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The Kon-Tiki Expedition

The Kon-Tiki Expedition
One of the greatest sea voyages in history, Ragnar Kvam jr (Thor Heyerdahl`s biography)
The Book is for sale in the museum shop.

The members of the Scientific Committee of the National Geographic Society (NGS) called it a suicide mission. Attempting to cross the enormous Pacific Ocean on a primitive raft, made of a few balsa logs bound together, was unheard of and could only end in disaster, believed the experts. And since the prestigious American organisation did not regard it as its job to encourage suicide, the committee refused to agree to provide the financial support the society’s president had originally promised Thor Heyerdahl.

However, there was another reason why National Geographic withdrew from the project. Was it not the case that this Heyerdahl, who apparently no one had ever heard off, claimed that Polynesia was populated from South America, and not from areas of South East Asia, like most researchers believed? The NGS preferred not to challenge conventional scientific wisdom and the committee therefore thought that it would be unwise to support an expedition based on such a controversial theory.

Naturally, Thor Heyerdahl was disappointed at being given the cold shoulder by the NGS, not least because it also caused other potential sponsors to withdraw their support. But he did not allow himself to be derailed. He went at the task he had set himself hammer and tongs, and after six months of intense preparations he was able set sail on the prehistoric craft he had named Kon-Tiki, after the sun god.

He left the Peruvian port of Callao with a five man crew on 28 April 1947 with a course for the islands of French Polynesia. Heyerdahl wanted to prove the scientific world wrong with some experimental archaeology. He wanted to show that the researchers he disparagingly referred to as armchair researchers had based their conclusions on dogma and not actual work.

Even though the practical plans for the Kon-Tiki expedition had been made at a record pace, the project had in fact matured over many years. Christmas Eve, 1936, is an appropriate point to start the story of Kon-Tiki. On that day, the 22-year-old Thor Heyerdahl from Larvik married a woman two years younger than him from Brevik called Liv. The very next day, Christmas Day, they set out on a journey that would take them half way around the world to Fatu Hiva, one of the Marquesas Islands, the archipelago farthest to the north in French Polynesia. On this island the newly-weds would find their way back to nature, as Thor put it. They envisaged a life in paradise under the palm crowns, away from the hassle of civilisation and the technological developments the young Heyerdahl believed threatened both nature and humanity.

After completing his final upper secondary exams, Thor read zoology and geography at the University of Oslo. When he left to travel to Fatu Hiva, a professor asked him to study how the animal life on this geologically young volcanic island had developed since it rose up, barren, from the sea.

But then one day, deep in the tropical forest that covered the island, he became aware of a figure carved into stone, a petroglyph. It depicted a fish and there was no doubt that it had once been carved by a person. But by whom?

An old man, who in his youth had eaten human flesh and was referred to as the island’s last cannibal, had some information. His name was Tei Tetua and he lived isolated from the rest of the island’s inhabitants. He told Thor and Liv that it was Tiki, the creator of all things, who had carried the first people over the sea. From where? Thor wanted to know. From there, said the old man point across the sea towards the horizon, from where the sun rose.

From the East. From the Americas?

During their stay on Fatu Hiva, Thor and Liv noticed that there was always an easterly wind, and from his geography studies Thor knew that the ocean currents also moved in that direction, that they ran like wide rivers from east to west. So what could be more natural to think than that people had also arrived this way, drifting with the weather and wind, like Tei Tetua said? Heyerdahl’s theory that the first Polynesians had sailed across the ocean from South America was based on looking at the meteorological forces and the old man’s legend of Tiki together.

It was a theory that established science immediately rejected. The researchers said that South American Indians did not have boats, ships or other craft that were capable of completing such a long ocean voyage. But they had balsa rafts, protested Heyerdahl, who had studied the Spanish chroniclers’ descriptions of these rafts from when the Spanish - the so-called Conquistadors - conquered the realm of the Incas in the 1500s. Yes, replied the researchers, but balsa is a porous wood that absorbs water and rafts constructed from balsa would sink after just 14 days. To Heyerdahl this was another of dogmatic claim since there was no empirical basis for it; no researcher had ever tested the buoyancy of balsa rafts in practice. When Heyerdahl hoisted the sail on Kon-Tiki, it was to challenge this dogma and at the same time obtain scientific evidence that would support his theory.

