Thor Heyerdahl Essay - Critical Essays

Heyerdahl, Thor


Thor Heyerdahl 1914–

Norwegian writer on travel, anthropology, and archaeology.

Heyerdahl, an anthropologist, is best known for his accounts of the exciting journeys he undertook to prove his scientific theories. He has long contended that the early settlers of the Polynesian Islands were Indians from South America, not Asians, as was generally believed. To demonstrate that ancient Peruvians could have completed a trip to Polynesia on balsa rafts, he himself accomplished the feat. Kon-Tiki describes his voyage. Continuing the argument in Aku-Aku and The Art of Easter Island, he explores similarities between the cultures of pre-Inca Peru and that of Easter Island. In further adventures, he tests his theories that Egyptians could have settled in Mexico (The Ra Expeditions) and that the Sumerians could have built ocean-going ships, thereby extending their contact with other civilizations (The Tigris Expedition).

Heyerdahl relates his experiences in a way that captures the interest of both experts and the general reader. His books are informative without being dry and scholarly and contain enough humor to mitigate the actual dangers encountered. Although the majority of Heyerdahl's colleagues do not feel he has sufficiently proved his hypotheses, they agree that his questions provide new insight into anthropological study.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed. and Something about the Author, Vol. 2.)

Alfred Stanford

It is the deep connection with nature and a tremendous simplicity that makes ["Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific by Raft"] great as few books of our time are great…. [It has quickly spread through the world] with the speed of a small classic being born and the suggestion that it contains a strong medicine for modern man.

The book records the straight-forward chronicle of a 4,300-mile passage across the Pacific by six naked men on a raft. Its pages reflect a minimum of philosophical overtones. But on every page there is a perceptiveness of the sea and the sky that has delicacy and sureness. Through it all runs the awareness that ancient man ventured here before….

It is in the record of daily life, so close to the water as to be virtually a part of it for the 101 days of the passage, that the best writing occurs. (p. 1)

There is no mention of monotony or boredom. Every day was full of its own events, the sky, the stars, the marine life and the clouds. The story of these days and nights creates picture after picture….

The final landing at the Raroia barrier reef that should have wrecked a normal craft and crushed normal men unprotected by pre-Inca legends is told with great skill and excitement, as are the days that followed in exploration and meeting with the Polynesian inhabitants. (p. 10)

Alfred Stanford, "They Floated across the Pacific on a Vine-Tied Raft," in New York Herald Tribune Book Review (© I.H.T. Corporation), September 3, 1950, pp. 1, 10.

Harry Gilroy

[The saga of "Kon-Tiki"] is a revelation of how exciting science can become when it inspires a man with the heart of Leif Ericsson and the merry story-telling gift of an Ernie Pyle….

[The six men on the raft came to learn that] whether it was 1947 A.D. or B.C. was of no significance. "We realized that life had been full for men before the technical age also—in fact, fuller and richer in many ways than the life of modern man."

Here is the heart of the powerful appeal of this book…. These are cultivated modern men, scientists, artists, technicians. They have a particular quality, which is that an idea can have such value to them that they are willing to stake their lives upon its validity….

[They] have this quality and they arm the reader with it as he goes along on the unpretentiously daring escapades, the low comedy and high philosophizing of the voyage. The thought of six intelligent men putting out to sea on a raft held together with a few ropes—practically guaranteeing the sharks a fat meal—is utterly absurd. Yet the absurdity fades in the face of the realization that the expedition proved, and proved in the only possible way, exactly how the races of men spread across the seas of the world.

Harry Gilroy, "Six Who Dared to Live a Legend," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1950 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 3, 1950, p. 1.

Roland Sawyer

[Kon-Tiki] is a mystery story—although there is no crime beyond the polite defiance of "sound advice," no plot except a problem of long-distance transport by raft, no solution to an ethnological question that has intrigued men since Magellan, Querios, and Cook explored the Pacific Ocean. Here, too, is an adventure story—for it is an extraordinary record of men drifting 4,000 miles on the sea amidst unforeseen perils, under a world of stars. And here is fine descriptive writing.

Thor Heyerdahl sought evidence to support a theory. That seeking brought about as remarkable a journey as the 20th century has witnessed. It will be a rare reader who will be able to put the book down once he has read beyond the first page. For the author opens his exciting narrative midway through the 101-day odyssey of six men on a raft in the Pacific. And once aboard that raft, even for a few safe paragraphs, the reader can no more get off than could Heyerdahl and his companions, from the moment they were set adrift off the Peruvian coast until they were flung, raft and men, over the Raroia reef to safety in Polynesia….

