Accessibility links

World: Legendary Explorer Thor Heyerdahl Dies

  • Jeremy Bransten

Thor Heyerdahl -- the pioneering Norwegian mariner, adventurer, naturalist, and ethnographer -- died on 18 April at the age of 87. Diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer, Heyerdahl retired to his Italian villa last week, where, according to his son, he awaited his ultimate voyage serenely, refusing all food and medicine until he died quietly in his sleep.

Prague, 19 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Although his interests ranged across the globe, Thor Heyerdahl -- a legendary figure to millions who knew him through his books and documentaries -- is most associated with the South Pacific, which he first visited in the 1930s when he spent a year on the Marquesas Islands.

It was on the Marquesas that Heyerdahl began to formulate his controversial theory of Polynesian settlement. Heyerdahl noted that the trade winds in the region blew east to west, as well as the fact that several native South American plants -- notably the sweet potato -- grew on the islands in abundance. This led him to theorize that Polynesia could have been originally colonized by South American sailors and not by Southeast Asia, as prevailing opinion had it.

In 1947, determined to prove this theory, Heyerdahl and five companions undertook a 7,000-kilometer voyage that ranks as one of the great sea journeys of our time -- successfully sailing, in 101 days, from Peru to Polynesia in a small balsa raft called the Kon-Tiki.

Heyerdahl's account of the voyage, published the following year and translated into 66 languages, won him worldwide celebrity. A documentary produced three years later received an Academy Award.

Encouraged by his newfound fame, Heyerdahl spent the next decade in the Pacific, searching for archaeological evidence in the Galapagos and on remote Easter Island to bolster his theory of eastern migration. The publication of "Sea Routes to Polynesia" was Heyerdahl's attempt to put his theory into an academic framework. The book's bold thesis and rich detail helped inspire a new wave of research in the Pacific -- a fact that will live on as Heyerdahl's enduring legacy, even if his theories have now largely been disproved by the scientific community.

Steven Hooper, an anthropologist at Britain's University of East Anglia, specializes in Polynesia and the South Pacific. He spoke to RFE/RL about the impact of "Sea Routes to Polynesia."

"This, in fact, led to great excitement. It drew Pacific colonization and archaeology into the public eye in a very prominent way. He was a brave, adventurous man, and so a lot of people have a very positive attitude towards him, including, I may say, archaeologists, who wouldn't perhaps have got their grant awards to do digging in Polynesia but for Heyerdahl bringing Polynesia into the public domain and public awareness. But I have to say from an academic point of view that his theories about the colonization of Polynesia have not stood up to close investigation by succeeding archaeologists and historians," Hooper said.

Although Heyerdahl -- through his voyage on the Kon-Tiki -- proved that South American Indians had the capability of undertaking long sea journeys on their tiny rafts, scientists say the preponderance of evidence shows Polynesia was colonized from Asia and not the other way around.

Hooper explained, "If one looks at all the evidence available, it's quite clear now -- and I think all Pacific archaeologists and historians are agreed -- that the great thrust of colonization of the Pacific region came ultimately from Southeast Asia and that there was no intrusion or voyaging from the American coast. And I think there are very few people now who would argue against this idea."

Ironically, it was the generation of archaeologists and geneticists whom Heyerdahl inspired who undid most of the Norwegian explorer's theories.

"Initially, it was archaeological research which basically produced so much evidence for Southeast Asian and local developments within Polynesia and not American influences coming in -- influences from America. So the archaeologists, I think, argued the case very strongly and to my knowledge, the DNA evidence has backed up the archaeologists and no American population of genetic material, I think, has been found in Polynesia, obviously prior to European exploration," Hooper said.

The mystery of how the sweet potato reached the South Pacific -- remains of the plant have been found in Polynesia dating back 1,000 years -- has still not been fully explained. Archaeologists now believe that Polynesians, descended from their Southeast Asian forbears, probably journeyed to South America at some point, bringing the seeds back with them.

Leaving the academics to haggle over the meaning of his Pacific discoveries, Heyerdahl moved on to the Middle East in the 1970s, sailing from Egypt across the Mediterranean and Atlantic on reed boats he christened Ra and Ra II.

Maintaining his globe-trotting pace well into his 80s, Heyerdahl last year published what was to be his final book, called "The Hunt for Odin." In the work, Heyerdahl traces the origin of the Norse god to a ruler who lived in southern Russia 2,000 years ago.

The more Heyerdahl was embraced by the general public, the more many scientists shied away from his company -- especially in his later years. He was what some referred to disdainfully as an "adventurer," a generalist who seized on partial evidence to formulate grandiose theories that did not always hang together.

But as Steven Hooper put it, "Academics who are generous-spirited have a great deal to thank Thor Heyerdahl for."

In his 1997 memoir, Heyerdahl argued that academic specialists often fail to see the forest for the trees, concentrating too narrowly on their own fields to see the connections between cultures and civilizations.

This modern-day Viking, as some have dubbed Heyerdahl -- or an "original and spectacular scientist, explorer and adventurer," as Norwegian Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik called him this week -- helped to open the world's eyes to the fact that most of the world's cultures -- whether historically linked or not -- share vital characteristics.

Heyerdahl was one of the original "globalizers" and certainly one of the founding members of what so many have come to call our "global village."

But it is in the land of his birth that Heyerdahl is perhaps best-loved and admired. As a mark of that respect, Norway announced today that it will honor its native son with a state funeral in the capital, Oslo.