Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Adventure classics -- Six men & a bird at sea

Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific by Raft

by Thor Heyerdahl


Where do you go when all other options disappear? Luckily for the history of adventure literature, many people at the end of their rope choose to run away to sea. Would Thor Heyerdahl have taken to sea on a raft of millennial-old design if he hadn’t been out of money, estranged from his wife, and desperate to prove he wasn’t just another young man who’d come to America full of crackpot ideas? In his case, the idea that the South Pacific Islands of Polynesia were colonized by South American natives.

Hoping to prove himself as a scientist and desperate for funds to support his growing family, in Kon-Tiki Heyerdahl describes the reception of a manuscript describing his idea by Brooklyn Museum director Dr. Herbert Spinden.

“‘It’s quite true that South America was the home of some of the most curious civilizations of antiquity,’ (Spinden) said, “. . . But one thing we do know for certain -- that none of the peoples of South America got over to the islands in the Pacific. Do you know why? The answer’s simple enough. They couldn’t get there. They had no boats!’”

“‘They had rafts,’ I objected hesitatingly. ‘You know, balsa-wood rafts.’

“The old man smiled and said calmly: ‘Well, you can try a trip from Peru to the Pacific Islands on a balsa-wood raft.’”

In his book, Heyerdahl tactfully omits naming Dr. Spinden, who probably rued his words.

Heyerdahl scraped up enough backing, including funding from the U.S. Army for tests of equipment, to build his raft from balsa-wood logs. With four fellow Norwegians, Herman Watzinger, Erik Hesselberg, Knut Haugland and Torstein Raaby, and lone Swede Bengt Danielsson, the raft named for ancient Peruvian sun god Kon-Tiki set sail in April 1947.  Just before sailing, they acquired the seventh, and most popular crew member, a Spanish-speaking parrot they named Lorita.

In Kon-Tiki Man: An Illustrated Biography of Thor Heyerdahl, writer Christopher Ralling speculates that the crew members joined Heyerdahl less from a desire to solve the mysteries of the Pacific than because they found peacetime dull after the excitement of the war.

One hundred and one days and 4,300 nautical miles, and surprisingly few mishaps later, they rode the Kon-Tiki ashore, shredded to remnants by an atoll surrounding the island where they landed.

The voyage itself didn’t prove Heyerdahl’s migration theory, and overwhelming scientific evidence still points to Asia rather than South America as the homeland of the Polynesians. But in 2011, a scrap of justification for Heyerdahl’s theory surfaced, when New Scientist reports a few inhabitants of the South Pacific’s Easter Island were found to carry genes only found previously in Native American populations.

Had there been a prehistoric Kon-Tiki type voyage? The answer is a resounding “maybe.”
"Heyerdahl was wrong,” reports Erik Thorsby of the University of Oslo, “but not completely.” (See the article at

(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics continues a month of adventures at sea with Rafael Sabatini’s pirate adventure, Captain Blood.)

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