Thor Heyerdahl

Start Free Trial


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2025

Article abstract: Heyerdahl undertook several successful sea voyages using prehistoric type of craft to demonstrate that early man was skilled in navigation on ocean currents and thus, by transpacific and transatlantic crossings, was able to migrate. He has written numerous books, both popular and scientific, about his voyages and diffusionist theories.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Early Life

Thor Heyerdahl was born in Larvik, Norway, on October 6, 1914. He had numerous siblings by his mother’s two previous marriages and his father’s previous wife, but as they left home early Thor was reared like an only child. His father had inherited money because of the rather early death of his own father and thus was able to establish a successful brewery business. Thor’s mother sheltered his life so that he was allowed few playmates in his early years. In 1933, Heyerdahl entered the University of Oslo to study zoology, and his mother took an apartment there.

Heyerdahl married Liv Coucheron Torp on Christmas Eve, 1936. She had agreed to live with him in the Marquesa Islands, and his father was to finance the venture. Leaving Norway in January, 1937, they went to live on Fatu Hiva but developed medical problems and eventually problems with the natives. In March, 1938, they returned to Norway, where in September their son, Thor, was born.

Heyerdahl’s interest now shifted to primitive peoples. With his family, he traveled to the coast of British Columbia, Canada, to study the Bella Coola Indians, who in many ways resembled the Polynesians on Fatu Hiva. Heyerdahl’s early book På jakt efter paradiset: et år på en sydhavsø (1938); Fatu-Hiva: Back to Nature, 1974) provided the finances for this expedition. Trapped in British Columbia by the German invasion of Norway, and with funds exhausted, Heyerdahl had to work as a manual laborer to support his family, now with a second son, Bjorn. In 1942, he volunteered as a guerrilla with the Free Norwegian Forces and became a lieutenant. He was assigned to train in Nova Scotia and then in Scotland. He did not reach active duty in northern Norway until very shortly before the end of the European front of World War II in May, 1945.

Life’s Work

Early people, their navigational possibilities in terms of ocean currents, and their possible migrations and cultural contacts have been the focus of Heyerdahl’s scientific work. His historic voyage from the coast of Peru to eastern Polynesia, recounted in Kon-Tiki ekspedisjonen (1948; Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific by Raft, 1950), made him world famous. Subsequently, he sailed from the west coast of Morocco to the West Indies and then from the foot of Iraq through the Persian Gulf, to Asia, and on to Africa, where he was blocked by political turmoil. These voyages involved the use of replicas of prehistoric vessels. Heyerdahl’s concern was to demonstrate that early peoples using their type of craft could so migrate. The navigation out of the Persian Gulf indicated that the ancient Sumerians could thus have had contact with numerous other early civilizations.

With the end of World War II, Heyerdahl returned to civilian life. He formulated theories about the origins of the peoples of the Pacific Islands in contrast to the standard perspective that their ancestors had come directly from southeastern Asia. Heyerdahl noted that when Europeans first came to the Pacific Islands, they found some natives with white skins, beards, red or blond hair, and almost Semitic faces; they were said to be descended from the first chiefs of the islands. The ruling family of the Incas also had fair skin, beards, and (for some) red hair. Their ancestors had been there before the Incas became rulers. According to native tradition, in a battle at Lake Titicaca in the high Andes Mountains, the fair race was massacred, but the leader and some others escaped to the Ecuadorian coast and vanished into the Pacific Ocean.

When Heyerdahl’s theories were ignored in academic circles, he decided to sail on a duplicate of a prehistoric raft in order to establish the feasibility of the journey. Locating financial backers and a crew of fellow Norwegians (only one of whom was a trained seaman), he built the raft and set sail on April 28, 1947. The vessel was constructed of logs, which were lashed together allowing the mountainous seas that poured onto it simply to run through the cracks. A cabin on top was built like a jungle dwelling and thus offered a psychological sense of security. A large sail and prehistoric navigational equipment enabled the Kon-Tiki, as the vessel was named, to move in the desired direction, primarily propelled by the powerful ocean currents.

Narrow escapes resulting from uncanny good judgment, courage, confidence, and self-sacrifice led to the sighting, on July 30, of land, an island in the Tuamotu group of the South Sea Islands, but the raft drifted past. Eventually, they were shipwrecked on the reef of an uninhabited island; no lives were lost, and the raft was soon salvaged with the help of natives. By radio, a schooner was sent to bring them to Papeete in Tahiti. There a large Norwegian steamer took them and the Kon-Tiki back to the Western world. The Kon-Tiki is now in a museum at Oslo, Norway, as is the Ra II from a subsequent voyage.

A book by Heyerdahl narrating the Kon-Tiki experiences appeared in Norwegian in 1948. In 1949, a translation into Swedish established a publishing record in its first year. In 1950, an English translation appeared in London and Chicago, where for months it was on the best-seller lists. By 1969, it had been reprinted in sixty different languages, thirty million people had seen a film of the voyage in theaters, and 500 million had seen the film on television.

Shortly after Heyerdahl’s return home from Tahiti, he and his wife decided to separate. In the early summer of 1949 in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he was doing research on North American Indians, he was married to Yvonne Dedekam-Simonsen, who had spent her early years in Oslo. Three daughters, Anette, Marian, and Elisabeth, were born of this union.

In 1952, Heyerdahl published, in London, Chicago, and Stockholm, American Indians in the Pacific: The Theory Behind the Kon-Tiki Expedition. He noted that fishhooks of the Polynesians were almost identical to those of ancient civilizations of North and South America. Yet there was opposition from other scholars, who espoused an isolationist, nondiffusionist viewpoint. Heyerdahl argued that from the mainland of southeast Asia there was an ocean current that ran via the extreme north Pacific via northwest America to Hawaii.

