Thor Heyerdahl Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 2025 words.)