos is apparently either little known or regularly ignored as it is rarely mentioned in the literature.3 A recent comprehensive survey of South American prehistory seems to be unaware of the research and states: "there is no evidence of any aboriginal use or occupation of the Galápagos Islands. Also, we know little to nothing about ancient navigation methods" (Bruhns 1994:36).
On the return from the Galápagos, the expedition members conducted a valuable experiment. A small balsa raft was constructed and six centerboards or "guaras" were inserted between the logs. These centerboards had been noted as steering devices by early observers of South American vessels. Such centerboards had actually been incorporated into the design of the Kon-Tiki but at the time Heyerdahl and his companions were unfamiliar with their use and were unable to use them to navigate through the waters, nor to avoid a crash onto a coral reef. The experiment on the small raft, however, demonstrated that by lifting and dropping the various guaras, the raft could be skillfully maneuvered in any direction, independent of, or even against, the wind (Heyerdahl 1957, 1959).
At this point, it might be appropriate to note the many Kon-Tiki imitators that arose in the wake of the successful expedition. Although one or two met with failure, most were very successful including balsa rafts that traveled from Peru to Australia and an expedition which involved a flotilla of small rafts (Heyerdahl 1978:39-44). Apart from voyages from South America into the Pacific, there have been a number of expeditions which were formed as a kind of response to the success of the Kon-Tiki. Eric de Bisshop attempted unsuccessfully to demonstrate that a raft could progress across the Pacific from west to east (Bisschop 1959; Danielsson 1960). More recent and famous cousins of the Kon-Tiki can be seen with experimental voyages of replicated Polynesian voyaging canoes such as the Hokule`a (Finney 1979, 1994). Like the Kon-Tiki, they provide useful and provocative exercises in the realm of experimental archaeology and are subject to similar standards in regard to the notion of "proof".
After the Galápagos, Heyerdahls next expedition would
take him to Easter Island in 1955/56. With an international team
of archaeologists from Norway, the United States and Chile, the
expedition conducted the first scientific excavations on the island.
The end result of the expedition would be the publication in
1961 and 1965 of two large volumes of collected reports edited
by Heyerdahl and expedition member Edwin Ferdon. These reports
would provide a significant foundation for the many archaeological
endeavors which would take place on Easter Island in the decades
to come. A third book by Heyerdahl, The Art of Easter Island,
published in 1975, would further compliment this work. Heyerdahl
also wrote a popular book about the expedition entitled Aku-Aku
(1958). Like Kon-Tiki, Aku-Aku proved immensely
In examining the work of Thor Heyerdahl, beginning with the Kon-Tiki, one can discern a distinct Heyerdahl research methodology. His approach is interdisciplinary and he does not shy away from practical experimentation whether it involves the replication and testing of ancient watercraft or the seeking of insights to such problems as the carving and moving of the moai of Easter Island. Another important facet is that he considers and respects local traditions as potentially valuable sources of historical information (Heyerdahl 1996c). Furthermore, when he initiates archaeological research, he seeks professional field archaeologists to conduct the work and encourages them to come to their own conclusions (Smith 1993). Lastly, Heyerdahls approach is that of an independent thinker who is unafraid to take a stand against the majority if he feels that he is on the correct path.
Despite a lifetime of important and interesting work, Heyerdahl
is not universally appreciated by the archaeological community
today.5 In a summary of a recent book,
a distinguished scholar of Polynesia, wrote that one of the essays
included in the volume "should lay to rest forever the Heyerdahl
impertinence, which sought to persuade Polynesians that their
greatest achievements were not their own, but imports from South
America" (Sutton 1994:243). Robert Langdons response
to the scholars charge of impertinence is worth quoting:
There are some who even group Heyerdahl, because of his non-establishment viewpoints, with the pseudo-scientists and so-called "cult archaeologists" who promote lost continents and ancient visitations by alien astronauts (e.g. Theroux 1992:437; Wauchope 1962:103-114). Such a comparison is patently unfair. Heyerdahls work, although often controversial, is grounded in scientific evidence and constrained by the physical laws of the earth. He can, however, be accused of possessing a belief in human potential including the opinion that humans in the past were intelligent, creative and capable.
