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HISTORY CORNER: Heyerdahl adventures after Kon-Tiki

by SYD ALBRIGHT
| August 29, 2021 1:00 AM

Norwegian anthropologist and explorer Thor Heyerdahl was showered with praise and honors after successfully sailing his primitive balsa wood raft Kon-Tiki from Peru to French Polynesia in 1947, giving evidence that ancestors of today’s Polynesians could have come from South America — but his critics were quick to pounce.

Heyerdahl called his belief a theory — supported by evidence. But his critics called it just a hypothesis, and that his “evidence” was shallow.

Heyerdahl would spend most of his life defending and proving his belief that ancient peoples had the ability to travel great distances by sea, using the primitive technology of those times.

He believed the success of Kon-Tiki proved that assumption, though the academics didn’t buy it.

Noted anthropologist Robert Carl Suggs, Ph.D., from Boise who died just last April said, “Like most such theories, it makes exciting light reading, but as an example of scientific method it fares quite poorly.”

Undaunted, Heyerdahl continued his research, and in 1952 headed an archaeological expedition to the Galapagos Islands, 605 miles west of Ecuador.

Sponsored by the Norwegian Archaeological Society, his mission was to investigate pre-Columbian habitation sites on the islands. Much to their delight, they dug up 130 pieces of ceramics and a flute that were older than the Incas.

Some other people had been there before them. How did they get there?

Heyerdahl’s next adventure was Easter Island — its Polynesian name being Rapa Nui.

Lying 2,300 miles west of Chile, Easter Island is famous for its 887 giant Tiki statues called Moai that have European facial features.

Since he was 16, Heyerdahl thought about finding out the origins of the Moai. In 1955, he got his chance.

Leading an expedition that included five professional anthropologists, three being Americans — Edwin N. Ferdon, William T. Mulloy and Carlyle S. Smith — with the mission of determining how the heavy statues were moved after being carved out from the volcanic rock, and also look for evidence supporting the claim that the first Easter Islanders were tall white people with light skin, blond or red hair with European features who sailed from South America in primitive boats — like the Kon-Tiki.

After months of research, they concluded that the first inhabitants did indeed come from South America — not Asia as most other anthropologists then believed.

Recent DNA evidence says from Colombia.

On Easter Island, Heyerdahl uncovered an interesting story believed by locals — but labeled a legend by scientists:

It’s a tale about an ancient battle between the Long Ears and the Short Ears, said to have taken place on the island sometime between its first discovery by a European — in 1722 by Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen searching for “Terra Australis” — and in 1774 by British explorer Captain James Cook.

Heyerdahl claimed that the Long Ears were from South America. No one knows for sure when they arrived — estimates vary from 400 to 800 A.D. The Short Ears came from Polynesia in the 1600s.

Roggeveen found whites, Indians and Polynesians living there in harmony. But Cook found only Polynesians in dire conditions.

The local oral tradition says the Short Ears (Hanau Momoko) rose up against the ruling elite Long Ears (Hanau Epee), who built a defensive moat, filled it with kindling and set it ablaze. The Short Ears however circled around behind them and shoved all but two of them into the fire.

The two escaped to a cave, where one was found and killed.

The present Easter Island Polynesians are believed to be descendants of those Short Ears.

Heyerdahl’s team found the moat and excavated it, finding the remains of the fire — but not any fragments of bone.

Multiple sources note similarities linking divergent cultures from Mesopotamia (Iraq) through the Americas to Polynesia. They include funerary procedures, reed boats, pyramids, oral traditions, linguistic similarities, descriptions of fair-skinned tall white men with blond or red hair and long ears and other factors.

Latest DNA technology has found evidence both for and against the prevailing theories about ancient migrations.

Heyerdahl claims he solved the mystery of how the Easter Island statues were moved:

Ropes were tied to the statue and a team of men on both sides pulled the ropes, rocking it from side to side and “walking” it — much like moving a refrigerator into place.

Late in 1977, Heyerdahl recruited an 11-man international crew for another expedition on a reed raft called Tigris. Two were Americans — Norman Baker and Norris Block.

They built the raft in Iraq where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers join, just north of Kuwait. Like Kon-Tiki and Ra II, the mission was to establish the possibility of the ancient Sumerians spreading their culture around southeast Asia and the Arabian Peninsula, traveling in reed boats.

Heyerdahl’s Tigris journey began in the Persian Gulf and continued across the Arabian Sea to Pakistan, before turning back westward toward the Red Sea.

Then they ran into trouble.

War was raging on both sides or the Red Sea — in Yemen, Somalia and Ethiopia.

Only Djibouti would allow the Tigris to land.

Recognizing that it was too dangerous to proceed, Heyerdahl called a halt to the expedition. Rather than have the Tigris fall into the wrong hands — such as Saddam Hussein, who wanted it — he set the raft ablaze and made it a symbol of protest against war.

For four years starting in 1988, Heyerdahl conducted the world’s largest archaeological excavation at a pyramid and temple complex near Túcume in Peru.

Among the discoveries there was a temple wall with reliefs of mythical birdmen aboard two large seagoing vessels, holding spherical objects.

Kon-Tiki Museum researcher Arne Skjølsvold told Heyerdahl, “Thor, those things are birdmen crouching with eggs in their hands — just like the ones on Easter Island!”

That was good news, supporting Heyerdahl’s long held belief about the Americas connection with Polynesia.

In 1990, before the Túcume excavation ended, Heyerdahl heard about the terraced Pyramids of Güímar at Tenerife in the Canary Islands west of Morocco, that were similar ones in Egypt next to the Pyramids of Giza, and in Central and South America.

