By Donald P. Ryan**

     Thor Heyerdahl is probably the best-known proponant of the idea of human travel and cultural exchange across the oceans in ancient times. The work of Heyerdahl first came to worldwide attention in 1947 with his Kon-Tiki expedition. This serious and successful experiment with a replicated ancient South American balsa raft demonstrated the practical feasibility of pre-Columbian contacts across the Pacific to Polynesia.1 In 1970, Heyerdahl built a replica of an ancient reed ship and with an international crew of six, managed to easily cross the Atlantic Ocean from the coast of North Africa to the New World. Following the winds and currents, this journey from the port of Safi in Morocco to Barbados took less than two months. In the academic world, there was,and is, great skepticism and some profound misunderstandings regarding the underlying thesis and the perceived results of this work. The purpose of this article is to illuminate the intent and conclusions of the Heyerdahl experimental reed boat expeditions.

     From the earliest time of Western post-Columbian exploration of the New World, there has been continuous speculation about the origins of the native civilizations in North, Central and South America. Noting the existence of temples and palaces of finely-cut stone and superb architectural design, along with other sophisticated manifestations of material culture, the explorers and generations of their successors found it difficult to reconcile the populations they decimated with the incredible remains of complex societies. Survivors from lost continents, settlers from Biblical lands and mass migrations from the Old World were not uncommon explanations.2

 Left: "The Nunnery", a Mayan structure at Chichen Itza, Mexico as drawn by Frederick Catherwood, mid-19th century.

      Today, quite the opposite extreme is the prevailing anthropological orthodox dogma, that is, that the indigenous peoples of the New World were solely responsible for the development of their complex cultures. No outside assistance or inspiration was necessary, as the peoples found there were as equally capable of cultural sophistication as the civilizations found in Asia or the West. Indeed, as is typically asserted today, it is an insult to suggest otherwise; and in academia, such ideas of foreign visitors to the New World prior to Columbus are considered heresy.3 The sole exception allowed is one lonely and remote Viking outpost discovered and excavated in Newfoundland in the 1960's.4

     Along with this " politically correct" and protective view is the ironic belief by many that the oceans posed nearly insurmountable barriers to and from the Old World civilizations prior to the Vikings or Columbus in their wooden boats. There is, however, a significant corpus of provocative data which suggests that quite the opposite is true and that the New World may have entertained a number of visitors from abroad in ancient times.5 Numerous cultural parallels exist between the civilizations on the continents including a complex variety of elements of style which are not tied to function and therefore are not as readily conducive to independent invention. There should be nothing shameful in this notion of human borrowing and adaptation, or "diffusion" as it is usually termed. America is a perfect example of such a cultural process constantly at work in a modern society.

Left: An unexpected face in the New World; evidence of Old World contacts? Low relief carved on back of Precolumbian stone mirror from Veracruz, Mexico.
Photo: American Museum of Natural History

     In the New World, human physical varieties depicted in some pre-Columbian art, too, for example, dramatically cause one to ponder the possibilities. There are also numerous other parallels in terms of cultural beliefs and practices, architecture and occasionally even linguistics. In short, there is enough evidence to at least suggest to the open-minded scholar the possibility that the New World did not necessarily survive in isolation for thousands of years. It is all very difficult to prove conclusively, however, especially given that the evidence might survive only indirectly through the cultural modification of borrowed ideas, or through myths and oral history, or from an occasional object discovered outside of a controlled archaeological context. An original intact and uncontaminated foreign archaeological site in the New World might prove convincing to some, although the discovery of such is a veritable needle in a haystack.6 One can, though, build an argument and develop at thesis in terms of possibility, plausibility and probability.

