Kon-Tiki Essay - Critical Context

Thor Heyerdahl

Critical Context

Since the days of Homer’s Odyssey (c. 800 b.c.), the lore of voyages alone upon a raft at the mercy of wave and weather, lacking full human control, has become a major part of the literary response to the sea. Much of Heyerdahl’s account of the Kon-Tiki expedition has a quasi-poetic flavor, derived from an unanticipated harmony with the elements of nature encountered literally upon the surface of the ocean.

At another level, the running aground of Kon-Tiki upon Raroia reef, with the accompanying wreckage of the raft and the necessity for its human crew to struggle ashore upon an otherwise minimal and uninhabited island, brings to immediate mind the experiences and concerns so vividly portrayed by Daniel Defoe in The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner, Written by Himself (1719). Overall, the reader is reminded of Viking sagas that recount earlier centuries of adventurers, explorers, and settlers looking for new locations upon the surface of the globe.

Nevertheless, Heyerdahl intends, as he explains in the book’s appendix, to remind his readers of his theory of human migration and cultural diffusion. While the successful outcome of the Kon-Tiki expedition could not assure his theory, it did prove—to Heyerdahl’s satisfaction and to which no opponent of his theory could object—“that the South American balsa raft possesses qualities not previously known to scientists of our time, and that the Pacific islands are located well inside the range of prehistoric craft from Peru.”