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Thor Heyerdahl

(1914—2002) Norwegian anthropologist


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(1914–2002)

Norwegian anthropologist noted for his ocean voyages in primitive craft that demonstrated the possibility of cultural contact between widely separated early civilizations.

After reading zoology and geography at Oslo University (1933–36), Heyerdahl became interested in Polynesian culture as a result of visiting Fatu Hiva in the Pacific Marquesas Islands. He recognized a parallel between the legendary Polynesian figure, Tiki, and the pre-Incan hero, Kon-Tiki, who, according to legend, had fled from South America around ad 500 to escape massacre. After serving with the free Norwegian armed forces' parachute unit during World War II, Heyerdahl set out to show that Polynesia could have received migrants from South America. He supervised the construction of a primitive balsa-log raft and, with five companions, set sail on 28 April 1947 from the Peruvian coast. After drifting with Pacific currents, they made land on Raroia Reef, south of the Marquesas, after a voyage of 101 days covering 6880 km. Heyerdahl wrote a book, The Kon-Tiki Expedition (1948), and also made an Oscar-winning documentary film, Kon-Tiki, based on the voyage. In 1949 he founded the Kon-Tiki Museum, Oslo.

Heyerdahl led further expeditions – to the Galapagos Islands (1953) and to Easter Island (1955–56). In the mid-1960s he constructed a 50-foot papyrus reed raft, Ra (named after the Egyptian sun god), according to ancient Egyptian design to prove that such a vessel could have made the transatlantic crossing. Heyerdahl and his six-member crew set out from Morocco in May 1969 but were forced to abandon the attempt only 600 miles short of their target. Nevertheless, the following year, Heyerdahl successfully completed the crossing in Ra II, reaching Barbados on 12 July after a 56-day voyage. Both trips are described in The Ra Expeditions (1970). In 1978, he set sail from Qurna, Iraq, in a reed boat of ancient Sumerian design bound for India. However, in protest against the war in the Horn of Africa, he burnt his craft, Tigris, in Djibouti. The Tigris Expedition (1979) is Heyerdahl's account of the event. Subsequently he led expeditions to the Maldives (1982–84), Easter Island (1986–88), and Peru (1988).

Subjects: Maritime History.


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