The quest to map our planet’s cultures in the early part of the 20th century was a colossal undertaking, equal parts rigorous scientific research and heroic exploration. In the case of Norwegian ethnographer Thor Heyerdahl, he answered many of our biggest questions about civilization by sailing faithfully re-created primitive boats across oceans, making landfall in places few civilized people had been. Heyerdahl’s most famous discovery came in 1947 when he set out to prove that the ancient people of Peru had ancestral ties to Polynesians, despite 4,000 miles of ocean between them. Heyerdahl built and sailed a 40-foot balsa wood raft called the Kon-Tiki across the South Pacific, enduring a hundred days of sharks and storms to prove this ancient society also could have done it. Heyerdahl continued his work right on through the 1950s, tackling everything from Pyramid excavation to archaeological digs on Easter Island. His next big breakthrough came when he built a boat out of papyrus reed and sailed it from Morocco to the Bahamas in order to prove ancient Egyptians could have sailed to America.
• In 1947, Heyerdahl made a 4,300-mile voyage from Peru to French Polynesia on the hand-built balsa wood raft Kon-Tiki, proving that South American civilians could have made the trip in pre-Columbian times.
• In 1955–'56 Heyerdahl led the most in-depth expedition on Easter Island, finding that original inhabitants had deforested the island and planted other South American plants. He also proved the island had been occupied since around 380 A.D.
• In 1969, he sailed some 3,700 miles across the Atlantic Ocean in the Ra, a small reed boat to prove that ancient Egyptians could have sailed to the Americas.
• In 1977, Heyerdahl took a 5-month, 4,200-mile expedition from the Tigris River to the Red Sea on a reed ship named The Tigris. This trip proved that people of ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the Indus Valley could have successfully made this voyage.
The Last Word
Thor Heyerdahl is a pioneering example of what scientists can accomplish when they are as brilliant in the lab as they are at large. Rare is the adventurer with the discipline for rigorous “book work” prior to an expedition, and rare is the scientist willing to stare danger in the face — Heyerdahl is as close to Indiana Jones as the world has.