The Kon-tiki expedition

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The Kon-Tiki voyage led by Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl was a huge success and proved beyond doubt that Polynesia could have been settled from South America.


The Kon-Tiki raft

One of the great mysteries of anthropology is how Polynesia – a vast pseudo-country in the Pacific spread triangularly between Rapa Nui, Hawaii and New Zealand – came to be inhabited by people with similar customs, cultures and, notably, languages.

Many theories

One theory, advanced in the 1930s is that the Islands were populated step-by-step from South-East Asia. But many remained unconvinced, including a Norwegian Explorer and Ethnographer by the name of Thor Heyerdahl.

Thor’s theory was that the islands making up Polynesia were settled from the West by natives of South America using ‘drift voyaging’ – basically building a raft with a sail and letting the ocean take you

His primary evidence was the Moai statues on Rapa Nui (known in the West as Easter Island) which, he claimed, owed more to South American than Asian culture. There was also the legend of Kon-Tiki Viracocha, a native chief who is said to have set sail from Peru into the sunset on a balsawood raft.

When making these claims, Heyerdahl was dismissed by most anthropologists with one, Herbert Spinden, exclaiming ‘Sure, see how far you get yourself sailing from Peru to the South Pacific on a balsa Raft!’ Not one to turn down such a challenge, even though it wasn’t necessarily serious, Thor Heyerdahl decided to do just that.

The statues of Easter Island

Easter Island

The crew

Thor set about assembling a crew, each of which could bring a useful skill to the voyage. All had to be hardy and courageous – this was to be a long and treacherous voyage – and it wasn’t long before he’d found his team. In total, the six-man crew consisted of five Norwegians and one Swede.

Herman Watzinger was a thermodynamics engineer. He was in the US studying cooling technology when he met Thor Heyerdahl by chance. He asked if he could join the voyage and Thor agreed instantly, making him second in command. Throughout the voyage he gathered vast amounts of data, providing insights into this largely unstudied area of the ocean at the time.

Erik Hesselberg was a childhood friend of Thor’s who had, as a trained sailor, spent several years in the merchant navy. Thor made him the navigator on the voyage and, thanks to his arts education, was also the one who created the iconic Kon-Tiki image that adorned the raft’s sails.

Knut Haugland was a telegraph operator who, during World War II had participated in the Norwegian heavy water sabotage in 1943, one of the most successful acts of sabotage in the war, preventing the Germans from obtaining heavy water to use in nuclear weapons.

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