Heyerdahl and his men were fortunate from beginning to end—but they deserved to be, as the log of the Kon-Tiki, the name given to the raft from a pre-Columbian sun-god, shows. It is from the log that this book is largely written, and while this is not the first time that a log has been turned into literature,...

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Wendell C. Bennett

[The] daring and dramatic journey [of the Kon-Tiki and her six crewmen] demonstrated beyond any doubt that the pre-European inhabitants of South America could have reached Polynesia.

The possibility is one thing, the probability another. In ["American Indians in the Pacific: The Theory Behind the Kon-Tiki Expedition"], Mr. Heyerdahl presents his arguments for the reality of such migrations. His thesis, to state it briefly, is that the earlier Polynesians came from Peru via Easter Island, and that the later migrants came from the northwest coast of North America, traditional home of the totem-pole Indians, via the Hawaiian Islands….

To support this thesis, Mr. Heyerdahl has assembled an impressive array of evidence and arguments, covering a vast bibliography and many fields of knowledge. He deals with the ethnography of Oceania and the Northwest Coast, geography, ocean currents, botany, archeology, physical anthropology and linguistics. No author could have equal competence in all of these fields, but the approach is commendable.

The Northwest Coast argument is based on the known seamanship of these Indians, the ocean currents which drift pine logs to Hawaii, and the striking similarities in plank houses, totem poles, single and double canoes, and many artifacts. Furthermore, Mr. Heyerdahl believes that the Polynesians refer to the Hawaiian Islands as their traditional homeland, "Hawaiki."


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Kent Bush

[In "American Indians in the Pacific"] Heyerdahl marshals exceedingly convincing visual evidence of pre-Columbian American Indian influences in the Pacific. In no other single book can there be found an equally rich collection of that data—scientific, cultural, historical—so necessary for the developement of a reasoned theory of the colonization of Polynesia. Without taking into account these facts and their interpretation—many of them published for the first time in this volume—no scholar can speak with accuracy on the problem. This book will be required reading for all students of American and Pacific culture, history, and pre-history.

Any scholar who necessarily deals with the findings in a dozen or more sciences will come under attack from the siege guns of specialization. The central question in evaluating an effort to synthesize broadly in any scholarly field is: has the factual evidence been handled with respect on its own merits and has all available evidence been presented and brought to bear on resulting conclusions? I can find no mark of Heyerdahl's failing in this scholarly trust.

But don't accept the notion that this is only a scientific document. For anyone who has sailed the enormous distance between the major Polynesian island systems—distances known to have been navigated in canoes, and possibly rafts, by Stone-Age migrants—in fact, all travelers will gain from Heyerdahl's account a new appreciation of the intelligence and vigor of Neolithic man. "American Indians in the Pacific" is as stirring a tribute to ancient man as "Kon-Tiki" is to modern….

The exhaustive treatment makes the book bulky and the presentation occasionally tortuous. It may be that a desk dictionary will have to be used now and then, although the context usually provides operational definitions. But even so, most readers will find in the reading of it straightforward enjoyment.

[It] will be clear that the conclusions are based on first-hand observation and first-rate scholarship. It will be clear that the excitement of unraveling an ethnographic "detective thriller" is a delightful way to enjoy and appreciate a scholarly theory and dissertation in this important field of study.

Kent Bush, "Solving Some of the Problems of Pacific Pre-history," in The Christian Science Monitor (reprinted by permission from The Christian Science Monitor; © 1953 The Christian Science Publishing Society; all rights reserved), August 13, 1953, p. 11.

The Times Literary Supplement

[Thor Heyerdahl] wrote a book about a raft which will not soon be forgotten. It is unreasonable to expect an equal success when the same gifts are employed in the same way on a subject involving, much more than mere adventure, a difficult and intricate scientific experiment. [Aku-Aku] brings home a brilliant outline of Easter Island and its present inhabitants. It closes with a whimsical dialogue between the author and his aku-aku [guardian spirit], concerning the relation between archaeological fact and speculation, which admits in effect some weakness in his treatment in these pages of his central problem. There is little doubt that he made some important discoveries. It is time for him to throw away his...