The departure from Callao was full of pomp and ceremony. Crowds of people filled the flag bedecked quayside, brass bands played, and right at the front stood representatives of Peru and the diplomatic community. Despite all the detestable talk of suicide missions, Thor Heyerdahl had gained popular support for the adventure he was about to embark on. He had also gained the support of prominent people without direct links to academic circles. Convinced that such an expedition would be good publicity for Norway during the difficult post-war period, the Norwegian ambassador in Washington, Wilhelm Morgenstierne, had wholeheartedly supported the project. With his help, Heyerdahl had gained an audience with the American defence authorities, as well as the British military attaché, and both parties had promised to provide Heyerdahl with any equipment he might need. In return for this help Heyerdahl agreed to provide daily meteorological and oceanographic observations that might be of interest to the two superpowers’ navies. Far out at sea the expedition would establish contact with the shore via a radio that transmitted and received on frequencies used by amateur radio enthusiasts.

Besides Thor, the crew consisted of four Norwegians and a Swede. While preparing for the voyage Thor had met a Norwegian engineer who was on a study tour to the USA. His name was Herman Watzinger and he immediately said yes when Thor asked if he wanted to come along on Kon-Tiki. Herman was later assigned primary responsibility for the construction of the raft, and Thor made him the expedition’s second in command. Thor knew the future troubadour and artist Erik Hesselberg from growing up in Larvik. He had spent his early adult years at sea and, as an expert with a sextant, became the expedition’s navigator. Thor had got to know the two radio operators, Knut Haugland and Torstein Raaby, during the war. Knut’s many wartime missions included the heavy water raid in Rjukan, Telemark, and Torstein had played a key role in the Allies’ sinking of the German battleship, Tirpitz, outside Alta. They had both been highly decorated for their wartime efforts and were eager to take part when Thor contacted them about the raft voyage. Their task: to ensure radio communications with the rest of the world.

Thor wanted a crew of six on the raft in order for the duty roster to work out. But, just before their departure from Callao, there were still only five crew members. Thor had originally planned to have only Norwegians on Kon-Tiki, but had failed to find a suitable sixth man. That was when a Swedish anthropologist, Bengt Danielsson, suddenly knocked on the door of Thor’s hotel room one day. After a brief hesitation, Thor agreed to let the Swede join the crew. In Bengt he found a colleague he could discuss his theories with, and the fellow Scandinavian would also prove to be an excellent cook.

Thor had to primarily rely on the northeast-east trade winds, and, like the old Incas, he rigged the raft with a large square sail. However, of the six men on board, none of them could sail. Erik did of course have seafaring experience, but only as a crew member on a merchant ship. Besides this, the raft’s skipper, Thor Heyerdahl, could not even swim. He could struggle a few metres, but he would not have been able to keep himself afloat for very long had he fallen into the water. However, the inexperienced skipper and his similarly inexperienced crew did not let this put them off. While a practically unanimous scientific community derided Heyerdahl and his suicide mission, his men trusted him completely. Thor was convinced that an ancient civilisation had made this voyage before him, and his men trusted blindly that he knew what he was doing.

Nonetheless, the men would face major trials due to their lack of sailing experience. They struggled greatly with the large, heavy sail, which from the very first appeared to the crew of landlubbers to be uncontrollable. Nor did they ever learn to steer the raft properly. Should they encounter a dangerous situation, they would be unable to steer out of its way. Perhaps even more seriously, given the nature of the Kon-Tiki expedition, it would be difficult to steer towards a goal, like an island, should they one day spot palm trees on the horizon. Either way, they could not turn back because the raft could not be sailed against the wind. Worse still, the balsa logs started to become waterlogged after just a week. Thor secretly cut off pieces of a log and was horrified when he threw them into the ocean and they sank. He later discovered that the others had secretly done the same as well. If the water continued to penetrate the balsa logs at the same rate, the raft would undoubtedly sink. If that happened, there was no one who could rescue them close by. There was almost no shipping traffic in this part of the Pacific Ocean. They could also forget about contacting aeroplanes. The aircraft of the time did not have the range to undertake missions in the skies above the vast Pacific Ocean. The atmosphere on board the raft became tinged with nervousness. Would those who had claimed Thor Heyerdahl had set out on a suicide mission be proved right?

No, luck was on his side. The raft had been constructed from fresh balsa that had been cut at the root and the logs were full of sap. This sap proved to work like a sort of impregnation agent. After a while the water penetration stopped, the raft remained buoyant, and the crew could breathe a sigh of relief.

Life on board slipped into an easier phase. The raft did not move fast, they managed an average speed of barely two knots. More like a floating island than a seagoing craft, it lay pitching in the swell. Seaweed and shellfish grew on the balsa logs and attracted all sorts of fish: sardines, tuna and dolphins, not to mention sharks and snorting whales. Each morning they picked up flying fish from the deck, which, once fried in the pan, tasted like crispy mackerel.