In 1953, Heyerdahl visited the Galapagos Islands off the west coast of South America and found four habitation sites, predating the European period. A book about this appeared in 1956. In 1954, Heyerdahl visited Lake Titicaca in the Andes and formulated the theory that natives from this area were the founders of the Easter Island culture. In 1955, Heyerdahl, his wife, two-year-old Anette, and five archaeologists spent substantial time on Easter Island. His book Aku-Aku: Paaskeoeyas Hemmelighet (1957; Aku-Aku: The Secret of Easter Island, 1958), a popular narrative, discusses their work and propounds that the island was originally settled by two races, the long-ears and the short-ears: The long-ears left their center near Lake Titicaca and landed on Easter Island. Heyerdahl had located archaeological evidence of occupation that had occurred one thousand years earlier than scientists had previously assumed. The scientific account, Archaeology of Easter Island, was published in 1961.

In 1958, in Norway, Heyerdahl suffered influenza with inflammation of the brain. Subsequently, he renovated a home on the Italian Riviera near the mountains. His scientific reputation had been rising for many years. On the 150th anniversary of Oslo University in 1961, an honorary doctorate was bestowed upon him.

In 1969, Heyerdahl made a sea voyage, to investigate where ancient Egyptians could have crossed the Atlantic Ocean. An ancient-style, papyrus-reed boat was built. As with the Kon-Tiki, it also was named in honor of a sun god, in this case the Egyptian Ra. With an international crew of seven, the craft sailed twenty-seven hundred miles in eight weeks but began to collapse about six hundred miles from Barbados in the West Indies. The following year, a new vessel, the Ra II, sailed from the Atlantic coast of Morocco and reached Barbados safely. The book Ra, detailing these adventures, was published in 1970 as was the English translation, The Ra Expeditions.

In 1977, Heyerdahl undertook a third major voyage. The ancient Sumerian people of the third millenium b.c.e. developed an outstanding civilization. Heyerdahl employed Iraqi marsh Arabs aided by Indians from Lake Titicaca to construct a vessel from the Mesopotamian reed, berdi, and with a crew of eleven sailed down the Tigris River through the dangerous Persian Gulf to Oman, to Pakistan, and then over the Indian Ocean to Djibouti at the opening of the Red Sea. This voyage demonstrated that the ancient Sumerians could have made similar voyages and thus benefited from extensive cultural contacts in developing their extraordinary civilization. In 1982-1983, Heyerdahl organized and led two archaeological expeditions to the Maldive Islands in the Indian Ocean to investigate the prehistoric Maldives regarding global trade.


Thor Heyerdahl’s significance lies, first, in his practical demonstration, using prehistoric vessels, that various early peoples could have successfully navigated several lengthy sea routes. Second, on the basis of these voyages and on archaeological evidence, Heyerdahl has argued for various diffusionist theories. He believed that Polynesians did not come directly from the Asian mainland but that some followed the north Pacific current and stopped along the Pacific coast of British Columbia, and of this group some moved via Hawaii to other Pacific islands. For Heyerdahl, a different group of migrants left the Peruvian coast and eventually reached Easter Island and Polynesia. Heyerdahl also demonstrated the feasibility of early man crossing the Atlantic Ocean to the West Indies, again by using the prevailing ocean currents. He argued that these migrants might have contributed to the development of the great American civilizations of the Aztecs and the Incas.

Further, Heyerdahl studied the Sumerians, the brilliant developers of the first great civilization of early Mesopotamia, upon which Western biblical culture is based. Heyerdahl argued that the Sumerian culture was not an isolated one but that, because of his demonstration of the capability of their sailing vessels, they could have traveled as far as Egypt as well as to the important Indus River civilization. Thus, the Sumerian civilization could have grown in part because of these cultural contacts.

Therefore, Heyerdahl has brought into focus the important role that sea voyages could have played in the diffusion of early peoples and the development of their cultures. This aspect of ethnography had not received this much prominence prior to Heyerdahl’s work.


Emory, Kenneth P. “Easter Island’s Position in the Prehistory of Polynesia.” The Journal of the Polynesian Society 81 (March, 1972): 57-69. This article presents arguments against Heyerdahl’s theories. Emory claims that early Polynesians had the maritime capability to reach Easter Island and to build the giant statues. Also, he believes that the Easter Islanders are descendants of an early offshoot of the Polynesians.

Golson, Jack. “Thor Heyerdahl and the Prehistory of Easter Island.” Oceania 36 (Summer, 1965): 38-93. Golson challenges some of Heyerdahl’s hypotheses, using data provided by the Heyerdahl expedition. He argues that the Easter Island script is equally likely to be post-European.

Heyerdahl, Thor. “Feasible Ocean Routes to and from the Americas in Pre-Columbian Times.” American Antiquity 28 (April, 1963): 482-488. This article discusses three possible routes of aboriginal overseas arrivals to the New World and two of departure. Also, studies of plant life demonstrate that some form of transoceanic contact has occurred. Includes a bibliography.

Jacoby, Arnold. Señor Kon-Tiki. Chicago: Rand McNally, 1967. This clearly written, lengthy, and sympathetic biography is by a close friend of Heyerdahl and covers Heyerdahl’s life from a discussion of his early family background until the mid-1960’s. It fills in the gaps between Heyerdahl’s own accounts.

Schumacher, William. “On the Linguistic Aspects of Thor Heyerdahl’s Theory: The So-Called Non-Polynesian Number Names from Easter Island.” Anthropos 71 (May/June, 1976): 806-847. This article discusses linguistic factors in relation to Heyerdahl’s theory about the migrations from the Americas to Polynesia. Includes an extensive bibliography.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Critical Essays