Thor Heyerdahl

Thor Heyerdahl Biography

Explorer, Academic, Writer, Archaeologist (1914–2002)
Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl made a celebrated journey aboard a raft called Kon-Tiki in 1947, and later wrote an international best-seller about his amazing expedition.


Born in 1914, Thor Heyerdahl grew up in Norway. He attended Oslo University, where he studied zoology. In 1936, Heyerdahl went to live on the Pacific island of Fatu Hiva. He made his world-famous voyage from Peru to French Polynesia aboard the Kon-Tiki in 1947. His book about this adventure became an international hit. In 1953, Heyerdahl led an archaelogical expedition to the Galapagos Islands. Two years later, he traveled to Easter Island. In his later years, Heyerdahl excavated pyramids in Peru and the Canary Islands. He died in 2002.

Early Life and Adventures

Born on October 6, 1914, in Larvik, Norway, Thor Heyerdahl was an important adventurer and archaeologist. He was the only child of a brewery and mineral water plant president and a museum director. According to the Los Angeles Times, Heyerdahl rebelled against his overprotective parents. He went out "on treks with a Greenland dog, braving storms and sleeping in the snow just to prove that I could do things alone."

Heyerdahl's interest in science may have been planted by his mother during his early years. "My mother brought me up on Darwin and evolution instead of Norwegian fairy tales," he once explained, according to the Washington Post. He later studied zoology at Oslo University. In 1936, Heyerdahl traveled to the island of Fatu Hiva, part of the Marquesan archipelago, in the Pacific. He was accompanied by his first wife, and the couple spent a year living off the land and studying the indigenous plants and animals. While there, he began more interested in cultural anthropology than zoology.

Voyage of Kon-Tiki

During World War II, Heyerdahl served in the Free Norwegian military group as a parachutist. He served to cultural anthropology after the war, seeking to prove that people of Polynesia had ancestral ties to the ancient Peruvians. This theory went against all prevailing scientific thought at the time, which held that the islands were populated by people from South Asia.

To prove his theory, Heyerdahl enlisted five friends to join him on an amazing journey. He built Kon-Tiki, a roughly 40-foot log raft out of balsa wood, similar to those used in ancient times. On April 28, 1947, Heyerdahl and his crew departed Callao, Peru. They spent 101 days at sea, eventually crashing into an atoll and then taking shelter on a small island in the South Sea. During their dangerous voyage, Heyerdahl and his crew faced rough seas, sharks and even curious whales while covering approximately 4,300 miles.

A skilled storyteller, Heyerdahl wrote about his experiences in the best-selling book Kon-Tiki. The work was a global hit and was translated into 65 languages. A documentary about the voyage also won an Academy Award in 1951. While hugely popular with the public, Heyerdahl found himself under fire from the scientific community for his journey. It was widely felt that Heyerdahl's aquatic adventure did little to substantiate his claims regarding the cultural ancestry of Polynesia.

Later Expeditions

In 1953, Heyerdahl led an archaeological expedition to the Galapagos Islands. There, he found pottery that linked the islands to early Ecuadorian and Peruvian Indian cultures. Two years later, Heyerdahl led one of the first scientific explorations of Easter Island, where he would discover evidence of possible South American ties. This trip became the basis for the 1958 book The Secret of Easter Island.

Returning to the sea, Heyerdahl tried to prove that the ancient Egyptians could have sailed to the Americas. He built the boat Ra—named after the Egyptian sun god—out of papyrus reed for his first attempt in 1969. While that effort failed, he managed to make it from Morocco to the Bahamas in Ra II the following year.

In the late 1980s, Heyerdahl focused his attention on the Tucume pyramid complex. He again tackled pyramid excavation in the 1990s on the Spanish island of Tenerife, in the Canary Islands. The step pyramids he uncovered now make up the Chacona Pyramid Ethnological Park there.

Final Years

One of Heyerdahl's final projects was exploring the idea that the Norse god Odin was, in fact, a real ruler. He sponsored an effort to find evidence to support his theory through archaeological exploration in southern Russia, and subsequently published The Hunt for Odin (2001).

That same year, Heyerdahl underwent surgery as part of his treatment for cancer. The operation failed to stop the spread of the disease. By the following March, he was in the hospital and battling brain cancer. Heyerdahl died on April 18, 2002, at his home in Colla Micheri, Italy. He was 87 years old.

While he never received accolades from his scientific peers, Heyerdahl was considered a leading figure in his native Norway. He also became an international folk hero for his many adventures.

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