And then something spectacular happened. One afternoon when the tropical sun was extra warm, Knut decided to cool himself down. And, while he leaned over the edge of the raft to wash his hands and face, he heard a strange sound. Speechless he rose and pointed. “Barely three metres away from me a shark of colossal dimensions broke the surface. Its head was so broad I doubt I could have got my arms around it. Its body rose to the surface like a small mountain,” he wrote in his dairy. The beast was a whale shark, the largest of all the fish in the ocean. A single blow from its enormous tail would have been enough to capsize Kon-Tiki. But it was a peaceful soul, content to sniff the raft curiously, as if it was a fellow member of its species. In the end it was the men and not the whale shark that picked a fight. Encouraged by the others Erik flung a harpoon into its back. The fish flicked its enormous tail and disappeared into the deep. They never saw it again.

Otherwise, the crew fell into a routine on board Kon-Tiki. They read, listened to Erik’s guitar, fished and cooked in the open galley on deck. They sent daily weather and wind reports to an amateur radio enthusiast in California. They had to ride out a storm or two, but otherwise life was peaceful on the strange craft. That is until one day a cry rang out over the raft: “Man overboard!” It was a breezy day and as Herman tried to stop a sleeping bag blowing out to sea, he lost his balance and fell into the water, without a safety line or life jacket. Every second was vital because even though Herman was a proficient swimmer, he was getting left behind. However much he tried, he could not keep up with the raft. They had agreed in advance that the first thing they would do should one of them fall overboard would be to lower the sail to reduce speed. Thor took up his position by the mast, but, struggling with the rope holding the sail up, he was unable to lower the sail. Meanwhile Herman was slowly falling further and further behind.

That is when Knut Haugland acted. He had been known as a man of action since the war, and with a rope and life jacket he jumped into the ocean and began to swim to Herman, whose strength was now failing. Knut got the life jacket on him and slowly the four men still on the raft began to pull them in. The rope was poor, and Knut was afraid it would break. At the same time he was irritated that the sail was still up. After a few nerve-racking minutes they were hauled on board the raft, exhausted. Knut could not help himself: “What happened with the sail Thor?” Staring into the distance, Thor mumbled something about not being able to undo the knot. Knut had known Thor since they had met as soldiers in England during the war, and it was the first time he had seen Thor not in control of a situation. The expedition’s leader had been paralysed, that was the truth. Surprised by the sudden incident, his lack of seafaring experience probably also played a part. Even more numbing was the fear of losing Herman, because that would be the end of the expedition and make it all meaningless. They were shaken, but Knut Haugland’s resolute action had saved the day.

The ocean appeared infinitely big, weeks slowly turned into months, and the men began to get restless. But then, on the 93rd day, they saw a low, palm tree covered island on the horizon. Nonetheless, the quiver they had all felt disappeared quickly. The island, Pukapuka, was several nautical miles away and the wind and current were carrying them in a different direction. However, Pukapuka was just one of many islands in the Polynesian archipelago of Tuamotus and they would get more chances. The sight of land brought the big question ever closer: how would the voyage end? What would happen when the ocean ended and land began, wondered Thor in the logbook.

Another few days passed. Erik’s sextant readings told them they were approaching an atoll called Raroia. At dawn on 7 August, they saw a reef, which stretched along the entire starboard side of the raft before arching out in front of the bow. They heard the roar of the constant breaking of the waves as they washed over the reef formed from coral that was as sharp as the teeth of a shark. This time they would have preferred to have sailed around the danger, to have got away, but Kon-Tiki was docilely drifting into the foaming waves. The rudder was no longer of any use, they could only prepare for the worst, they could only cling on tightly.

They had been at sea for 101 days. So far all had gone well, they had been in control. But now the ocean did not want to play along any more, Thor and his men looked at each other and knew this was the last hour of their voyage. Would they make it, or would they perish?

"Those who believe should pray now, it’s your last chance!" shouted someone before all hell broke loose. There were just a few metres left to the edge of the reef now. Then the first wave drove them forward, rising before it broke, sending tons of water towards the raft. Sails and containers began to float, the deck splintered, the mast broke. Thor and Torstein were washed overboard. For a split second, Knut saw the reef as a wall in the sea before the water violently withdrew, throwing Thor and Torstein back onto the raft. Thor looked around bewildered, struggling to comprehend what had just happened. Bengt had taken a blow to the head when the mast fell. Herman was hanging half dead over the cabin. The next wave struck, it was as green as glass and larger than all the others. With a roar it threw itself at the raft; one of the lads shouted that it would not end well.

"Hold tight!"

It was Thor shouting.

They clung on, their lives at stake.