Were the Canary Islands a stopping point on voyages between ancient Egypt and the Maya Civilization in Central America? he wondered — so he went to Tenerife, eventually settling there with his family for the rest of his life.

During those years, he and archaeologists made multiple excavations to find the answers to the pyramids, only to discover that they were built in the 19th century.

Heyerdahl’s hypothesis was wrong.

The archaeologists determined that the pyramids were built to relocate stones removed from land to be cultivated.

Heyerdahl thought they were somehow connected to the ancient Guanches people who arrived there from Africa some 2,000 years ago.

In his final years, Heyerdahl helped turn the pyramids into official historical sites.

Not all of Heyerdahl’s wish-list of adventures were realized, but on the Maldives Islands, he found statues with elongated earlobes — like Easter Island.

Thor Heyerdahl was a passionate defender of his theories, and no doubt rankled at being called an amateur because he didn’t have an academic degree. (Neither did Marco Polo, Magellan or Lewis and Clark.)

His book "American Indians," with 821 pages and weighing four and a half pounds was heavily annotated in academia style, yet was still nit-picked and debunked by critics.

The book — about American Indians originating in Asia and then migrating to the Americas, and from there to Polynesia — “was definitely a step forward for Heyerdahl,” one review said, “but it had not become the weapon of mass destruction he had wanted it to be.”

Some critics however were charitable — even though they disagreed with his beliefs.

“Heyerdahl’s major contribution to the discourse was not presenting a solution to the problem,” writes archaeologist Victor Melander of Australian National University, “but (to provide) a challenge … not to take anything for granted, and to further develop and argue for the existing research narrative.”

The editorial board of International Science called Heyerdahl’s theory unreasonable, “but the challenge it provided was reasonable.”

And so, the debate continues — and that’s a good thing.

The Norwegian explorer and “amateur” anthropologist probably had the last laugh over his credentialed “professional” colleagues: His “Kon-Tiki” book sold so many copies that if all those bought just in the U.K. were stacked up, the pile would be taller than Mount Everest!

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Contact Syd Albright at silverflix@roadrunner.com.

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After the Tiki…

After the decline of the Moai culture on Easter Island, a new cult of bird worship developed. It was centered on a ceremonial village called Orongo, built on the rim of the crater of the dormant 1,063-foot high Rano Kao volcano. Every year as the birds returned to a neighboring islet Motu Nui, the first person to swim there and return with an egg would be honored as Birdman of the Year. Contestants faced the danger of shark attack, drowning or falling from the cliffs.

Sweet potato evidence…

Thor Heyerdahl claims that the sweet potato grown on Easter Island and elsewhere in Polynesia was brought by people from South America, and that it could not have drifted over because of its vulnerability to effects of salt water. However, there is at least one scientific report that claims sweet potatoes were on the island before human habitation.

Easter Island 1955…

The Heyerdahl 1955 expedition team was granted access to secret family-owned caves on the island. According to the local population, these small, ancient sculptures were found in caves and passed down through the generations. Nobody knew about them except the islanders before the expedition. Heyerdahl purchased 900 of them. Now they are being returned.

— Kon-Tiki Museum

The giant Moai statues…

Some Moai were stolen by collectors before the island was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995. Both the Louvre in Paris and the British Museum in London legally have one. The largest Moai on Easter Island can be seen from Google Earth!

Last Kon-Tiki survivor…

The last surviving member of the Kon-Tiki voyage was Knut Haugland who died in 2009. During World War II, he was a hero of the Norwegian resistance against the Nazi occupation, including helping to sabotage a Norwegian heavy water plant that the Allies suspected might be used to construct a German atomic bomb.

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GOOGLE IMAGES

Ra I struggling to stay afloat in the Atlantic, finally abandoned and crew rescued before reaching its destination, Barbados in the West Indies (1969).

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GOOGLE IMAGES

Thor Heyerdahl’s reed Ra II made it across the Atlantic from Safi, Morocco, after Ra I failed a year earlier and had to be abandoned about 100 miles short of Barbados (1970).

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KON-TIKI MUSEUM

Thor Heyerdahl in front of Ra I, nearing completion for voyage across the Atlantic from Morocco to Barbados (1969).

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THOR HEYERDAHL INSTITUTE

Atlantic crossing routes by Heyerdahl’s Ra I and Ra II.

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GOOGLE IMAGES

Oil clots found by Heyerdahl’s Ra II on the voyage across the Atlantic.

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KON-TIKI MUSEUM

Multi-national crew of 11 that sailed on Heyerdahl’s reed-built Tigris included two Americans — Norman Baker and Norris Brock.

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KON-TIKI MUSEUM

When Tigris could proceed no further up the Red Sea because of nations at war all around them, Heyerdahl decided to burn the vessel rather than have it fall into the wrong hands — including Saddam Hussein who wanted it.

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GOOGLE IMAGES

Thor Heyerdahl on Easter Island in front of stone Moai idol in the likeness of white Europeans, whom he said came from South America.

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WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Moai (or Mo’ai) statues on Easter Island, believed by Thor Heyerdahl to have been copied from similar statues in South America around 1200 A.D.

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KON-TIKI MUSEUM

On his expedition to Easter Island, Heyerdahl tested the theory that the giant stone Moai statues were moved by teams of men with ropes "walking” the monoliths — like moving a refrigerator into place (1955).

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KON-TIKI MUSEUM

Kon-Tiki Museum researcher Arne Skjølsvold on left and Thor Heyerdahl examine a temple wall carving excavated in Tucumán, Peru, depicting birdmen — just like those on Easter Island.

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PHOTO BY MARIO MENTI

Pyramids of Güimar, Tenerife, Canary Islands.

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WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Thor Heyerdahl’s grave at Colla Laguna, Liguria, on the Italian Riviera.