Right: Another unexpected face. Bearded ceramic head of pre-Columbian origin from Rio Balsas, Guerrero, Mexico.
Photo: American Museum of Natural History

    Thor Heyerdahl has long been interested in the history of early seafaring and has advocated that the oceans, far from being obstacles, could and can be safely crossed on relatively simple watercraft by following the natural conveyances of the winds and currents. As previously mentioned, his Kon-Tiki Expedition addressed the possibility of an early South American presence in the Pacific. But what of Old World/New World contacts? In exploring this question, Heyerdahl noted the widespread international distribution of a certain type of watercraft, boats made from reeds. Such boats could be easily manufactured and appeared capable of remaining solid and buoyant over an extended period of time. They were utilized not only in the Old World, but in North, Central and South Americas as well and also in the Pacific in such places as Easter Island and New Zealand. In a few places in the world they are still in use today such as in the lakes of central Africa and on Lake Titicaca in Bolivia.   

Left: Contemporary reed boats and boatmen on Lake Chad, Chad, Africa. Right: Aymara reed boat builders at Lake Titicaca, Bolivia, South America.

      There is also plenty of evidence, especially from the Near East, that reed boats were widely used in ancient times. Reed boats and reed boats illustrations have been found throughout the Mediterranean from Mesopotamia, Egypt, the coasts of present-day Syria, Lebanon and Israel, Cyprus, Crete, Corfu, Malta, Italy, Sardinia, Libya, Algeria, and out through the straits of Gibraltar to the Atlantic coast of Morocco and Spain.7 Reed boats are even mentioned in the Bible.8 This is not to suggest that all in the world who used the reed boat were in contact; but the existence and practical use of such vehicles provides a tool for travel, and therefore the means for possible interactions with others. Given this ancient use of the reed boat, Heyerdahl designed a practical experiment to test the ocean seaworthiness of this sort of vessel. He would create a working replica of a reed ship and attempt to cross the Atlantic.

Examples of pre-Dynastic Egyptian rock art depicting what appear to be large reed boats including some with sails. (After: B. Landström, Ships of the Pharaohs, [1972] p.16. Right: Mythological scene from a painted Chimu (Peru) pot depicting double-decked reed boats (From: H. Leight, Indianische Kunst und Kulture: Ein Jahrtausend im Reiche der Chimu, [1944].


     In planning his vessel, Heyerdahl examined representations of reed boats as found depicted in Egyptian predynastic rock and ceramic art, and from pharaonic tomb art and models.9 As a result, features such as an upturned prow and stern and a bipod mast were incorporated in the design. A cabin and steering oars were also added. The boat was constructed by a small crew from Central Africa who had experience building smaller vessels of papyrus for use on their native Lake Chad. When completed, the boat was then transported to the Moroccan port of Safi where it was christened "Ra". The name "Ra" was chosen to symbolize the solar worship predominate in many ancient civilizations. Even the name "Ra" itself survives as the name of the sun god across the oceans in certain areas, including in the Pacific.10

     After launching, the Ra experienced some anxious moments as it traversed the African coast but once far out at sea, the ship proved exceptionally capable of handling the elements. Papyrus experts such as Hassan Ragab of the "Ragab Papyrus Institute" predicted that the Ra would sink in several weeks, yet the ship remained afloat.11 The natural buoyancy of the reeds, and the wash-through nature of its decks allowed the ship to ride the waves as comfortably as a duck on a lake. A decision to cut what proved to be a crucial line between the prow and the deck caused the stern to sink and the ship to increasingly list to one side. After almost two months afloat, and with a hurricane approaching, the Ra was abandoned at sea frustratingly short close to its goal, still floating but nearly uninhabitable.

  The reed ship RA I.

Heyerdahl, however, was not discouraged. A year later, with valuable lessons learned, an improved design, and with the assistance of reed boat builders from South America, Ra II sailed forth from Safi and this time successfully crossed the Atlantic in 57 days.After its voyage, the ship remained seaworthy and intact without a single reed being lost.

Apart from the practical experimentation, the Ra Expeditions served as a symbolic gesture of international harmony, with its diverse crew flying under the United Nations flag.

