On My Shelves: Kon-Tiki



     Once upon a time, there was a Norwegian adventurer and would-be anthropologist who noted some strange parallels between the language and culture of various Polynesian islands and certain languages and cultures on the coast of South America. Thor Heyerdahl came up with a crazy theory: maybe the Polynesian islands were settled, not from Asia, but from the Americas!


     There were many reasons people argued against this idea, although there were certain appealing elements of the theory. However, from the point of view of most, there was one absolutely damning argument against it: the South American tribes in question had no boats, only clumsy-looking balsa wood rafts. Such a craft could never possibly travel literally thousands of miles across open ocean to make it to the Polynesian islands, and even if the craft could, there was no way to carry provisions to keep people alive that long.


     Heyerdahl thought that other people were seriously underestimating the capabilities of such primitive-seeming technology, but after considerable time and effort spent trying to make his argument in an academic context, he came to realize that, in the end, there was only one way to break that argument against his theory:


     Actually sail a balsa-wood raft across the Pacific.


     This is the story of Kon-Tiki, the balsa-wood raft built by Thor Heyerdahl and his companions from logs dragged from the heart of the Ecuadorian forests, and then sailed successfully for 4,300 miles to arrive at the island of Raroia, 101 days after setting sail. This is one of the great adventures of modern history, an adventure so wide-ranging and preposterous that it sounds like fiction, and is  a vindication of Heyerdahl's faith that ancient peoples' methods and technologies were far, far more capable and resilient than we moderns usually give them credit for.


     The book Kon-Tiki chronicles the adventure from Heyerdahl's early years in the South Seas, learning the facts that eventually led him to his theory, to his service in World War II, and to a discussion in the Explorer's Club that leads him to actually begin the venture. We get to watch all the challenges that they had to overcome simply to get the trees necessary to make the raft, and to figure out the overall design of a sailing vessel which hadn't been constructed for centuries.


     In this lead-up sequence, Kon-Tiki has an almost Verneian feel, with the adventurer starting from some level of mundanity, having some idea, and then just happening to find all the people to make his idea a reality (including an international Explorer's Club!).


     And finally we set sail with the Kon-Tiki and are captured by the magic of the sea in a way that few other books have managed. These six men sail across the sea on a low raft, yet not in desperation; in wonder and fascination, on a drive to explore and learn. Their descriptions of the sea are different from any others I have read, and come, I think, from the fact that they lived and slept and watched at a height of inches from the water, drifting without motor or sign of human technology.


     Thor Heyerdah's theories of human migration from South America to the Polynesian islands, alas, did not succeed as well as the raft itself. It is generally accepted today that most of the colonization occurred from the west and north – although some relatively recent genetic testing indicates that there is some small South American component in some Polynesian genetics, so perhaps an occasional raft did in fact make the voyage.


     But the failure of the theory does not diminish the wonderful and imagination-firing voyage that Thor Heyerdahl and his five companions – Erik Hesselberg, Bengt Danielsson, Knut Haugland, Torstein Raaby, and Herman Watzinger – completed in 1947. The true purpose of that voyage was to prove the power of human inventiveness and courage, and in that Kon-Tiki succeeded brilliantly.


     This was one of my favorite books when I was younger, and I must have read it four or five times easily. Now I have to dig it back out and read it again…







  1. Karl-Johan Norén says:

    Yeah, I read it too when I was 10 or so. The sheer craziness of the people is staggering, if they hadn’t actually gone ahead and done it no-one would believe the story. And it’s staggeringly funny at times – Danielsson’s attempt to get an exit visa from Peru is a favourite of mine.

  2. Louis Robinson says:

    Great book! I’m not sure I believed the story about the whale shark the first time I read it. Seemed way too out there to me. But, as it turned out, what did I know about sharks when i was 8, anyway?

    IIRC, that was the first such vessel to be built in 4 centuries – they were still figuring out how to sail her when they ran into that reef. Strange how the Spanish made what turned out to be very accurate drawings, but didn’t bother to record any operational info on them.

  3. There clearly was at least one, possibly two, contacts between Polynesians and Native Americans. One is mentioned by Heyerdahl, and is the word kumara for the sweet potato, as well as the sweet potato itself, which were clearly picked up by Polynesian voyagers from South America. The other is the development of Polynesian-style sewn plank canoes by the Chumash people of the California coast: this design is otherwise unknown in America, and their word for them closely resembles a proto-Polynesian term for the logs of which they were made. But the linguistic and DNA evidence that the Polynesians came from the west is beyond all doubt.

Your comments or questions welcomed!