Wednesday, February 17, 2016
Kon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl
Like an amazing adventure novel, only true
As a young man, ethnographer, geographer, and zoologist Thor Heyerdahl spent his honeymoon on the island of Fatu Hiva in the Marquesas, where he and his wife lived among the natives. While there, the islanders told him legends of an ancient progenitor, a hero named Kon-Tiki who came from the East, the first of their people to settle these islands. The more Heyerdahl studied Polynesian culture, the more he became convinced that there was truth to these legends. Noticing cultural and artistic similarities between the peoples of South America and the South Pacific, he developed the theory that the Polynesian islands were populated by descendants of the Inca. Most scholars scoffed at his idea on the basis that these ancient cultures did not possess the maritime technology to perform such a monumental nautical feat as crossing the Pacific. Heyerdahl decided the only way to substantiate his theory was to prove this objection false. He resolved to sail across the Pacific from Peru to Polynesia on a raft such as the ancient Peruvian peoples were known to have built. He recruited five of his Norwegian countrymen to accompany him on the journey. In April 1947 they set off into the open sea on their tiny balsa wood craft. Heyerdahl named the raft Kon-Tiki, after the ancient Polynesian forefather. In 1948 he published an account of the journey in Norwegian, titled The Kon-Tiki Expedition: By Raft Across the South Seas. The book was published in English in 1950, titled simply Kon-Tiki, and became an international best seller.
Heyerdahl and company’s daring adventure in experimental archaeology makes for a fantastic read. This is due in no small part to the fact that Heyerdahl is not only a bold explorer and talented scientist; he’s also an excellent writer. The prose often reads like literature. Even the more scientific passages are far from dull. Heyerdahl imbues them with the same enthusiasm for discovery, wonder of nature, and reverence for sea life that made Jacques Cousteau famous. The dangers and joys of the expedition are chronicled with gripping immediacy and eloquence. Heyerdahl tracks the process of his journey from the initial conception of his ethnographic theory, through the logistical planning stages and building of the raft, the long perilous ocean voyage, and the triumphant arrival in the Tuamotu Archipelago. Every step of the way, the reader is on the edge of his seat, worrying and cheering for these brave (some might say foolhardy) explorers as they struggle to complete their epic voyage.
I only have two reservations about this book. 1) Was it really necessary to kill so many sharks? 2) Heyerdahl’s continual assertion that the South Americans who settled Polynesia were white-skinned, bearded, and blonde- or red-haired, which leads him to the speculation that the Inca themselves may have had European origins. By today’s standards, the idea that Caucasians may have been responsible for advanced Native American civilizations comes across as a case of White Eurocentric wishful thinking. That portion of his theory may have flown in 1947, but would likely meet with heated opposition were it proposed today. Overall, was Heyerdahl’s theory correct? Was Polynesia settled by South Americans? There’s evidence for and against that contention, and I’m in no position to argue either way. I’m prone to think there was probably a lot of prehistoric intercontinental travel that we don’t know about. Regardless, it is certainly a question to ignite the imagination, and I respect and admire Heyerdahl for laying his life on the line to investigate the possibility. His articulate account of that bold and historic experiment is educational, entertaining, and exhilarating.
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