Thor Heyerdahl The Times Literary Supplement - Essay

The Times Literary Supplement

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 of the whole book is that Egyptians colonized America, probably by chance, and that they did it by means of papyrus craft.

It is as an adventure story that The Ra Expeditions must be judged, not as an account of a serious scientific experiment. The principal reason why this is so is that the basic premise of Mr Heyerdahl's thinking does not stand up to close examination. Did the Egyptians in fact use papyrus vessels for sea voyages? There is not a scrap of good evidence to support the idea. On the contrary, there is much evidence to show that the sea-going ships of the Egyptians were built of wood….

[Possibilities] are not enough to satisfy the serious student. Mr Heyerdahl has shown that it is possible to travel from Africa to America by papyrus craft. He has not demonstrated that the Egyptians used papyrus for large vessels or that they undertook sea voyages in such craft….

To the prosaic scholar the idea of voyaging to America in a papyrus craft is unacceptable, not because of the danger, but because of its implausibility in the face of the ancient evidence. Happily for the watching world and the reading public Mr Heyerdahl chose to follow his own instincts. If he had considered the evidence more closely, he might never have built Ra I and Ra II, and the history of adventure would have been much the poorer.

"Unepistemological Expedition," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1971; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3617, June 25, 1971, p. 745.∗