Thor Heyerdahl: Retrospective on an adventurous anthropologist

Posted: October 6, 2014 by tallbloke in Education, general circulation, History, Philosophy, Politics, Travel

Talkshop contributor Cheremon emailed me earlier to say that today is the centenary of the birth of Adventurer and anthropologist Thor Heyerdahl. Here’s a short Biography of this remarkable man. I visited the museum and ‘ethnological park he built on Teneriffe (with Fred Olson’s money) some years ago, and marvelled at the similarity of the ancient artifacts from both sides of the Atlantic on display next to the pyramids he excavated from a pile of rubble. This from Biography.com:

 

Thor Heyerdahl Biography

Writer, Academic, Archaeologist, Explorer (1914–2002)
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 theLos 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 onto the shore of an uninhabited atoll near Tahiti. 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 bookThe 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 IIthe 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.

Thor Heyerdahl. (2014). The Biography.com website. Retrieved 08:15, Oct 06, 2014, from http://www.biography.com/people/thor-heyerdahl-21183589.

Comments
  1. tchannon says:

    “Heyerdahl found himself under fire from the scientific community for his journey”

    Do an actual experiment? Oh goodness, not science.

  2. p.g.sharrow says:

    The Empire of Atlantis was one of sea transport and trade. Not a landed empire. Heyerdahl just demonstrated that such things were possible with even rather primitive vessels. All that is needed is the knowledge of wind and current and a round earth. Humans have lived along the edge of the oceans for over 100,000 years. Plenty of time to master that environment, just as they have mastered all the others of this planet. pg

  3. Chaeremon says:

    @p.g.sharrow +100,000 (one point per year)

    See also http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dolmen?uselang=de Dolmen on several continents. Literary scholars and other impresarios of the academic theater invented (hallucinated) a “tomb” doc-fiction for them in order to “prove” the primitiveness of the dolmen builders in paleolithic times.

    Knowledge and talent spread over the continents and from coast to coast, information was traded, processed and conserved in paleolithic times, education flourished with study aids on bone, stone and other artwork, but ideologically motivated patrons were, are and remain enemies of science.

  4. Zeke says:

    “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 In the following year.”

    Each year we cover the “early explorers” as taught in history books, which acknowledges the Viking settlements in N America, and then continues with Henry the Navigator and then Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci, and so on.

    And each year, the plot gets a little more detailed, and more divergent from the accepted narrative. (: For instance, the Egyptians hired the Phoenicians to travel around the African continent (which they did in 3 years 7th c BC), and of course this invites speculation about the early adventures of those great sea farers…

    And I also have become a bit of a Basque crank myself, because there is evidence that Basque whalers and fisherman were fishing the waters of the Grand Banks either before or along with the Viking explorations of the North Atlantic. I think there is evidence that they had relations with the Indians long before the other Europeans arrived on orders from their respective crowns.

    But the heart of the problem (IMHO) is a certain Classical Greek/Roman. As usual. Ptolemy not only froze astronomy in Europe and Asia for 1400 years, but Geography as well.

    But all it takes is a determined Italian and the paradigms come crashing down. Etruria lives (:

  5. Zeke- (Marcus) Vitruvius (Pollio), a Roman journalist and architect with no skill in engineering, set the world’s knowledge about Roman cement, concrete and engineering construction back by about 1750 years until the engineer John Smeaton with experimentation and actual construction of the Eddystone lighthouse proved him wrong. Smeaton started development of the most important modern civil engineering materials -cement and concrete. The world “Portland” cement comes from his observation that the dried mortar he made to bind the granite blocks had the appearance of Portland limestone ie a light grey colour. (PS Joseph Aspdin did not patent “Portland” cement nor did he ever make any- he patented a process which resulted in a poor quality hydraulic lime)

  6. Zeke says:

    @cementafriend

    I enjoyed your remarks on Vitruvius and John Smeaton, the English engineer of the 1700’s. I enjoyed them so much that I had to spend all morning getting up to speed with you.

    First, Vitruvius fits the pattern of the Roman writer who summarizes knowledge and research from the ancient world, and does not really reference where he got his research, so that all credit goes to the Romans. That happens a lot. He was then appointed by Julius Caesar in a post for architectural projects.

