This charismatic Norwegian explorer, anthropologist and author was born in 1914. After studying zoology and geography at the University of Oslo, he took his new wife on honeymoon in 1936 to the remote Polynesian island of Fatu Hiva, where he wanted to become one with nature and to study the flora and fauna. At that time, the island had no running water or electricity! It was during this period that he developed his fascination with the problems of long-distance migration.
At that time, most scientists believed that Polynesia was populated by people sailing from Asia. Heyerdahl research showed that the winds and currents came steadily from the east and that South American plants such as the sweet potato were to be found in Polynesia, which suggested to him that migrants could have reached the islands much more easily from the Americas to the east.
After serving in the Free Norwegian Forces during World War II, he put together a team of young men and sailed over 4,000 miles from Peru to Polynesia in 1947 on a balsa-wood raft named the Kon-Tiki, not just made from the pattern of ancient South American rafts, but utilising the same tools, materials and techniques as the original builders. It caused an international stir, to the extent that The Shadows had a hit instrumental single called … Kon-Tiki!
Heyerdahl continued his practical archaeological work with an expedition to Easter Island in the 1950s to show that South Americans had travelled throughout the Pacific centuries before Columbus crossed the Atlantic.
In the 1960s and 70s, he made three long distance trips in reed ships modelled on ancient sailing boats. The first two voyages crossed the Atlantic in papyrus ships Ra I and Ra II. The expeditions showed that ancient craft were capable of surviving ocean voyages, but they had another purpose too, by choosing a crew of diverse ethnic, religious and political backgrounds, Heyerdahl promoted the idea of international cooperation and demanded international attention be paid the pollution of the world’s oceans. The third voyage, aboard the reed ship Tigris navigated from Iraq to the Red Sea, via Pakistan to demonstrate that contact was feasible between the great ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley and Egypt.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Heyerdahl investigated a complex of 26 ancient pyramids at Tucume, Peru. In 1994 he co-founded FERCO, the Foundation for Exploration and Research on Cultural Origins, which awards annual research grants for scholars to explore the interactions between ancient peoples, primarily by sea.
Almost until the day of his death, Heyerdahl continued to work on archaeological projects and gave talks. He was the author of numerous books and articles, both scientific and popular. Among the best known are ‘Kon-Tiki’, the story of his epic Pacific voyage which has been translated into 65 languages, ‘Aku-Aku’, about his work on Easter Island, and ‘The Ra Expeditions’. His last book, published in 2001 in Norwegian, was called ‘The Hunt for Odin’, in which he argued that the Norse God was actually a real historical figure – given the strength of his previous discoveries, it may not be long before we find ourselves looking at the bones of a god!
He died in 2002 aged 87.