Thor Heyerdahl, Kon-Tiki

The Kon-Tiki Expedition Across the Pacific Ocean by balsa wood raft (1947)

In 1947 the balsa wood raft Kon-Tiki was launched. It was named after a legendary seafaring sun-king common to both the old Inca kingdom and the islands of Polynesia. The raft hoisted sail outside the port of CallĂ o in Peru with 6 men onboard. With Thor were 4 other Norwegians, Herman Watzinger, Knut Haugland, Torstein Raaby and Erik Hesselberg, and a Swede, Bengt Danielsson.
During the course of 101 days the raft sailed approx. 8,000 km over the open Pacific Ocean and landed on the Raroia Atoll in the Tuamotu Archipelago. The voyage put the existing view of the balsa wood raft to shame and proved that Polynesia was well within the range of prehistoric South American seafarers. Some scientists refused to believe that the incredible voyage had actually taken place until a documentary film about the expedition was released. The film won an Oscar for best documentary. Thor’s popular book The Kon-Tiki Expedition was later translated into 70 languages.

The Ra Expeditions
Across the Atlantic Ocean by papyrus boat (1969-1970)

During the expedition to Easter Island in 1955-1956, Heyerdahl became interested in reed boats and their seagoing properties. The archaeologists’ excavations had uncovered pictures of large reed boats with masts and sails engraved in the buried statues and painted on flagstones in prehistoric houses. It soon became clear to Heyerdahl that not only balsa wood rafts, but also reed boats, with pre-Incan sailors could have carried the earliest South Americans out over the open Pacific Ocean.
Other researchers had pointed out the obvious similarity between the old reed boats from Mexico and Peru, and the papyrus boats from the earliest civilisations in the Mediterranean region. These anthropologists, who were known as ‘diffusionists’, had listed reed boats as one of the many cultural parallels between the great civilisations of pre-Columbian times on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. They used the reed boat as an argument in the discussion about transoceanic-contact prior to the arrival of the Europeans. Their opponents meanwhile, the ‘isolationists’, pointed to the accepted view that reed boats could not cross oceans. They believed that cultural parallels could be ascribed to independent development.

The Papyrus Institute in Egypt had determined that papyrus-reed rotted and dissolved after two weeks in a water tank.
Despite this, Heyerdahl was convinced that ship builders in the time of the pharaohs would never have used this reed to built enormous seagoing vessels if they had only stayed afloat on the ocean for two weeks. He decided to build a reed boat and cross the Atlantic Ocean with it to see whether or not his assumption was correct.
Ra was launched in the spring of 1969 in the old Phoenician seaport of Safi, Morocco. In order to show that people from different nations could work together even under pressure and difficult circumstances, Heyerdahl picked a crew of 7 men from 7 nations and sailed under the flag of the UN. Ra sailed west with the trade winds and the Northern Equatorial Stream. The reed bundles proved to be incredibly buoyant. Despite broken steering oars and poor weather, Ra had sailed 5,000 km in 8 weeks before the loss of bundles on the starboard side made Heyerdahl call off the experiment, just one week before they would have reached Barbados, in the West Indies.

Ten months later Heyerdahl launched a new papyrus boat – Ra II – from the same Moroccan seaport.

This time he had brought four Aymara Indians over from Lake Titicaca in South America to build the vessel.
The Aymara still built reed boats on the shores of this stormy mountain lake in the Andes, 4,000 m above sea level, using the same methods used in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt.
The entire crew from the first Ra voyage wanted to repeat the experiment and, with the addition of a representative from yet another nation, Heyerdahl hoisted the sail on Ra II. This boat was only 12 m long, but was structurally far stronger than Ra.

Ra II crossed the Atlantic Ocean and sailed the approx. 6,100 km from Safi in Morocco to Barbados in the West Indies in 57 days. Since this time the experiment had been successful, anthropologists across the entire world had to forget the old dogma that papyrus boats could not have brought cultural impulses from North Africa to Central America in pre-Columbian times.

During the Ra voyage, Heyerdahl wrote his first letter to the UN about the fact that the oceans of the world were becoming polluted. He was asked by the Secretary-General of the UN to make daily pollution observations during the Ra II voyage. Hardened clumps of tar were collected on 43 days of the 57-day voyage. In this way the voyage helped to raise awareness of the need to stop the pollution of the world’s seas.
Heyerdahl presented reports about the pollution problem to the UN’s first conference on oceanic law, committees of the USA’s senate and congress, the USSR’s scientific academy and in a long series of campaigns for the conservation of the world’s seas.

Following the expedition a book was published about the Ra expeditions, as well as a documentary, which was nominated for an Oscar.

The Tigris Expedition
Across the Indian Ocean by reed boat (1978)

In ancient times, reed boats were used as vessels in the Mediterranean from the Middle East to the Atlantic coast.
Thor Heyerdahl now became interested in the highly controversial question concerning whether or not there had originally been contact between the three ‘mother’ civilisations in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Indus Valley.
In all of these three culturally related regions prehistoric artists had left behind illustrations of the same kind of reed boat on which he himself had crossed the Atlantic Ocean.

Heyerdahl had learnt from the Marsh Arabs in the former Sumerian region of Iraq that the reeds would only retain their buoyancy properties if they were cut in the month of August. Heyerdahl decided to try this, and at the same time experiment with the navigation of a reed ship. His previous sea voyages had been purely drifting voyages.
In 1977, Heyerdahl built his largest reed vessel, 18 m long, where the Euphrates and Tigris rivers meet in the former Mesopotamia, now Iraq. The vessel was named Tigris.

Tigris was constructed of reed bundles lashed together by marsh Arabs under the leadership of the same South American Indians who had built Ra II. Once again Heyerdahl sailed under the flag of the UN, with an international crew of 11 men, of whom 3 were earlier companions from the two Ra voyages: Norman Baker (USA), Yuri Senkevich (USSR), and Carlo Mauri (Italy).
Tigris sailed 6,800 km. First they sailed down Shatt-el-Arab in Iraq to the Persian Gulf and out into the Indian Ocean. Thereafter the voyage took them, via Muscat in Oman, to the Indus Valley in Pakistan, before finally le
aving Asia and sailing across the Indian Ocean to Africa.

The 5 month long journey ended in Djibouti at the mouth of the Red Sea. Surrounded by wars on all sides, the expedition’s members decided in April 1978 to burn the vessel.
At the same time the expedition’s members also sent a unanimous appeal to the UN asking it to stop arms deliveries to developing countries in the region of the world where the foundations of our own civilisation were laid.

Tigris had, unlike Kon-Tiki and the two Ra boats, sailed to predetermined harbours independent of the wind and current conditions, and lay high enough in the water to be consumed by flames.


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