As a second-generation Scandinavian immigrant (three Swedish grandparents and one Norwegian), I’ve never felt a strong connection with my northern European origins. Still, I have found the tales of Nordic explorers compelling, most notably Roald Amundsen’s expedition to the South Pole and Otto Nordenskjöld’s research adventures in Patagonia. I’ve never felt quite the same about Thor Heyerdahl’s voyages across the Pacific, for reasons I’ll detail below, but I nevertheless went to see the new Heyerdahl-themed Kon-Tiki movie last Saturday night.
A couple months ago, I reviewed the Chilean film No which, with Kon-Tiki, was an Oscar nominee for best foreign film. Kon-Tiki also has a Chilean connection, in the sense that Heyerdahl fancied himself an expert on Rapa Nui (Easter Island) in his book Aku Aku, but this film is the tale of his audacious 1947 voyage from Peru to Polynesia on its namesake balsa log raft, ostensibly to prove that South Americans settled the Pacific.
Heyerdahl certainly proved it was possible, but that doesn’t mean it happened that way. In the film, at the outset of the voyage, he vainly compares himself with Darwin and, throughout the trip, he continues to showcase an outsized ego even as he concedes, reluctantly, that he could not have saved a shipmate (rescued by another crewmember) because he himself could not even swim. In another instance, he berates an engineer concerned that fiber ropes will not hold the Kon-Tiki together, and tosses potentially voyage- and life-saving wire into the open ocean.
Heyerdahl’s ego aside, Kon-Tiki makes an absorbing adventure story. Handling a crew of half a dozen feisty young men in close quarters, for 101 days on a 4,300-mile (6,900-km) voyage, would have challenged anyone’s leadership skills. While the claustrophobia is palpable, spending so much time beyond sight of land paradoxically made the Kon-Tiki expedition an agoraphobic experience. Add close encounters with storms, whales and great white sharks, and a climactic attempt to surf the coral reefs ringing the Polynesian atoll of Raroia (with a panicked Heyerdahl hiding in the cabin), and Kon-Tiki rarely lacks for excitement (though most of the voyage must have been routine, with dull moments greatly outnumbering the thrills).
For all his accomplishments, Heyerdahl had one undeniable shortcoming: his unwillingness to consider any conclusions other than his own. Simply because he proved it was possible for pre-Columbian South Americans to sail to Polynesia didn’t mean it happened that way – any more so than Erich von Däniken’s lunatic fantasy that extraterrestrials transported and erected Rapa Nui’s emblematic moai (even though plenty of half-carved moai still lie in bedrock at the Rano Raraku quarry, as my photograph below displays).
Heyerdahl deserves credit for asking big questions, but not for his unwillingness to accept conclusive scientific research that ancient mariners settled Polynesia from the east rather than the west. The film, unfortunately, fails to acknowledge that every serious specialist dismisses Heyerdahl’s conclusions, which fall into the category of “hyperdiffusionism.”
According to an archaeologist friend of mine who has done extensive research on Easter Island, and prefers anonymity here, “The most ‘telling’ bit about Thor is that he required all the archaeologists working with him on his expedition to Rapa Nui and other islands to sign a paper agreeing to not publish anything that contradicted his 'story line.' This is one reason [archaeologist William] Mulloy published practically nothing about his research on the island: he had to toe the party-line.”
According to my same informant, when another accomplished archaeologist confronted Heyerdahl by asking "How, in the face of all that we now know about the Pacific, can you keep spouting off about American Indians in the Pacific?", the Norwegian responded that “I have my audience.” Adds my informant, “That of course was true; he had an audience. However, they were all idiots.”