Thor Heyerdahl lived his life in a way that most of us can only dream of. In a century when the age of adventurers seemed long past, Heyerdahl became one anyway. But rather than discovering the hidden corners of our world, like 19th-century explorers had done, Heyerdahl sought to uncover the mysteries of the past. He did this not by studying ancient texts, but by diving into the past and walking in the footsteps of – or, perhaps, sailing in the wakes of – our long-dead ancestors.
Thor Heyerdahl, Norwegian ethnologist and head of the Kon-Tiki expedition, arrives in San Francisco, Ca., from the South Pacific, in this Sept. 29, 1947 file photo. (AP Photo)
Though Heyerdahl did all kinds of work to uncover truths about ancient civilizations, ten years after his death, he's best remembered for his seafaring expeditions in boats like those used by the ancients. These expeditions were, on the surface, a hands-on way to learn more about the capabilities of long-ago shipbuilders, but they accomplished much more.
Kon-Tiki was Heyerdahl's first voyage on a ship built to ancient specifications. But "ship" is overstating it a bit… Kon-Tiki was in fact a raft, made of Peruvian balsawood and other native materials. Heyerdahl and his crew built the raft and sailed it more than 4300 miles across the Pacific Ocean, ending in the South Pacific. Heyerdahl proved that ancient South Americans could have sailed to – and possibly settled – faraway places. He also set the stage for future expeditions that would accomplish even more.
Kon-Tiki (Wikimedia Commons/NASA)
Ra and Ra II were built from papyrus, modeled on ships built by ancient Egyptians. On them, Heyerdahl attempted to sail the Atlantic Ocean from Morocco to Barbados. When Ra took on water and couldn't complete the journey, Heyerdahl modified the plans and built Ra II, which successfully completed the voyage. Now we knew it was possible for ancients to have sailed from Africa to the Americas… but that wasn't all the Ra voyages accomplished. Heyerdahl began his practice of assembling multinational crews to demonstrate international cooperation between people of different races, religions and political views, albeit on a small scale. He also took time during the voyages of Ra and Ra II to collect samples of marine pollution to deliver to the United Nations, cementing his role as an environmental crusader.
Ra II (Wikimedia Commons/China_Crisis)
Tigris was a reed boat built in Iraq and designed to demonstrate that the people of ancient Mesopotamia could have traded via sea with the Indus Valley in western Asia. Again, the voyage was successful, and again, Heyerdahl sailed with an international crew as an attempt to foster world peace. But the crew, frustrated with the ongoing wars in eastern Africa and the Arabian Gulf, burnt the boat as a highly public protest. Heyerdahl used the burning as a vivid metaphor for the state of our world: "Our planet is bigger than the reed bundles that have carried us across the seas, and yet small enough to run the same risks unless those of us still alive open our eyes and minds to the desperate need of intelligent collaboration to save ourselves and our common civilization from what we are about to convert into a sinking ship."
When Heyerdahl died, he had the satisfaction of having opened the world's eyes to the amazing capabilities of our ancestors. He accomplished much… but peace and a clean environment still elude us. We could use another Thor Heyerdahl today.
Written by Linnea Crowther