The life and legacy of an explorer, scholar and world citizen.*

by: Donald P. Ryan


In every age, there appear unique talented individuals who seem to live their life more boldly, more thoughtfully and more fully than most. They inspire others to be great and they set the standard for positive human achievement. Thor Heyerdahl the explorer, ethnologist, archaeologist, philosopher, environmentalist and author is one such individual. Born in Larvik, Norway in the year 1914, he developed a profound interest in the environment and exploration even at an early age, interests which have shaped a long life of research and discovery. As a student, he attended the University of Oslo where he studied biology with a particular interest in island biogeography. His first major adventure began immediately after graduation when he departed from Norway with his young bride to be left for a year on a remote island in the Pacific. It was on Fatu Hiva in the Marquesas Islands that Heyerdahl became thoroughly entranced with the human aspects of island colonization.

The legends of the islanders, stone statues in the jungle, along with the prevailing ocean currents and wind convinced him that there was a greater cultural dimension to Polynesian prehistory than the East Asian source usually cited. Contrary to prevailing scientific thought, he proposed that the Americas may have played a role in the colonization of Polynesia. Despite the detailed scholarly development of his ideas, his notions were not readily accepted by the anthropological establishment of his day. For one thing, they argued, the early South Americans had no sea vessels capable of carrying out long journeys in the Pacific necessary to reach the islands. But they had balsa rafts, responded Heyerdahl with historical and archaeological evidence, and he set out to prove the seaworthiness of this kind of so-called primitive watercraft in a bold and brilliant exercise in experimental archaeology. He, a landlubber who could barely swim, would build a replica of such a vessel and launch himself into the currents of the Pacific. Thus was born the famous Kon-Tiki expedition. With a crew of four other Norwegians and a Swede, the raft readily survived a voyage from the coast of Peru to Polynesia. Heyerdahl, of course, clearly recognized that the expedition itself did not prove that ancient South Americans visited the South Pacific, but it did open a few scholarly eyes to the possibilities and proved a shock to scientific complacency. The book and film about the voyage made Thor Heyerdahl a household name.

In the aftermath of the Kon-Tiki expedition, Heyerdahl directed an archaeological expedition to the Galapagos Islands where he found definitive proof of prehistoric visitation by South American voyagers. A subsequent scientific expedition to Easter Island revealed many of the secrets of that mysterious place and would lay the foundation for all subsequent archaeological work there. In the meantime, Heyerdahl continued to write both scientific and popular works and actively debated the merits of his ideas at scholarly gatherings worldwide.

Apart from balsa rafts, Heyerdahl also noted that there were other kinds of ancient watercraft whose capabilities were woefully underestimated. The reed boat, with its broad ancient international distribution, particularly caught his attention. In 1969 and 1970, he tested the seaworthiness of the reed boat with his RA Expeditions. RA II, built of bundles of papyrus by native South American boat builders, was successful in crossing the Atlantic Ocean from Africa to the New World, thus once again disturbing the critics who prefer to think of earlier peoples as fearful of the ocean and lacking in technology. A few years later, Heyerdahl would build yet another reed boat, this time in the manner of the ancient Sumerians. In this boat named Tigris, he would navigate from the Persian Gulf and into the Indian Ocean to the Indus Valley and back to the Red Sea. On each of these reed boat voyages, Heyerdahl insisted that his crew be a mix of races, religions and national identities as successful experiments in international cooperation. He also noted the deteriorating state of the world’s oceans and called public attention to global pollution. During the 1980’s and ‘90’s , Heyerdahl conducted research in the Maldives Islands in the Indian Ocean, returned to Easter for additional excavations and initiated an archaeological project in Peru that has produced what may be the conclusive link between South America and Easter Island.

Thor Heyerdahl remains to this day a very controversial figure. Throughout his career he has defended with resiliency his unorthodox views which are heretical to many mainstream archaeologists. Nonetheless, the implications of his excavations and successful experimental voyages cannot be readily dismissed by any open-minded scholar. As of this writing, Thor Heyerdahl is eighty-two years old. He is physically fit, mentally acute, and maintains an active schedule that would break the will of many people half his age. His work is by no means complete as he continues to write, travel, lecture and plan further expeditions.

Kon-Tiki and I.

I shall briefly mention my own early involvement with Thor Heyerdahl. I first met Heyerdahl "on the Kon-Tiki". At the tender age of around eight, I was the "youngest member" of the expedition. The voyage was splendid and the adventures were many. But it seemed that every time we were once again about to encounter the giant whale shark, or another school of flying fish were flinging themselves aboard the raft, my mother’s voice calling me to dinner would snap me back to reality, and the great Pacific Ocean would revert to a sea of grass in the backyard, and my home-made Kon-Tiki raft would dissolve back into a crudely made platform of scrap lumber. I have no doubts that many other such rafts have been and continue to be built all over the world, for one of the great legacies of Thor Heyerdahl is that of inspiration. His books have compelled countless numbers to question, to dream, and to explore.

