Thor Heyerdahl (1914-2002) was a Norwegian archaeologist, ethnologist and explorer, whose interest in cultural development led to speculative theories about the spread of early humanity, culminating in the famous Kon Tiki and Ra expeditions of the mid-20th century, and the creation of experimental archaeology as a constructive concept.
Thor Heyerdahl was born on October 6, 1914 in Larvik, Norway, the son of a local brewer. He became interested very early in zoology, then in geography, and in 1933 he would study both at the University of Oslo. It was also there that he met Björn Kroepelien, a Norwegian adventurer who had once lived on Tahiti during the First World War, and had amassed a large collection of artifacts and documents related to Polynesian history and culture. Access to Kroepelien's library enabled Heyerdahl to do a private study outside the university, and eventually would determine his choice of career as a researcher and traveler.
In early 1936, Heyerdahl married Liv Coucheron-Torp, and immediately they left Norway for Tahiti. They spent one month in the house of a Tahitian leader, where they learned how to survive in natural conditions prior to moving to the Marquesas Islands to spend a year isolated from civilization on the island of Fatu Hiva. What he did and learned was written down in his first book, På Jakt efter Paradiset ("Hunt for Paradise", 1938), in which several local legends spoke of an ancestral home to the east, which led Heyerdahl to speculate that part of Polynesia was colonized by people from South America.
The Kon-Tiki expedition
This South American theory about the colonizing of islands in the Pacific Ocean culminated in a determination to prove the possibility that it did happen. In 1947 Heyerdahl and five companions left Callao, Peru on a raft of balsa logs which he named Kon-Tiki; after three months at sea the raft ran aground on Raroia atoll at the Tuamotou Islands.
The Kon-Tiki Expedition enjoyed international success when it hit bookshelves in 1947. He continued his research of the South American hypothesis by organizing in 1953 an excavation campaign on the Galapagos Islands where he discovered vestiges of Incan origin. Three years later he led a team of 23 mainly Norwegian researchers who carried out important archaeological excavations on Easter Island; there again he found clues which seemingly confirm his theory, but scientific circles remain skeptical about the validity of Thor Heyerdahl's conclusions; among them the finds being found on islands closest to the South American mainland, as well as the more numerous finds throughout Polynesia - as well as human genetic studies - strongly indicating a settlement of the islands by a people whose origins are from Asia. nevertheless, what Heyerdahl succeeded in doing was to prove early native South Americans were capable of constructing and putting to sea a vessel which could sail to distant islands.
The Ra expeditions
In 1969 Heyerdahl's new hypothesis suggested that the ancient Egyptians could have influenced pre-Columbian civilizations. Constructing a papyrus reed boat named Ra after the Egyptian sun god, he set sail from Morocco to South America; midway through the voyage he was forced to abandon the boat as the reeds became severely-waterlogged. The following year he tried again; Ra II, as it was named, was helped by sea currents - as well as a construction crew consisting of Native American reed boat builders from Bolivia - and successfully reached Barbados, showing that the ancient Egyptians were capable of making the voyage. To date, however, no artifacts of Egyptian origin have been found anywhere in the Americas, and nothing documenting such a trip has been found in the Egyptian record.
In 1977 at the age of 63 he undertook a voyage with another reed boat, the Tigris, to study maritime trade routes and cultural exchanges between ancient Sumer and other civilizations from the Middle East to northeastern Africa and to the civilization of the Indus Valley in Pakistan. He would also later devote himself to archaeological research in the Maldives, the Canary Islands, and Túcume in Peru, where twenty-five pyramids are unearthed.
Without having stopped his activity, he died on April 18, 2002 at the age of 87, the result of complications of a brain tumor. He was buried at the family home in Colla Micheri, Italy.