Born on 6th October 1914, Thor Heyerdahl had questions about the origins of human civilisations - and he battled wild oceans to find the answers.

Thor Heyerdahl

It could have been just another embarrassing moment in the life of a shy young man. Thor Heyerdahl, tall, handsome, Norwegian, but painfully self-conscious, had gone to a graduation ball against his better judgment and was now regretting it.  He was trying to make small talk to a pretty girl with direct blue eyes; she was the only stranger in the room, and their conversation was stilted at best. Boldly, he suggested they walk down to the beach; and then, in desperation, he blurted out his outrageous proposal: “What would you think about going back to nature?”

Three years later, in 1937, Heyerdahl stood on another beach with the same girl;  her name was Liv Torp, and she was now his bride. On the beach with them were trunks containing, among other things, her wedding gown and his dinner jacket;  but these were no use to them now. Eight and a half thousand miles from home, on a remote island in the South Pacific, they were about to start another life, in a paradise that Heyerdahl had been dreaming of almost since birth. 

‘We were sure then, and I still am, that the only place where it is possible to find nature as it always was is within man himself. There it is, unchanged, now as always.’  (Fatu-Hiva, 1974)

In the 1930s, the task of telling two sets of parents that you wanted to spend a lifetime in another hemisphere, deliberately marooned from most forms of contact, cannot have been an easy one. But Heyerdahl had a passion that knew no fear and a vision that would always find a way. For years he had been planning, poring over maps of the ocean, selecting an island that would suit his dream. Inspired by a university professor, he had a crazy idea: to settle on a volcanic island, one which had been created only recently in geological terms, and discover where the animals had come from to colonise it. Not only did Heyerdahl require his parents’ cooperation, but he also needed financial support. With clear-sighted love, they gave both. 

Thor and Liv’s idyll in the Marquesas Islands – Fatu-Hiva – was, in fairly rapid succession, thrilling, enchanting and challenging. The native people, although not overtly hostile, presented a cultural barrier that was impossible to overcome.  Within a couple of years the couple admitted themselves defeated, partly by the ever-present risk of tropical diseases. But when they returned to Norway, Heyerdahl’s curiosity persisted. He was fascinated by the origin, not only of the wildlife, but of the humans who had settled on those islands. Where had they come from?  How had they got there? 

Both in South America and on Fatu-Hiva, Heyerdahl had heard some intriguing legends about the origin of the Polynesian people. An Inca legend told of a sun-god named Kon-Tiki Viracocha who lived on the shores of Lake Titicaca in the Andes.  When Kon-Tiki was attacked by a rival chief, he and his companions fled to the Pacific coast and headed west across the sea.  On some Pacific islands, native people hailed this sun-god as the founder of their civilisation. This contradicted the accepted scientific theory, which was that the Polynesian islands were colonised by voyagers from south-east Asia. 

Heyerdahl believed that these legends preserved memories of an actual historical event. But no one would listen to his arguments, so he had one option left, which was to recreate the voyage.  His decided that his vessel would be called the Kon-Tiki, and he would build it himself. His plan was greeted with universal scepticism, which only strengthened his resolve.

The Kon-Tiki in the Kon-Tiki Museum, Norway

Finding people to accompany him on his outrageous expedition was easier than Heyerdahl expected. At the Sailors’ Home in New York, where Heyerdahl had been eking out the last remnants of his cash, he met Herman Watzinger, an engineer from Trondheim; and his invitation to three friends – Torstein Raaby, Knut Haugland and Erik Hesselberg - was met with enthusiastic acceptance. The sixth and final place was taken by Bengt Danielsson, a Swedish anthropologist who could speak Spanish.

In Ecuador, Heyerdahl cut lengths of balsa timber which were floated to the coast of Peru, where construction began. The resulting craft was partially decked in bamboo, with masts of mangrove wood and a cabin thatched with banana leaves. It would be powered only by sails and steered by a rudder made of mangrove and fir. This presented a new puzzle, because in the old drawings of such rafts there were no clues as to how it should be handled at sea. The men were going to have to learn as they went along, and hope that the Humboldt Current would do the rest. 