    These kinds of plagerized, paraphrased, and Rome-filtered writings were then used as the standard of knowledge for over a millennia, by Rome, the Roman Church, and the Holy Roman Empire. Ptolemy and Vitruvius are examples but there are many. That church in most ways was a continuation of Roman traditions.

    There is a period c. 600AD where the actual books of Vitruvius seem to disappear; this also fits the pattern of many of the Greek/Roman books. At this time, they were being used in the Arabic speaking countries. The Arabs then re-introduced them to Europe. (A subject I do not know much about.) But monks seem to continually copy and re-copy the same knowledge from the Greek and Roman world. That is how knowledge was ossified in the Middle Ages.

    Now John Smeaton built the lighthouse using pre-formed cement blocks which fit together on site atop a rock near Plymouth. This is ingenious. I find his accomplishments in engineering well-attested, but none of my sources yet mention his work with cement. Perhaps I should be researching “Portland cement,” and then his name will turn up. Cheers, thanks for the cement lore, wonderful stuff.

  7. Chaeremon says:

    Just in (40ka BP): Cave Paintings in Indonesia Redraw Picture of Earliest Art
    The dating discovery recasts ancient cave art as a continent-spanning human practice.
    http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/10/141008-cave-art-sulawesi-hand-science/

  8. w.w.wygart says:

    Heyerdahl was a hugely determined and brave adventurer, a great man and a great inspiration, but not much of a scientist in my opinion.

    Heyerdahl certainly did prove that it was possible for a Norske to build a raft and to drift across two different oceans following the trade winds – knowing there is someplace to wind up and the possibility of a safe return via boat or aircraft – but not much else.

    The problem with Heyerdahl’s thinking, and which is pretty common even in academic anthropology and archeology is to mistake a morphological similarity due to parallel evolution with a line of descent – an easy mistake to make.

    As for embarking on the quest to reduce the chief of the pantheon of your own culture’s archaic religion to a historical character, a lot of other people besides Heyerdahl have fallen into that particular folly.

    I’ll leave it at that, though I have more to say at home – but will spare everyone here.

    W^3

  9. […] is a recent post up over at Tallbloke’s Talkshop: Thor Heyerdal: Retrospective on an Adventurous Anthropologist, which charts the man’s life and career on the occasion of the one hundredth anniversary of […]

  10. Zeke says:

    “The problem with Heyerdahl’s thinking, and which is pretty common even in academic anthropology and archeology is to mistake a morphological similarity due to parallel evolution with a line of decent – an easy mistake to make.

    As for embarking on the quest to reduce the chief of the pantheon of your own culture’s archaic religion to a historical character, a lot of other people besides Heyerdahl have fallen into that particular folly.”

    ~w.w.wygart

    A very apt summary!

  11. Chaeremon says:

    @w.w.wygart 😎 And as for embarking on the quest to reduce every incomprehensible sign (petroglyph, hieroglyph, diagrammatic plot) to the name of a member of a pantheon and to reduce the incomprehensibility to scholarly invented myths and unknown religion, all impresarios of the academic theater have fallen into that particular folly; they even enjoy this deficiency of their intellect.

    This is the same as with the CAGW scam: no religion in the application = no grant, even Heyerdahl knew that.

  12. Zeke, thanks for your comment. Roger I know it is off topic but I would like to provide more information about Smeaton. He was asked to put in place a replacement lighthouse and thought about what he could do at the base where the rough sea had destroyed foundations. He was going to use Roman cement ( a blend of lime and fine siliceous volcanic ash). He knew about Vitruvius but wanted to check which was the best lime to use. His experiments showed that pure white lime was not the best and the best he could find was actually an impure lime from Aberthaw in Wales (been to the quarry where they make Portland cement). He analysed the lime and found that it had a clay content. He wrote that up in his report and I think in a presentation to the Royal Society and to the Civil Engineering society which he founded. From that others started producing hydraulic limes from natural deposits of chalk and clays (including Joseph Aspdin) leading eventually to Germans making the first true “Portland Cement” around 1866. The first Standard of any type in the world was issued in Germany for Portland Cement in 1878
    I have been lax with my blog so might post this there..