One might propose that the distaste for some of Heyerdahls work is symptomatic of a wide anthropological disdain for diffusionist and migrationist ideas partially due to their overuse and abuse as wholesale explanations during the last century and early part of this one (Adams 1978; Fingerhut 1994:169-196; Williams 1991). Both of these concepts, however, unappealing as they may be to some modern scholars, are well-recognized cultural processes that have shaped the course of human history for ages.
Sadder yet are snide comments suggesting some sort of deceit, as exemplified by a letter published not long ago in an important and respected journal dealing with Polynesian archaeology. The cynical writer refers to a recent experimental boat expedition as another example of "the Kon-Tiki con" (Bock 1995:38). In response, I can offer two little known personal facts about Thor Heyerdahl that should be mentioned which speak to his integrity of purpose. First, in the immediate aftermath of the Kon-Tiki expedition and then in the decades that followed, Heyerdahl has turned down what would amount to a very large personal fortune by not accepting a wide variety of commercial endorsements. He never wanted to be accused of doing what he does for monetary gain. Much of his income has been derived from the books he has written and from his expedition films. Furthermore, Heyerdahl has consistently reinvested his earnings back into his archaeological research. The subsequent expeditions to the Galápagos in 1953, Easter Island in 1955/56 and other scientific efforts were personally funded by him with the financial fruits of his earlier work.
I find it curious that books such as Kon-Tiki and Aku-Aku have invited scorn in some scholars, perhaps due to the disdain among some toward the popularization of their discipline, and Heyerdahl has even been accused of widespread dissemination of "misinformation" to the public. Because of his personal popularity and the fact that his books are so widely read, some might claim that the public is generally unaware of the "mainstream views" of Polynesian archaeology.6 To the contrary, one can argue that these well written and exciting books have had a very good effect and no doubt stimulate an interest in Polynesia regardless of whether or not one chooses to accept Heyerdahls views (e.g. Ryan 1997:15-16). I often wonder how many of Heyerdahls detractors were originally attracted to the field of Polynesian research by reading Kon-Tiki, Aku-Aku or perhaps Fatu-Hiva! And how many of them are aware of the numerous scientific publications by Heyerdahl that serve as the scientific foundation behind his popular works? How many have had their attitudes passed on to them by others in lieu of their own independent assessment?
The Kon-Tiki has also survived in popular culture. The name has been applied to all manner of products and services with the apparent intent to connote a sense of adventure or an atmosphere of the South Pacific. In 1997, a search of the name "Kon-Tiki" on the Internet revealed an amazing variety including the following: Scuba diving schools in Thailand and the Philippines; solar power products in Slovenia, a brand of camper caravans and a style of yacht, a travel bureau in Yugoslavia, scouting groups in the Netherlands and South Africa, drinking establishments in the Virgin Islands and Arizona, a resort in Fiji and a hotel in Turkey. These join a long list of poems, songs and even grape varieties named after the Kon-Tiki (Evensberget 1994:101; Jacoby 1968:192). Heyerdahl is not associated with any of these enterprises, and as I noted previously, receives no financial compensation from such.
Although many critics remain, the public and a goodly number of
scholars continue to admire Thor Heyerdahl and his work. Today
he remains one of the most honored and decorated living anthropologists.