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Glyn Daniel

Thor Heyerdahl, whose Kon-Tiki expedition captured the young imagination of the world, visited Easter Island in the last few years and with a party of arachæologists and anthropologists made his own investigations…. He claims that as a result he has solved the mystery of Easter Island, that it was first settled about AD 400 by people from central and south America, that the great statues (which he places in his second period of occupation, say between the tenth and fifteenth centuries AD) get later as one travels westwards, and that the statue-building people were massacred by the ancestors of the present inhabitants of the island who came in canoes from Polynesia.

All this may be right,...

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John M. Connole

Heyerdahl's latest book, "Sea Routes to Polynesia," is a collection of papers and addresses from the years 1951–1964, most of which were delivered before international scientific societies throughout the world. For the most part, they either amplify, or give further evidence in support of, the conclusions reached in ["Kon-Tiki" and "Aku-Aku"]. Thus their interest for the general reader will depend upon how enthusiastically he felt about these books. (p. 42)

John M. Connole, in his review of "Sea Routes to Polynesia," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1968 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 8, 1968, pp. 42, 46.


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Philip Morrison

Thor Heyerdahl made his voyage on the balsa raft in defense of a theory, the theory of the Pacific as a highway by which Peruvian men and ideas came to Polynesia. [Sea Routes to Polynesia is] a set of nine of his papers, mostly written in the 1960's, expounding and elaborating on this theme. His work on the curious multiple centerboards of the Incas that make balsa rafts such as Kon-Tiki capable of tacking and sailing into the wind, and his understanding of long sea voyages under plausible early circumstances, are fully convincing…. Heyerdahl argues that, whereas there are no good sea routes out of America across the Atlantic, there are plausible routes, one equatorial and one southerly, out of America...

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Christopher Wordsworth

Thor Heyerdahl's latest feat is to have reconstructed a papyrus ship from Egyptian tomb-reliefs and crossed the Atlantic in it with a polyglot crew, a stirring enough enterprise in itself, related with his own brand of visionary robustness [in The Ra Expeditions]. But those who know their man will not need telling that his primary motive was not to get from A to B. By demonstrating the unguessed sea-going capabilities of papyrus he has exposed a chink in one of the strong points of an argument that rules out all possibility of early contact between the Mediterranean civilisations of antiquity and the New World. (p. 638)

Kon-Tiki had a specific theory, scientific evidence and a logical...

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The Times Literary Supplement

The voyages of Thor Heyerdahl across the Atlantic provide instructive examples of adventures undertaken ostensibly in search of knowledge. In The Ra Expeditions the story is told of how, in pursuit of an idea, if not of a theory, Mr Heyerdahl at a second attempt succeeded in crossing the Atlantic from Morocco to Barbados in a craft made of papyrus stems lashed together with ropes….

The account of the [first attempt and the second successful voyage] can do nothing but arouse admiration for the temerity and determination of the two crews—amateur in every respect—driven to epic achievement by the obsession of Thor Heyerdahl…. He is very careful not to claim too much, but the implication...

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Geoffrey Bibby

Let it be said immediately that Thor Heyerdahl has pulled it off again. He has written a superb adventure-book ["The Ra Expeditions"] about a superb adventure….

Heyerdahl has lost none of his magic of phrase, and the translation renders faithfully the laconic playing-down of real danger and hard work which comes almost naturally to Norwegians. We are introduced most thoroughly to the reed boat as still existing—in Peru, Mexico, Central Africa and Ethiopia—and this section, a third of the whole book, might be tedious, were it not for the superb color illustrations, and for the circumstance that such fact-finding preliminaries are in real life necessary to the setting-up of experiments, and...

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Timothy Severin

[In The Ra Expeditions Heyerdahl's] narrative—and some of his more provocative theories as well—unfold with deceptive ease. The book is an effortless read and has an old-fashioned adventure story quality that sweeps it along as inexorably as the ocean currents which Heyerdahl believes were the conveyor belts of world culture. Anyone who enjoyed the vicarious thrill of riding them in a balsa raft, will take nostalgic pleasure in this papyrus venture, the cruise of the "paper boat." (p. 9)

Timothy Severin, "Place Your Trust in a Broken Reed," in Book World—Chicago Tribune (© 1971 Postrib Corp.; reprinted by permission of Chicago Tribune and The...

