Heyerdahl, Thor

born Oct. 6, 1914, Larvik, Nor.
died April 18, 2002, Colla Michari, Italy

Norwegian ethnologist and adventurer.

After a trip to Polynesia convinced him that Polynesian culture bore traces of South American cultures, he built a raft, the Kon-Tiki, and sailed it from South America to Polynesia in 1947 to demonstrate the possibility of such contact, a trip recounted in his best-selling Kon-Tiki (1950). In 1969 he sailed a reconstruction of an ancient Egyptian reed boat (the Ra) from Morocco to the Caribbean to show that the Egyptians could have had contact with the early peoples of Central and South America. In 1977 he took the reed craft Tigris from the Tigris River in Iraq across the Arabian Sea to Pakistan and back to the Red Sea to demonstrate the possibility of two-way trading journeys that could have spread ancient Sumerian culture eastward. Although he inspired many with his daring expeditions, his theories have not been generally accepted by anthropologists and his methods have been questioned.

Thor Heyerdahl.

Pierre Vauthey
Gamma/Liaison

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▪ 2003

      Norwegian anthropologist, explorer, and writer (b. Oct. 6, 1914, Larvik, Nor.—d. April 18, 2002, near Colla Michari, Italy), attempted to prove his unconventional ideas about prehistoric exploration and migration by re-creating those voyages himself. Although his theories about parallels between ancient cultures far from each other and the possibility that they may have had common origins did not gain acceptance in the scientific community, his exploits and his books about them captured the imagination of the general public. Heyerdahl developed an interest in zoology at a young age, studied zoology and geography at the University of Oslo, and in 1937 traveled to Polynesia to live under primitive conditions while studying life there and its origins. It was there that he began to think that just as plant and animal life had traveled from its origins to new sites in the direction of ocean currents, so might humans have sailed from the east in ancient times and populated distant lands. Following service in the free Norwegian forces during World War II, Heyerdahl in 1947 made a 101-day balsa-raft voyage with a five-man crew to demonstrate that the original Polynesians might have traveled from South America instead of from Southeast Asia, which most scholars believed. He told the story of this trip in his book Kon-Tiki (1950) and documentary film of the same name, which won an Academy Award in 1951. Heyerdahl's next trip (1952–53) was to the Galápagos Islands, where he found what he considered evidence that South American travelers had visited there. He followed that in 1955 with another of his most famous voyages—to Easter Island, which he also thought had been visited by South Americans. He wrote about that trip and his thoughts about the island's huge stone figures in Aku-Aku (1958). Heyerdahl's attention later was directed at Egypt and what he saw as parallels between its ancient culture and that in the Americas, notably pyramid building. In 1969 he set out from Egypt in a reed boat, the Ra, but he had to abandon ship short of his destination in Barbados. The following year, in Ra II, he was successful. During that voyage Heyerdahl witnessed distressing amounts of pollution in the oceans, and he became an outspoken environmentalist. Subsequent trips included his final epic journey, a 1977–78 voyage in another reed ship, Tigris, down the Euphrates and Tigris rivers and the Persian Gulf and across the Indian Ocean. Political conflicts in the area cut the trip short, however, and Heyerdahl burned the ship in protest. Heyerdahl continued leading expeditions—and writing about them—into the 1990s and in 2000 published the autobiography In the Footsteps of Adam.

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▪ Norwegian ethnologist
born October 6, 1914, Larvik, Norway
died April 18, 2002, Colla Micheri, Italy
 Norwegian ethnologist and adventurer who organized and led the famous Kon-Tiki (1947) and Ra (1969–70) transoceanic scientific expeditions. Both expeditions were intended to prove the possibility of ancient transoceanic contacts between distant civilizations and cultures. For the most part, Heyerdahl's theories have not been accepted by anthropologists.

      Heyerdahl attended the University of Oslo, studying zoology and geography, but left before graduating to travel to Polynesia. It was while on Fatu Hiva in the Marquesas that he began to wonder how Pacific inhabitants had reached the islands. On April 29, 1947, Heyerdahl and a small crew sailed from the Pacific coast of South America in the primitive raft Kon-Tiki. Their arrival in Polynesia three and a half months later demonstrated the possibility that the Polynesians may have originated in South America. The story of the voyage was related in Heyerdahl's book Kon-Tiki (1950) and in a documentary motion picture of the same name.

      In 1969 Heyerdahl and a small crew crossed the Atlantic Ocean from Morocco to within 600 miles (965 km) of Central America in a facsimile of an ancient Egyptian reed boat, the Ra, thus confirming the possibility that the pre-Columbian cultures of the Western Hemisphere might have been influenced by Egyptian civilization. Again, the voyage was described by Heyerdahl in The Ra Expeditions (1971) and was the subject of a documentary film.

      Late in 1977 Heyerdahl and an international crew embarked upon the Tigris expedition, a four-month, 4,000-mile voyage in a craft made of reeds. The expedition began on the Tigris River in Iraq, traveling down the Persian Gulf, across the Arabian Sea to Pakistan, and ending in the Red Sea. The goal of the Tigris expedition was to establish the possibility that the ancient Sumerians might have used similar means to spread their culture through southwest Asia and the Arabian Peninsula. The voyage was recorded in Heyerdahl's book The Tigris Expedition (1979) and in a documentary film. He subsequently led research expeditions to the Maldive Islands, to Easter Island, and to an archaeological site in Peru.

      Heyerdahl's other books include Aku-Aku: The Secret of Easter Island (1958); Fatu-Hiva: Back to Nature (1974); and Early Man and the Ocean: A Search for the Beginnings of Navigation and Seaborne Civilizations (1979), in which he synthesized the findings of earlier expeditions and provided additional evidence for his theory of cultural diffusion.

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Universalium. 2010.

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  • Heyerdahl,Thor — Hey·er·dahl (hāʹər däl , hīʹ ), Thor. Born 1914. Norwegian ethnologist and explorer who led the Kon Tiki expedition (1947) on a raft across the Pacific Ocean from Peru to Tuamotu to demonstrate that Polynesians may be of South American origin. In …   Universalium

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