In Peru, for example, where his ideas were once scoffed at, he
has recently received his second honorary doctorate from Lima
universities, and the Instituto de Estudios Historico-Maritimos
has proudly published his book on seafaring in early Peru (Heyerdahl
1996a). South American influences in the Pacific are again being
considered with new discoveries in Peru (Heyerdahl 1997; Heyerdahl
et al. 1995, 1996) and human osteological evidence on Easter Island
(e.g. Chapman and Gill 1997). Furthermore, there is a recent
renewal of interest in the idea of a connection between the American
Pacific Northwest and Polynesia.7
Much has changed in archaeology and scholarship since the Kon-Tiki expedition and the writing of American Indians in the Pacific. And although there persists a certain unwillingness by many to consider the idea of American influences in the Pacific, the subject remains, at least in my opinion, sufficiently provocative and viable to keep the door open. It is clear that the final word on the human past in the Pacific and adjacent lands has yet to be written and our ideas may fluctuate for many years to come as new evidence is produced and old evidence is discarded or reconsidered. Through it all, Heyerdahl is convinced that the story of the human past is far richer than we have ever imagined. I must agree. The Pacific Ocean is big enough for a variety of scholars to consider its great and mostly unknown history including ideas involving the Americas, lost caravels (Langdon 1975) and the Lapita (Kirch 1997). While some may choose other approaches to research, they should not deny Heyerdahl his. He has created a unique niche of inquiry and methodology that has contributed mightily to the debate, and it would not surprise me if the ideas and some of the controversy surrounding the Kon-Tiki expedition will persist for at least another 50 years.
* This article can also be found published in: C. Stevenson, G. Lee and F. Morin, ed's.,1998, Easter Island in Pacific Context: Proceedings of the 4th International Conference on Easter Island and East Polynesia. Los Osos: Easter Island Foundation, pp.379-385.
2 Similarly, we find Therouxs unfortunate and ignorant comment, "In a lifetime of nutty theorizing, Heyerdahls single success was his proof, in Kon-Tiki, that six middle-class Scandinavians could successfully crash-land their raft on a coral atoll in the middle of nowhere" (Theroux 1992:455).
3 Exceptions include Terrell (1986:93-106) who takes a multi-hypothesis approach to explaining the pottery in the Galápagos, and Bahn and Flenley (1992:47-48, 54) who although highly critical of the Kon-Tiki expedition and the ideas of Heyerdahl, accept the evidence of pre-European visits to those islands.
4 A fourth book, Easter Island: The Mystery Solved, was published in 1989.
5 The comments of P. Theroux, addressed to a general readership, are especially woeful and unbalanced including ad-hominem commentary and misrepresentations of Heyerdahls ideas. With such statements as: "I have not read a learned article or met a scientist who did not regard Heyerdahl as a nuisance, an obstruction, and a pest." (Theroux 1992:455), it is clear that Mr. Therouxs circle of contacts and his breadth of reading is neither comprehensive nor representative.
6 I have personally heard these views expressed on several occasions.
7 The Kon-Tiki Museum has recently begun an interdisciplinary inquiry into this provocative idea.
8 Heyerdahls environmental concerns and philosophy is best articulated in his book, Green was the Earth on the Seventh Day (1995).
I would like to thank the following individuals and institutions for their assistance and/or support: Dr. Thor Heyerdahl and the staff of the Kon-Tiki Museum; the Division of Humanities, Pacific Lutheran University; Sherry and Samuel Ryan; and Mr. and Mrs. M.D. Schwartz.
Adams, W. Y.
Bahn, P. and J. Flenley
Bisschop, E. de
Bruhns, K. O.
Chapman, P. and G. W. Gill
Fingerhut, E. R.
Finney, B. R.
Heine-Geldern, R. von
Heyerdahl, T. and E. N. Ferdon, Jr. (editors)
Heyerdahl, T., D. H. Sandweiss, and A. Nerves
Heyerdahl, T., D. H. Sandweiss, A. Narváez and L. Milliones
Heyerdahl, T. and A. Skjolsvold
Kirch, P. V.
Lothrop, S. K.
Ryan, D. P.
Skjolsvold, A. (editor)
Smith, C. S.
Sutton, D. G., editor.
Tuthill, L. D., editor.
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