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Philip Snow

Two unique voyages, three ponderous books of scientific probings: what more can Heyerdahl do? He can continue to produce entertaining books.

Fatu-Hiva is of the same quality as his three popular classics, The Kon-Tiki Expedition, The Ra Expeditions and Aku-Aku. But it appears to be a reissue (for the first time in English) of a 1938 Oslo publication, and retains some inevitable naivety….

It was on Fatu-Hiva, the first Polynesian island seen by Europeans nearly 400 years ago, that Heyerdahl came to believe in the likelihood of Polynesia being inhabited from the direction of America. His search for links with ancient South America is indefatigable, but may still...

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Frederick H. Guidry

["Fatu-Hiva"] indefatigably records the details of [Liv and Thor Heyerdahl's] semi-informed leap into another way of life. The account is buoyed by the author's persistent enthusiasm for the project, despite obvious privations, bouts with disease, and incidents of danger.

The journey itself, and not surprisingly the book about it, carries an undertone of hippie-like defiance of modern-day conveniences and customary ways of looking at life and purpose. The reader races ahead to the conclusion that, yes, it is possible to "tear ourselves away from our artificial life," but to what end? Most people do not need to go through such a grueling experience to arrive at such simple knowledge that "we have...

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Robert Trumbull

["Fatu-Hiva"] is an attention-riveting escape book as well as a revealing, if unnecessarily preachy, essay on what white men have done to a once happy South Sea island, and how the island retaliated against a white couple attempting to settle there. Although scarcely the literary equal of some of the work of other authors [such as Robert Louis Stevenson, James Michener, and Herman Melville], or Heyerdahl's own best seller, "Kon-Tiki," it is a valuable contribution to the knowledge of Polynesia and, especially, of Heyerdahl himself and his persuasive, if disputed, theory that the islands were peopled by Western migration from South America. (pp. 10, 12)

[It was on Fatu-Hiva] that Heyerdahl became...

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Adrienne Kaeppler

[Thor Heyerdahl's] ability to write for the general reader and to capture the imagination of all who have hidden desires to discover lost information about exotic peoples has endeared him to a public not overly concerned with scientific facts. After all, what could be more exciting than sailing on a raft from South America to Polynesia or dangerous rope descents to secret storage caves to discover small stone sculptures unknown to all who had gone before? These sculptures are the focus of Heyerdahl's new book The Art of Easter Island. The book's title, impressive size, and extensive illustrations excite one's hope that there might be a dispassionate analysis of art from an island that has always been shrouded...

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Jo-Ann D. Suleiman

[In Early Man and the Ocean: A Search for the Beginnings of Navigation and Seaborne Civilizations], one of the last of the world's great explorers synthesizes and discusses the implications of his combined studies and travels supporting the diffusionist perspective of the global spread of early man. Drawing on the Ra and Kon-Tiki experiences and on his vast knowledge of early civilization and oceanography. Heyerdahl hypothesizes on such topics as the early settlers of South and Central America and the Pacific Islands and the "paths through the seas" of Columbus, the Vikings, and the Spanish conquistadores. Much of this material has been previously published, and there are no startling revelations or departures....

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Toba Korenblum

Much of the credit for establishing early man's rightful foothold in history goes to author-adventurer Thor Heyerdahl, who popularized his theory of the evolution of navigation and civilization in his Kon-Tiki (Pacific) and Ra (Atlantic) expeditions. This slightly repetitive and highly detailed collection of essays [Early Man and the Ocean] bolsters the Norwegian's contention that "invisible marine conveyors"—tides and currents—not only dictated the flow of ancient oceanic traffic, but also determined the diffusion of culture.

More compelling is Heyerdahl's understated, secondary theme, that historical evidence can be manipulated and perverted by scientific bias or ethnocentrism…. For...

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John Hemming

[In The Tigris Expedition Heyerdahl goes to] the very cradle of Western civilization for the most impressive of all his craft and the most satisfying of his theories.

This new venture, the building of a reed boat in Mesopotamia, started with few preconceived theories. Thor Heyerdahl simply wished to prove that the Sumerians were capable of building ocean-going boats from the berdi reeds that grow in such profusion in the Tigris marshes. But as the voyage progressed and the reed boat Tigris proved triumphantly seaworthy, Heyerdahl almost stumbled upon convincing answers to a series of archeological problems. The result is an excellent mix of mariner's yarn and historical detective work…....

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