Skip to Content

Thor Heyerdahl

Obituary

By Sarah Anderson, published in the Independent, 19/02/2002

Thor Heyerdahl was one of those rare human beings who managed to realize his dreams. He achieved this by a mixture of determination, stubbornness, in a trusting of oral tradition, by practical experiment and by listening to people.

Heyerdahl was born in 1914 in the coastal town of Larvik in Norway. He learned his love of nature and zoology from his mother, whose hero was Darwin and who ran the local museum. He was a lonely only-child and as a boy he created his own personal museum; a great influence on him as a boy was meeting a man who lived in the wild – from whom he learned survival. After leaving school he went to the University of Oslo where he specialised in zoology and geography; while he was there he began to feel that the brain of man was overloaded with material from books and that this, combined with the relentless pursuit of materialism, had made modern man lose his way. This dependency on the media inevitably led to reduced powers of observation; primitive man had to have been constantly alert. Heyerdahl began to feel that returning to nature was the answer and he made a pact with his future wife Liv that this is what they would try and do. The day after their wedding in 1936 the newly married couple left for Fatu-Hiva in the Marquesas group of islands in the South Pacific.

On arrival he drew delightful maps of their island surroundings 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 he had come to do 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 British Colombia or Peru. 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 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.’ They 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 Air-Airforce parachute unit. His book Fatu-Hiva. Back to Nature was not published until 1974.

After the war Heyerdahl returned to his Pacific researches determined to prove that sailing on rafts made from balsa, it was possible that the earliest settlers to reach Polynesia had come from South America. His theories met great resistance, but in 1947, having overcome both financial difficulties and academic resistance he and five Nordic companions left Peru for Polynesia on the Kon-Tiki expedition, crossing 4300 miles in 101 days. The expedition acquired enormous popular interest, capturing the post-war imagination of the world. However there was a decided lack of interest in the academic world, the trip being described by one prominent academic as ‘a nice adventure.’ All his life Heyerdahl suffered from rebuffs from the academic world. They considered he embraced too many disciplines and were jealous that he spent time away from a desk on expeditions. He started his career when specialization was first taking a hold and people began to distrust methods of work which crossed several areas. His methods were certainly unorthodox, but anyone with visionary ideas tends to be treated with suspicion, and 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. What enabled Heyerdahl to carry on was his underlying tenacity and steely determination to overcome any obstacle in pursuit of his objective and he had the guts to trust his own judgement and instinct. The immensely popular and successful book The Kon-Tiki Expedition was published in 1950.

After the Kon-Tiki expedition Heyerdahl and Liv, by whom he had had two sons, were divorced amicably and he married his second wife, Yvonne, described by Liv as ‘an angel’ by whom he later had three daughters. 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 twenty three people and began the first sub-surface archaeological excavations there in an attempt to work out firstly how the colossal statues had been carved, secondly how they had been moved and thirdly how they had been raised to an upright position. At every stage in his life when he was confronted by a seemingly insoluble dilemma, he tried to find a way forward by practical experiment. On Easter Island he got the Mayor and other ‘long-ear’ descendants (tradition had it that the carvers were long-eared and the statues had distinctly long ears) to begin carving a statue. They calculated that with two teams of six people each, working full time on the same statue, it would take a full year to complete. There are over 400 statues on the island. The carbon dating they carried out showed that Easter Island had been occupied from about 380AD, legend claimed 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 long reed boat from Safi in Morocco across the Atlantic towards Barbados. The expedition had to be abandoned after 5000 kilometres and 56 days, one week short of Barbados. He had been horrified by the pollution in the Atlantic, but 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. He believed that ‘We have been blindfolded too long by the European attitude that everything began with us. In reality, many great civilizations 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 civilizations 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 civilization.’ 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 further 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 civilization from what we are turning into a sinking ship.’ Despite the dramatic end the expedition proved the possibility that the civilizations in Egypt, Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley which sprang up almost simultaneously and which shared all of men’s major inventions could have been linked and 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-brick house near Tucume in north-west Peru. Tucume 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. He has always maintained a sense of spiritual wonderment at the universe ‘…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 civilizations merely by island-hopping among the atolls of the Maldives or by taking a short walk away from the Panamanian highway.’ The Pyramids of Tucume was published in 1995.

Heyerdahl thought laterally and saw links everywhere. He did not see rivalry between man and man as the greatest threat, but he 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 would have migrated, but if disasters happen today their movement would be blocked by the artificial frontiers of the modern world. Heyerdahl was truly international; he never felt homesick as he always felt home was where he happened to be at any given moment; he was a lively and entertaining companion and ‘a good person to drink with.’

Heyerdahl has permanently changed our perception of the planet. By his steely determination and vision he demonstrated again and again that established theories about civilizations and movements of peoples were not necessarily correct. Several films of his expeditions were made and he published a book in 1997 Green Was the Earth on the Seventh Day.

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, 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 America. In 1970 he was made a commander of the Knights of Malta.

Thor Heyerdahl, anthropologist, archaeologist, explorer and writer: born Larvik, Norway 6 October 1914; married 1946 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.




Allowed HTML tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

By submitting a comment you grant Umbrella Books a perpetual license to reproduce your words and name/web site in attribution. Inappropriate and irrelevant comments will be removed at an admin’s discretion. Your email is used for verification purposes only, it will never be shared.