Wendell C. Bennett

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 477

[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.

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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."

The greatest part of the book is devoted to the Kon-Tiki thesis, namely the Peruvian migrations….

The quantity and quality of the materials which Mr. Heyerdahl has assembled are too great to be ignored. Henceforth, American contributions to the Polynesian cultures will have to be considered. However, there are still serious objections to attributing total Polynesian origins to the New World. One is physical, namely how a distinctive Polynesian racial type could be derived from two basically Mongoloid Indian stocks. Mr. Heyerdahl argues at length that there was a "Caucasoid" strain in the early Indian populations, but the data are far from adequate.

A second is linguistic. The Polynesian languages are noted for their simple phonetics, analytic structure and positional syntax. The languages of Peru and the Northwest Coast are phonetically complex and extremely poly-synthetic in their extensive use of affixes. These differences cannot be dismissed with what Mr. Heyerdahl calls a "softening" process. Instead, the affiliations of Polynesia are with the Malayan languages.

A third is archeological. The ancient Peruvian civilizations long before 450 A.D. placed great emphasis on weaving, ceramics, metalwork and domesticated maize. All of these are absent in Polynesia, although there existed suitable clays, native cotton and an intensive agricultural pattern.

Mr. Heyerdahl has, perhaps deliberately, overstated his case. In spite of his voluminous arguments, he has not yet resolved the question of Polynesian origins, but he has at least introduced a new chapter.

Wendell C. Bennett "Behind the Bold Kon-Tiki Voyage," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1953 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 9, 1953, p. 1.

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