Thor Heyerdahl

Leader of the 'Kon-Tiki' expedition
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The Independent Online

Thor Heyerdahl, anthropologist, archaeologist, explorer and writer: born Larvik, Norway, 6 October 1914; married 1936 Liv Coucheron Torp (two sons; marriage dissolved 1948), 1949 Yvonne Dedekam-Simonsen (three daughters; marriage dissolved), 1995 Jacqueline Beer; died Colla Michari, Italy, 18 April 2002.

Thor Heyerdahl demonstrated again and again that established theories about civilisations and the movement of peoples were not necessarily correct. He defied academic orthodoxy, putting his trust instead in oral tradition and practical experiment.

Heyerdahl's researches in the Pacific in the years following the Second World War convinced him that it was possible that the earliest settlers to reach Polynesia had come from South America sailing on rafts made from balsa. His theories met great resistance but, having overcome both financial difficulties and academic scepticism, on 28 April 1947 he left Peru to test the idea, taking with him five Nordic companions and a parrot. On the raft Kon-Tiki, constructed from nine balsa logs collected from Ecuador, the crew travelled 4,300 miles at the mercy of ocean currents and 101 days later crashed into the Raroia reef in Polynesia.

The expedition attracted enormous popular interest, and an immensely successful book, Kon-Tiki ekspedisjonen, was published in 1948, the English edition, The Kon-Tiki Expedition, following two years later. "After we made the Kon-Tiki expedition," Heyerdahl remembered, "suddenly, all around the world, it was Kon-Tiki everything, Kon-Tiki bars, Kon-Tiki restaurants – even Kon-Tiki matchbooks. It was difficult to know how to react." However, there was a decided lack of interest in the academic world, the trip being described by one eminent Polynesian scholar, Sir Peter Buck, as "a nice adventure. But you don't expect anyone to call that a scientific expedition. Now do you?"

Heyerdahl suffered throughout his life from such rebuffs. It was considered that he embraced too many disciplines, and some seemed envious that he spent time away from his desk on expeditions. He had started his career when academic specialisation was first taking a hold and people began to distrust methods of work which crossed several disciplines. His methods were certainly unorthodox, but Heyerdahl's natural sense of showmanship also alienated many. He was advised to concentrate on Polynesia or America but not to mix the two separate anthropological areas. Heyerdahl was determined to overcome any obstacle in pursuit of his objective, however, and he had the guts to trust his own instinct.

Thor Heyerdahl was born in 1914 in the Norwegian coastal town of Larvik. His love of nature and zoology came from his mother, Alison, whose hero was Charles Darwin and who ran the local museum. A lonely only child, he was greatly influenced by meeting a man who lived in the wild, from whom he learnt survival techniques.

After leaving school he went to the University of Oslo, where he specialised in zoology and geography; there he began to feel that the brain of man was overloaded with material from books and that this, combined with a relentless pursuit of materialism, had made modern man lose his way. He felt that dependency on the media inevitably led to reduced powers of observation – primitive man must have been constantly alert.

Heyerdahl decided that "returning to nature" was the answer and he made a pact with his future wife, Liv, that this was what they would try to do. The day after their wedding in 1936, the couple left for Fatu-Hiva in the Marquesas group of islands in the South Pacific. On arrival Heyerdahl drew delightful maps of their island surrounding and wrote:

We smelt, saw and listened to everything around us as if we were tiny children witnessing nothing but miracles. Rather than feeling poor and naked, we felt rich, as if wrapped in the whole universe. We and everything were part of one entirety.

Part of the work Heyerdahl had planned to do on the island was to research the transoceanic origins of the island's animal life, but he began to think about theories of how the South Pacific peoples had initially reached the islands. He abandoned zoology and began an intensive study of the origins of the Polynesian race and culture; he observed the ocean currents and became convinced that the islanders could have come from the east, from the Americas. His expanded theory was later published as the book American Indians in the Pacific (1952).

During his time on Fatu-Hiva he wrote:

Living with nature was far more convincing than any biological textbook in illustrating the fact that the life-cycles of all living creatures are interdependent

but he also concluded,

We were sure then, and I still am, that the only place where it is possible to find nature as it always was is within man itself. There it is, unchanged now as always.

Thor and Liv Heyerdahl left after what seems to have been an idyllic year on the island, and, at the beginning of the Second World War, Heyerdahl abandoned his researches and returned to Norway, where he volunteered for active service in the Free Norwegian Army Airforce parachute unit. His book Fatu-Hiva: Back to Nature was not published until 1974.

After the Kon-Tiki expedition Thor and Liv Heyerdahl were divorced amicably and in 1949 he married Yvonne Dedekam- Simonsen (described by Liv as "an angel"). In 1952 Heyerdahl led the Norwegian Archaeological Expedition to the Galapagos, and investigated the pre-Columbian habitation sites there, finding pre-Incan artefacts. In 1955 he arrived on Easter Island with a team of 23 people and began the first sub-surface archaeological excavations there, in an attempt to work out first how the colossal statues had been carved, secondly how they had been moved and thirdly how they had been raised to an upright position.

