Thor Heyerdahl, Ph.D (October 6, 1914 - April 18, 2002) was (originally) a marine biologist with a great interest in anthropology, born in Larvik, Norway, who became famous for his Kon-Tiki Expedition in 1947. This expedition demonstrated there were no technical reasons to prevent people from South America from having settled the Polynesian Islands. Nevertheless most anthropologists continue to believe, based on physical and genetic evidence, that Polynesia was settled from west to east, migration having begun from the Asian mainland.
In the Kon-Tiki Expedition, he and a small team went to South America where they used trees and other native materials to construct a raft, which smashed into the reef at Raroia in the Tuamotu Islands on August 7, 1947 after a 101 day 4,300 mile journey across the Pacific Ocean, proving that pre-historic peoples could have traveled from South America. The only modern technology they had was communications equipment. For food, they lived off the fruit of the ocean. The documentary of the expedition won an Academy Award in 1952.
"If you had asked me as a 17-year-old whether I would go to sea on a raft, I would have absolutely denied the possibility. At that time, I suffered from fear of the water," Heyerdahl once said.
In subsequent years, Heyerdahl was involved with many other expeditions and archaeological projects. However, he remained best known for his boat-building, and for his emphasis on cultural diffusionism. He built the boats Ra and Ra II in order to demonstrate that Ancient Egyptians could have communicated with the Americas. His boat Tigris was intended to demonstrate that trade and migration could have linked the Indus Valley Civilisation in India with Mesopotamia. The Tigris was deliberately burnt in Djibouti, on April 3, 1978 as a protest against the wars raging on every side in the Red Sea and Horn of Africa. In Heyerdahl's open letter to the Secretary of the United Nations he said in part:
- ' Today we burn our proud ship... to protest against inhuman elements in the world of 1978... Now we are forced to stop at the entrance to the Red Sea. Surrounded by military airplanes and warships from the world's most civilized and developed nations, we have been denied permission by friendly governments, for reasons of security, to land anywhere, but in the tiny, and still neutral, Republic of Djibouti. Elsewhere around us, brothers and neighbors are engaged in homicide with means made available to them by those who lead humanity on our joint road into the third millennium.
- 'To the innocent masses in all industrialized countries, we direct our appeal. We must wake up to the insane reality of our time.... We are all irresponsible, unless we demand from the responsible decision makers that modern armaments must no longer be made available to people whose former battle axes and swords our ancestors condemned.
- 'Our planet is bigger than the reed bundles that have carried us across the seas, and yet small enough to run the same risks unless those of us still alive open our eyes and minds to the desperate need of intelligent collaboration to save ourselves and our common civilization from what we are about to convert into a sinking ship.'
Heyerdahl's expeditions were spectacular, and his heroic journeys in flimsy boats caught the public imagination. But his diffusionist theories were considered eccentric and old-fashioned by most archaeologists. His central claims that migrations linked comparable ancient civilisations have not been supported by more recent evidence. He has even been accused of an 'imperialist' mentality. However Heyerdahl undoubtedly increased public interest in ancient history and in the achievements of various cultures and peoples around the world.