“Limits? I’ve never seen them. But I’ve heard that they exist in some people’s minds.” These sentences by the zoologist, ethnologist, archaeologist and discoverer Thor Heyerdahl, born in 1914, say a lot about him. The Norwegian had his own ideas about the development of cultures and was not stopped by the fact that the established science considered his ventures to be pure suicide actions.
In 1947, Heyerdahl crossed the Pacific with a raft made of balsa wood to prove that the Indians of South America were able to cover this distance 1500 years ago. The adventure with the “Kon-Tiki” made him world famous – but although he was successful, his theory about the settlement of Polynesia from South America met with rejection among experts.
Now researchers report in the journal “Nature”that Native Americans actually reached Polynesia in pre-Columbian times. Genetic analyzes therefore indicate that there was contact between the American continent and eastern Polynesia more than five centuries before the arrival of Europeans. The first meeting of Polynesians and Americans was probably between 1150 and 1230.
The journey with the “Kon-Tiki” was not the only adventure of Heyerdahl. In May 1970 the bold Norwegian sailed in a papyrus boat, the “Ra II”, from Morocco to the Caribbean island state of Barbados. 57 days later, on July 12, 1970, the eight-member team reached its capital, Bridgetown. The successful completion of the venture – which was only successful on the second attempt – was 50 years ago.
Primitive boats made of grass
“Thor Heyerdahl was convinced that people from ancient cultures could cross the oceans,” explains Heyerdahl expert Halfdan Tangen Jr., who has been in Oslo for 16 years Kon Tiki Museum has worked. “And he had the financial means to do such adventurous experiments.”
Heyerdahl did not believe that people on the continents developed independently of one another. The early cultures in Egypt and Peru had a lot in common. Both built pyramids, worshiped the sun, mastered writing and sailed in reed boats. Heyerdahl was certain that the two cultures were in contact with each other. With the Kon-Tiki expedition, he had proven that it was possible to cross the Pacific with a balsa raft. Now he wanted to prove that it was possible to cross the 6000 km wide Atlantic at an early stage: in primitive boats made of grass.
A common goal
Heyerdahl found the construction instructions for boats made of papyrus on the walls of pharaoh tombs in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt. He hired traditional ship builders from Chad and had his boat named after the sun god Ra built against the backdrop of the Cheops pyramid in Giza, which attracted journalists from all over the world. On May 25, 1969 the “Ra” set sail in Safi, Morocco.
The team on board came from seven countries. “Heyerdahl wanted to prove that we people can work together regardless of religion, politics and culture if we have a common goal,” explains Tangen. A little monkey also kept the men company.
The “Ra II”
But the trip was not easy. The rudder broke, the sail broke, and little by little parts of the hull came loose. After 50 days the ship threatened to sink and the crew had to be rescued from Barbados, just 650 kilometers away, by motorboat.
But Heyerdahl didn’t give up. He realized that the construction was faulty and asked Aymara Indians from Lake Titicaca in Peru for help to build a new boat. On May 17, 1970, the “Ra II” left the port of Safi, with almost the same crew.
Environmental activist Heyerdal
On the second Ra expedition, Heyerdahl took a Japanese cameraman on board who documented the trip. He also persuaded a completely inexperienced hotel employee in Morocco, who was given the task of mapping oil scraps on the way.
Because Heyerdahl had become more and more an environmental activist. During the first Ra trip, the crew found large quantities of oil clumps in the sea and informed the United Nations. It turned out that tankers cleaned their tanks in the sea. Among other things, Heyerdahl’s commitment finally led to the worldwide banning of oil draining into the sea in 1972.
“He had a great belief in himself”
The second attempt across the Atlantic was a success and the team was cheered in the port of Bridgetown. Heyerdahl had proven that the ancient Egyptians were able to cross the Atlantic. It is not known whether they actually did.
In any case, Heyerdahl had once again shown that the oceans were not insurmountable frontiers that prevented people from discovering other countries. “Heyerdahl was once again a hero,” says Tangen, who got to know the charismatic discoverer himself. “He had a great belief in himself and didn’t let his plans stop him.” The Norwegian died in 2002.