He got the Mayor of Easter Island and other "long ear" descendants (tradition had it that the carvers were long-eared, and the statues themselves had distinctly long ears) to begin carving a statue. They calculated that, with two teams, each of six people, working full-time, each statue would have taken a year to complete. There are more than 400 statues on the island. The carbon dating they carried out showed that Easter Island had been occupied from about AD380, much earlier than had been previously thought; legend recounted that the people had come from the East and some of the carvings were similar to Peruvian carvings. During his time on Easter Island, Heyerdahl kept a diary which was later published as Aku-Aku: the Secret of Easter Island (1958).

The next big expedition was in 1970; Heyerdahl believed that there was a link between the cultures of central America and those which had developed on the Nile, the Euphrates and in the Indus Valley. He had been struck by the similarities between the reed boats depicted on the wall paintings in the Valley of the Kings and those he had seen on ceramic pots in northern Peru. He got Indians from Bolivia to come to Egypt to help build a reed boat, Ra, with 280,000 reeds brought from Lake Tana in the Ethiopian highlands.

Typically, Heyerdahl wanted this to be a truly international venture and, amid much scepticism, the international crew of seven set out in the 15-metre reed boat, from Safi in Morocco across the Atlantic towards Barbados. The expedition had to be abandoned after 5,000km and 56 days, one week short of Barbados. Heyerdahl had been horrified by the pollution in the Atlantic, but was determined to try again.

He built a new boat, Ra 2, which crossed successfully from Safi to Barbados in 57 days, abolishing the theory that no boat could have crossed the Atlantic pre-Columbus. The Ra Expeditions was published in 1971. Heyerdahl believed:

We have been blindfolded too long by the European attitude that everything began with us. In reality, many great civilisations throughout the world terminated with our arrival.

The Tigris Expedition: in Search of Our Beginnings (1980) is an account of Heyerdahl's journey to find out whether the world's oldest civilisations have a common source. He believed that "somewhere along the way modern man has gone wrong by failing to acknowledge the huge difference between progress and civilisation". He built a boat from reeds grown in the marshes of Iraq and embarked at Basra in southern Iraq, uncertain as to the route he would take. He sailed down the Persian Gulf to Muscat, across the Arabian Sea to Karachi, and back across the Indian Ocean to Djibouti, where he and his crew were refused permission to go any farther for "security reasons".

Heyerdahl decided to give the Tigris a symbolic end and sent a message to the UN which said:

Today we are burning our proud ship with full sails, and the rigging and hull in perfect condition, as a protest against the inhuman elements of this 1978 world of ours. Our planet is larger than the bundles of reeds that bore us across the sea, but still small enough to risk the same threats, unless those of us living acknowledge that there is a desperate need for intelligent co-operation if we are to save ourselves and our common civilisation from what we are turning into a sinking ship.

Despite its dramatic end, the expedition proved the possibility that the civilisations in Egypt, Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley, which sprang up almost simultaneously and which shared all of man's major inventions, could have been linked and could have inspired each other.

In 1982 Heyerdahl went to the Maldives, where he found a statue of a head which could have been Buddhist and which reminded him of the statues on Easter Island. Could the Buddhists have been in the Maldives before the arrival of Islam in 1153? The Maldive Mystery was published in 1986.

In 1990 Heyerdahl started to build himself a traditional adobe-back house near Túcume in north-west Peru. Túcume was not on any map and had not been excavated. He led a joint archaeological venture between the Kon-Tiki Museum in Oslo and the National Institute of Culture in Peru, and the resulting book, The Pyramids of Túcume, was published in 1995. He maintained a sense of wonderment that

on this marvellous planet, where beasts and mankind have lived and left their traces for millions of years, it is still possible to locate unmapped temple cities and capitals of lost civilisations merely by island-hopping among the atolls of the Maldives or by taking a short walk away from the Panamanian highway.

Heyerdahl thought laterally and saw links everywhere. He did not see rivalry between man and man as the greatest threat to human survival, but saw as a far greater threat the war that man is waging on the environment. He was also concerned about what would happen in the future if there were natural calamities such as drought or flood. In the past, people might have migrated, but if disasters happened today the movement of peoples would be blocked by the artificial frontiers of the modern world. Heyerdahl was a true internationalist; he never felt homesick as he considered himself at home wherever he happened to be.

Thor Heyerdahl was awarded the Mungo Park Medal by the Scottish Royal Geographical Society in 1951, he was a trustee of the World Wildlife Fund from 1977, a member of the Royal Norwegian Academy of Science and a Fellow of the New York Academy of Science, and was given many other awards and honours during his life, from Morocco, Russia, Peru, Italy, France, Sweden and the United States. In 1970 he was made a commander of the Knights of Malta.

Interviewed on the publication of a volume of autobiography, In the Footsteps of Adam (2000), Heyerdahl said:

I've never had the feeling that there's any positive consensus of opinion about me – I've been represented as a sort of tough sailor who's basically an ignorant madman. Perhaps if things had not gone the way they did, if I had not been able to prove my hypothesis, I would be bitter.

But it left me with a conviction that there's something wrong with science. So much information is available nowadays that to make any forward progress you are forced to specialise, and any attempt at an overview is deemed impossible, and scorned. Whereas I've always searched for correspondences. My real sadness is for the thousands of young people who are crushed by scientific orthodoxies before they even get a chance to advance their own ideas.

Sarah Anderson