A Brief History
On May 17, 1970, Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl’s boat made of reeds in the ancient way set sail across the Atlantic Ocean to prove people from North Africa could have reached the New World by boat.
Heyerdahl, born in 1914, was already famous for his 1947 voyage from South America to Polynesia on his balsa wood raft, Kon-Tiki, proving Native South Americans could have traveled to Polynesia, thus being the source for the population there.
Making the nearly 5000 mile trip in 101 days, the Kon-Tiki voyage prompted other adventurers to replicate the voyage, and several successfully did so, strengthening Heyerdahl’s thesis. The documentary film about the voyage won a 1951 Oscar (Academy Award) and the remake also won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film of 2012.
Unknown to scientists at the time of Kon-Tiki’s voyage, the DNA evidence available today indicated that Polynesian people had probably come from Southeast Asia and not South America. Even in the 1940’s through 1970’s critics of Heyerdahl disputed his theory about the settling of Polynesia.
Still, in 1970, Heyerdahl was a celebrity and a respected ethnologist when he attempted the Ra and Ra II expeditions. The Ra was made of papyrus reeds in the manner of the Middle East, and in 1969 made it to within 100 miles of Caribbean islands, before modifications made during the trip caused the boat to fall apart. The Ra II was made of a different variety of reed (totora) and made its voyage in 1970 to Barbados with comparative ease, proving travel from North Africa to the Western Hemisphere was possible even thousands of years ago.
A documentary of the Ra and Ra II voyages was made in 1972, and Heyerdahl showcased the multi-ethnic, multi-nationality nature of his crews. He also took many samples of marine pollution along the way, a valuable scientific contribution.
Always one to preach the message of peace and of people getting along, in 1978 Heyerdahl burned his third great adventure craft, the Tigris in Djibouti as a protest to the wars and military posturing going on in the Red Sea and Horn of Africa area at that time.
The Tigris was also a reed boat, this time made and launched from Iraq, demonstrating how Mesopotamians could have traveled to Pakistan and on to the Red Sea. Although seaworthy and successful, Tigris was stopped by military vessels from entering the Red Sea, prompting the public burning of the craft.
Heyerdahl continued to research his theories of how ancient people and civilizations spread, ranging from Central Asia to Scandinavia and islands in the oceans. He wrote numerous books and frequently spoke presenting his views and adventures. Along the way Heyerdahl earned many honors and awards (academic and otherwise) including having a Norwegian frigate (destroyer like warship) named after him.
Heyerdahl died of a brain tumor in 2002, and although many other scientists disagreed with his theories, he did inspire many researchers and adventurers to embark on a variety of expeditions in the manner of Heyerdahl’s. Truly a modern adventurer, few people in the past 70 years could match his exploits. Question for students (and subscribers): Who would you consider his peers as modern adventurers? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Crampton, Patricia and Thor Heyerdahl. The Ra Expeditions (English and Norwegian Edition). Doubleday, 1971.