The thoughts and adventures of Thor Heyerdahl inspired my own career in archaeology. My initial reading of Kon-Tiki was quickly followed by Aku-Aku and later by the Ra Expeditions. As my scholarly abilities developed, I was able to read the scientific justifications behind Heyerdahl’s expeditions in such works as American Indians in the Pacific, Early Man and the Ocean, along with his excavation reports. Though my own work has concentrated primarily on the ancient civilization of Egypt, the intellectual tutelage of Heyerdahl compelled me to think in different ways, to defy conventionality if necessary, and to ignore the defeatist attitudes of nay-sayers.

As a member of the Explorers Club, I am eligible to petition for the privilege of carrying the Club’s flag on expeditions. I have done so several times and on my very first expedition to excavate tombs in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt, I was thrilled to bring along No. 123, the very flag that had flown from the mast of the Kon-Tiki and was subsequently carried by Heyerdahl on his original expedition to Easter Island. This fading piece of cloth was treated with both respect and admiration, for here was a physical and symbolic link with the greatness of past explorers and expeditions, and a stimulus to uphold high standards for future generations.

It had long been a dream of mine to meet the man who had played such an inspirational role in my life and it happened quite by accident just a few years ago. I was leaving the library of the Royal Geographical Society in London after a day of research when Heyerdahl entered the building with a throng of well-wishers and hosts. Pushing my way through the crowd, I introduced myself and he generously spent a half hour of his time in private conversation with me during which we discovered much of common interest. He eventually invited me to work with him, a profoundly interesting opportunity which I continue to enjoy. Here was a chance to observe and to learn from one of the great individuals of the 20th century. I admit that I had fears that my boyhood hero would not live up to his super, almost mythical image. I was pleasantly relieved to find in Heyerdahl an authentic and well-balanced modern renaissance man: a dedicated, joyful and unselfish man with an abiding curiosity about this planet’s past and a sincere concern about it present and future; warm, generous, naturally charismatic and with a charming sense of humor.

Beyond Exploration.

In Scandinavia and elsewhere, Thor Heyerdahl is revered as an example of many of the highest of human qualities: courage, strength, intelligence, creativity, humility and compassion. He is the confidant of world leaders and at the same time, perfectly at home in the simplest of villages anywhere in the world. Despite his extraordinary accomplishments, he sees himself as an ordinary man and it is clear to me that even fifty years after the Kon-Tiki expedition, he remains slightly embarrassed if not perplexed by his celebrity. Resigned to this unintended role, he has accepted his public responsibilities with dignity.

In his writings, Heyerdahl has emphasized the unity of all human beings and other living things on this planet and he has become an advocate of international cooperation and a spokesman for global environmental issues. Biographer Christopher Ralling wrote,
"Apart from heads of state, I doubt if there is another man on earth who would find it so easy, if he chose, to travel the world without a passport. It is not just that Thor Heyerdahl is known and admired almost everywhere, by schoolchildren and scientists alike; in some unidentifiable way he actually seems to have become a citizen of the world." 1

During October 1996, Heyerdahl was presented the President’s Award of Pacific Lutheran University by Dr. Loren Anderson. David Yagow’s poetic citation for this award in many ways captures Heyerdahl’s role as an explorer and citizen of the world:

"From his first venture aboard the raft Kon-Tiki in 1947 to his most recent expeditions to preserve and protect the environment, especially the world’s oceans, Thor Heyerdahl has dedicated himself and his enterprise to exploration, not exploitation. By venturing out to sea, he followed the urge toward the unfathomable and devoted his life to penetrating what he himself called ‘the mists of antiquity’…and recaptured for all who read his books or saw his films a sense of awe and appreciation for what has preceded us. Though honored with scientific awards, academic recognitions, and more gold medals than any Olympian, Thor Heyerdahl has not rested on his laurels or his national decorations, but has consistently challenged his colleagues and contemporaries to recognize the achievements of the prehistoric past, as well as the unity of human beings and all other living things on our planet."

In a world seemingly lacking in credible living role-models, Heyerdahl stands high and his positive influence already spans several generations. His greater message encourages us to think great thoughts, to dream and to act, and to care for our planet and its inhabitants. As a modern explorer, he takes his place next to many of the greatest.

* This article can also be found published in: The Explorers Journal 75(1) [1997]:14-16.

1 Christopher Ralling, 1990, The Kon-Tiki Man. pp.323-324.

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