Then they heard a sudden noise. They could feel the raft shake under their feet. The power of the wave dissipated as it broke, but it had done its job, it had thrown Kon-Tiki up onto the reef. Thor let it sink in. It was the greatest moment of his life. No one was injured, they were all alive, they had made it. He had proved that Tiki, the sun god, could have crossed the ocean.

Thor Heyerdahl had conquered the dogma.

However, the scientific world was not satisfied. The only thing Thor Heyerdahl had proved was that Norwegians were good seafarers, commented an American anthropologist dryly. And while a Finnish researcher called the expedition humbug, a Swiss-French ethnologist compared Thor Heyerdahl to a boy scout. Nonetheless, the researchers had to grudgingly concede that they were wrong to claim that the indigenous population that lived in the Andes and on the coastal plains below did not have craft that could cross oceans. Heyerdahl had demonstrated that South American Indians could have made such a voyage, but he did not prove that they had actually done so. Thor Heyerdahl was also the first to admit this. Therefore, in the following years he equipped expeditions to the Galapagos Islands and Easter Island to search for more tangible, archaeological evidence that might support his theory.

On these expeditions he made finds that, at the very least, made other researchers acknowledge Thor Heyerdahl’s hypothesis, even though they still had difficulty agreeing with his conclusions. Not least, based on linguistic arguments, the major forces within Pacific Ocean research were, and are, of the opinion that Polynesia was populated by people from areas in South East Asia. Any possible contact between Polynesians and South American civilisations, which after the results achieved by Heyerdahl could not be categorically rejected as they had been earlier, must therefore have occurred at a far later date.

However, with the Kon-Tiki expedition and his subsequent voyages on reed boats based on ancient designs, such as Ra across the Atlantic Ocean and Tigris across the Indian Ocean, Thor Heyerdahl showed that what he called early man had mastered sailing before the birth of civilisation some 5,000 years ago. Or as he used to like to say: early man had mastered sailing before the saddle and wheel were invented.

Thor Heyerdahl’s voyages showed that early on the oceans became a means of spreading cultures between continents, and were not obstacles. Perhaps that is his greatest contribution to our understanding of the history of civilisation.

Science: DNA shows how Thor Heyerdahl got it wrong
Charles Arthur

Thursday 08 January 1998

Shares: 9

Fifty years ago, Thor Heyerdahl and the Kon-Tiki expedition appeared to prove that ancient humans could have sailed west from South American to colonise the Pacific islands. But DNA evidence now shows that his theory was wrong. Charles Arthur, Science Editor, on the molecules that have upset a great adventure.
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In The Voyage of the `Kon-Tiki’, the Norwegian archaeologist Thor Heyerdahl famously proved that early humans could have used the trade winds to sail from Peru to Easter Island - and thus be its first settlers. But although the tale of his replica raft and the voyage westward across the Pacific in August 1947 makes a stirring tale, his idea has now been proved to be wrong. Sorry, Thor: DNA analysis of the remains of the original settlers of islands all around the Pacific, including Easter Island, demonstrates that they actually came from South-East Asia.

Dr Erika Hagelberg, of the department of genetics at Cambridge University, has spent the past eight years studying the mitochondrial DNA - passed down through the maternal line - of Polynesians, who moved into the western Pacific about 1,500 years ago, and the Melanesians, who were the first to migrate there during the Pleistocene era about 60,000 years ago.

"There are two groups of populations which moved into the area, but both ultimately came from Asia," Dr Hagelberg said yesterday. "The Melanesians could have been one of the first migrations of modern humans out of Africa." They appear to have reached New Guinea, where they settled. The Polynesians then followed, and colonised New Zealand, Hawaii and Easter Island itself.

Determining the origins of populations by analysing mitochondrial DNA is done by first assuming that mutations in the sequence of the DNA arise at a specific rate but differently for different people. So two populations which evolve apart will have dissimilar sequences of mitochondrial DNA. That means you can distinguish where the DNA found in skeletons originated from, by comparing it with that from modern-day populations and also ancient DNA of known origins. And in the case of Easter Island’s original settlers, it turns out that their common ancestor comes from South-East Asia - not South America.

Professor Heyerdahl has counter-claimed that the real first settlers cremated their dead, which would destroy any potential evidence. But Dr Hagelberg disputes this. “I can look at the DNA in the bones. I’ve examined a couple of hundred skeletons. It just takes patience and attention to detail.”

Her work was done in collaboration with teams in Oxford, Holland and Australia and presented yesterday at a seminar at the Natural History Museum, organised by the Natural Environment Research Council, looking at “ancient biomolecules”

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