 The reed ship Ra II.

The expeditions were also instrumental in calling attention to the incredible pollution encountered in the ocean. The actual details of the expeditions are chronicled in Heyerdahl's book "The Ra Expeditions" and a documentary film.12 In 1977, Heyerdahl would build yet one more reed boat, this time a large ship named the Tigris which he successfully navigated from Iraq through the Persian Gulf, into the Indian Ocean to Pakistan, and then across to the Red Sea. After five months, the Tigris was still seaworthy.13 The voyage demonstrated the feasibility of contact between at least three major centers of ancient civilization: Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley and Egypt.

    There have been a few common misconceptions by some about the Ra Expeditions. Perhaps the most erroneous is the assertion that these expeditions were designed to prove that the ancient Egyptians were somehow directly involved in the building of Mayan pyramids. This is obviously utterly untenable, especially given the great disparity of time in the construction of these monuments. To be taken seriously, arguments for ancient contacts must not contain such obvious chronological incongruities. The existence of much earlier, large pyramid structures in both the Old and New Worlds does, however, pose provocative questions.

     Another misunderstanding is that Heyerdahl was suggesting that the Egyptians were traveling the world in giant reed boats and spreading their special brand of culture everywhere they went. The usual limits of Egyptian seafaring are well-recognized with most ships plying the Nile, the Eastern Mediterranean and occasional forays down the Red Sea. There is little to suggest that the Egyptians themselves were great ocean navigators in Pharaonic times.14

The reed ship Tigris.

     The fact that the Ra vessels were greatly inspired by Egyptian designs has also added to the confusion of some. Why the predominantly Egyptian design? Because it is in Egypt that there is a relative abundance of surviving depictions of such boats with sufficient detail to serve as the basis for a modern replica. Tomb art and an occasional model from Dynastic times provide some details, albeit of small size primarily for river use. The idea that much larger reed boats were in use at one time is, as previously stated, promoted by pre-Dynastic rock art and ceramic motifs and also by surviving features evident on later papyriform wooden ships including the so-called solar boat of Cheops excavated at Giza.15

     What did the Ra Expeditions prove? Did it actually prove that the Egyptians or some other group of travelers with reed boats reached the Americas in ancient times? Of course not. What it did though, was to demonstrate that boats of this sort, with a wide ancient international distribution, were certainly capable and seaworthy, thus putting a damper on the notion that ancient people did not have the means to cross the oceans. One could argue that in terms of survivability, the reed boat is equal, if not better, to most any boat used by Europeans during the early centuries of exploration.

     The expedition's success also diminished the notion of the oceans as great barriers. The oceans are, in fact, often quite friendly to even the simplest of craft, as has been demonstrated over and over again. Accidentally or intentionally, the winds and currents can carry a vessel readily across.16 In short, although the Ra Expeditions in several ways reflected Egyptian themes, the project was not specifically Egyptological in nature, but relied on a great deal of ancient Egyptian inspiration to construct and explore the parameters of a model of a kind of ship which sailed the seas in the past. As such, the Ra Expeditions, like the Kon-Tiki before it, served as classic examples of experimental archaeology.

     It is sad that an exciting subject such as possible intercontinental contacts in ancient times has received such a poor reception in the scholarly community. Extremists who claim ancient Old World inscriptions on seemingly every oddly scratched stone in the Americas, or who call upon extraterrestrials to account for the achievements of the ancients, have spoiled what should be legitimate inquiry. So too, the enthusiastic theoretical abuses of the super-migrationists and hyper-diffusionists of the 18th and 19th centuries have taken their toll. Rather than throwing out the baby with the bath water, so to speak, there is some middle ground that should be able to be addressed that sees the oceans as neither barriers nor skating rinks, that sees people as both creative and capable of influence and adaptation, and that takes into account the provocative clues found in the New World and elsewhere and soberly considers their veracity and implications. The pursuit of these matters requires, of course, a multi-faceted interdisciplinary approach. The reed boat expeditions conducted by Heyerdahl have added a new dimension to the exploration of these questions, and add fuel for thought about certain aspects of ancient world history that we know little or nothing about.

*A version of this paper was originally presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Research Center in Egypt, Ann Arbor, Michigan, April 1997.

**Donald P. Ryan, Ph.D., Division of Humanities, Pacific Lutheran University, Tacoma, Washington, USA


I would like to thank Thor Heyerdahl and the Board, Director and Staff of the Kon-Tiki Museum for encouraging and facilitating my work on this subject.


1 Thor Heyerdahl, Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific by Raft, (1950), Rand McNally, New York.
2 Many of these speculative extremes are critiqued (perhaps too harshly) in: Stephen Williams, Fantastic Archaeology: The Wild Side of North American Prehistory, 1991, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.
3 Alice Kehoe describes the subject as "the taboo topic"in The Land of Prehistory, (1998), Routledge, New York, pp.190-207.
4 Anne Stine Ingstad, The Discovery of a Norse Settlement in America, (1977), Universitetsforlaget, Oslo.
5 The vast literature on the subject can be examined in the impressive compilation of John Sorenson and Martin H. Raich: Pre-Columbian Contact with the Americas: An Annotated Bibliography, (1996), Research Press, Provo. A nice summary of the various issues involved can be found in Eugene Fingerhut, (1994) Explorers of Pre-Columbian America? The Diffusionist-Inventionist Controversy, Regina, Claremont.
6 Recently, a small terracotta head of distinct Roman style has been seriously considered as possible evidence of Old/ New World contact. The head was found in 1933 in an archaeological excavation in Central Mexico. See; Romeo Hristov and Santiago Genovés, "Mesoamerican evidence of Pre-Columbian transoceanic contacts." Ancient Mesoamerica 10 (1999):207-213.
7 The distribution and utility of reed boats is discussed in: Thor Heyerdahl, Early Man and the Ocean, (1979), Doubleday, Garden City, pp.3-26.
8 Isaiah 18:1-2, "Ah, land of whirring wings which is beyond the rivers of Ethiopia; which sends ambassadors by the Nile, in vessels of papyrus upon the waters!" Revised Standard Version.
9 Björn Landström, Ships of the Pharaohs, (1970), Allen & Unwin, London.
10 A discussion of the word "Ra" in the Pacific region is found in: Thor Heyerdahl, American Indians in the Pacific, (1952), Rand McNally, New York, pp.149, 731-732.
11 Hassan Ragab's papyrus water absorbancy experiments and comments can be found in his book, Le Papyrus, (1980), Dr. Ragab Papyrus Institute, Cairo, pp.173-184.
12 Thor Heyerdahl, The Ra Expeditions, (1971), Doubleday, Garden City; "The Voyage of Ra II", National Geographic, (Jan. 1971 pp.44-71); Juri Senkewitsch, Mit dem Papyrusboot über den Atlantik, 1978, Brockhaus Verlag, Leipzig; Barbara Murphy and Norman Baker, Thor Heyerdahl and the Reed Boat Ra, (1974), J.B. Lippincott, New York.
13 Thor Heyerdahl, The Tigris Expedition, (1981), Doubleday, Garden City.
14 Ra Expeditions crew member Norman Baker addresses some of these persistent misunderstandings in: "Target Thor Heyerdahl." (1997) The Explorers Journal 75(1):17-18.
15 Mohammad Z. Nour et al, The Cheops Boats, (1960), Antiquities Department of Egypt, Cairo.
16 The ease of which small vessels have crossed the oceans has been documented by Alice Kehoe: "Small boats across the Atlantic", in, Carroll L. Riley et al, Man Across the Sea: Problems of Pre-Columbian Contacts, (1971), University of Texas, Austin; The Land of Prehistory, (1998), Routledge, New York, pp.198-203).

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