The Kon-Tiki in the Kon-Tiki Museum, Norway

Two hundred gallons of water were taken on board, along with crates of coconuts and sweet potatoes.  Sleeping bags, canned food, navigational instruments and a radio were donated by the US military. On 28th April 1947, six men and a parrot (a last-minute gift) set sail from Callao in the wake of the South American sun-god. 

Doom-mongers had predicted that the raft would rapidly disintegrate, but in the first few weeks the Kon-Tiki survived terrifying rogue waves and proved herself to be entirely seaworthy.  Heyerdahl had calculated that it would take 97 days to sail 4,300 miles from Peru to Polynesia, and with uncanny timing the Kon-Tiki arrived at Angatau in the Tuamotu islands on the 97th day. Beaching the raft proved hazardous and it was another four days before they were finally pulled to safety on Raroia atoll. They were exhausted but jubilant. They had made it. 

Heyerdahl felt that he had proved his theory beyond reasonable dispute.  Scientists disagreed, because the archaeological and cultural evidence for his claim simply did not exist.  At best, Heyerdahl was regarded as an eccentric, a misguided explorer who was clouding history with fantasy. The Kon-Tiki expedition elevated him to celebrity status and his self-penned book about the voyage sold over 20 million copies, but the doors to academic acceptance remained firmly closed. 

Far from sulking in obscurity, Heyerdahl followed the Kon-Tiki expedition with several more projects, each one aiming to blow the cobwebs away from a legend that was half-lost in the mists of folk memory.  In 1970 he sailed from Morocco to the Caribbean in a papyrus boat, proving that these ancient vessels were more than capable of crossing the Atlantic;  and in 1978 a ship built of reeds bore him down the Persian Gulf and westwards across the Arabian Sea, tracing a route that may have been used 5,000 years ago by the Sumerians of Mesopotamia. Whatever Heyerdahl was trying to reveal about the origins of early people, there could be no doubt about his own seafaring ancestry.  He was a modern-day Viking, and he was taking a sword to preconceived ideas about world civilisations.

In 2011, nine years after Heyerdahl’s death, Professor Erik Thorsby of the University of Oslo conducted some DNA testing on the inhabitants of Easter Island and came up with a startling result. While the islanders’ genetic ancestry lay in Asia, DNA from native Americans had been introduced sometime between the mid-13th and the late 15th centuries.  Heyerdahl’s theory contained an element of truth after all. 

And if Heyerdahl’s passionately-held beliefs still divide scientific opinion, there can be no disputing the wisdom of his philosophy. He had the gift of being able to stand away from the world, and see, as if from a great distance, the harm that was being done by human exploitation. He had no illusions, and he issued some stark warnings about what must be done.  Eighty-five years after he first set sail for Fatu-Hiva, his words still ring true.

‘Men shave and cut their hair, and women dye and curl their hair, paint their faces and put on false eyelashes, but below the skin nothing is ever altered. We cannot get away from ourselves. We have nowhere to retreat to, no choice but to help one another to build a durable civilisation in harmony with whatever natural environment we have left.’  (Fatu-Hiva, 1974)

Thor Heyerdahl was awarded the RSGS Mungo Park medal ‘for his leadership, courage and enterprise in navigating the Kon-Tiki raft from South America to Polynesia.’


Heyerdahl receiving the Mungo Park Medal from RSGS President John (Ian) Bartholomew, from The Scotsman, 16th February 1951.


Signatures of Heyerdahl and his second wife, Yvonne, in RSGS Visitors’ Book.


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Article by Jo Woolf for RSGS, October 2015

Quotes & reference: 

Thor Heyerdahl, The Kon-Tiki Expedition (1950);  Fatu-Hiva (1974)

The Kon-Tiki Museum: