The most widely known contemporary Norwegian "explorer" Thor Heyerdahl, has probed the cultures of our earliest forefathers. His quest was to discover more about the historical landscape, not the geographical one.
Heyerdahl was born in 1914 in the small town of Larvik, on Norway's south coast. Following exhaustive studies of ethnographic and archaeological material from Polynesia, the American continent and southeast Asia, Heyerdahl advanced the theory that Polynesia had been peopled not from southeast Asia, as had previously been believed, but from America.
His hypothesis was coolly received, so Heyerdahl decided to demonstrate personally what he believed to be the truth of his contentions. The vessel he made for the voyage was a balsawood raft, an exact reproduction of the Indian rafts made in South America since prehistoric times. In 1947, Heyerdahl set off from Callao in Peru with a six-man crew, sailing to the Tuamotu islands of Polynesia on the now world-renowned voyage of the Kon-Tiki.
The hazardous three-month voyage was not only a daring enterprise, it was also a scholarly achievement. The book that Heyerdahl wrote after the expedition, "American Indians in the Pacific" supports his theories with comprehensive material that gives credence to his claims. In his book Heyerdahl asserted that the first settlers of Polynesia came from Peru around 500 AD, and that a fresh wave of settlers arrived from the northwest coast of North America from 1000 to 1300 AD.
In order to further support his theories Heyerdahl headed a Norwegian archaeological expedition to the Galapagos islands in 1953. The expedition found evidence for Heyerdahl's theories, in the shape of antiquities of American Indian origin, dating from both Inca and pre-Inca periods, the first such finds ever made.
Three years later, in 1955-56 Heyerdahl led a 25-man strong expedition to Easter Island to carry out extensive digs. The findings on Easter Island proved the existence of three distinct cultural epochs, the second of which produced the well-known stone statues. Excavations also uncovered older statues very similar to some found in Bolivia. Heyerdahl's views on the history of settlement in Polynesia and the ancient cultural transfers in this area remain intriguing, but are contested, sometimes strongly, in anthropological circles.
Heyerdahl returned to the ocean element when he in 1969 led the first Ra expedition, whose objective was very similar to that of the Kon-Tiki. In the reed boat Ra, named after the Egyptian sun god, the expedition left Safi in Morocco in an attempt to cross the Atlantic, and thereby prove that the papyrus vessels of the ancient Egyptians had been capable of crossing the Atlantic.
However, after a journey of 5,000 kilometres, the Ra started to break up due to faulty construction. The voyage had to be abandoned. The Ra II expedition, a repetition mounted one year later, was a success, reaching Barbados after a two-month voyage of 6,100 kilometres. The Ra II proved that boats such as the Ra could have sailed with the Canaries current across the Atlantic in prehistoric times.
In 1977 Heyerdahl undertook yet another voyage with a reed boat, this time too to test theories concerning the ocean routes of antiquity. The purpose of the Tigris expedition was to throw light on ocean trade routes and cultural contacts from about 3000 BC between Sumer in Mesopotamia and a number of other cultural centres in the Middle East, northeast Africa and the present Pakistan.
After the Tigris expedition, Heyerdahl became involved in research into the early history of the Maldive Islands in the Indian Ocean. Furthermore, on Tenerife in the Canary Isles he discovered a sun-oriented pyramid which may well date from the time of the guanches, the indigenous peoples of the Canary Isles. Heyerdahl also led extensive digs at a huge site in Tucume, Peru, where 26 Andean pyramids were under excavation.
Thor Heyerdahl died on 18 April 2002, at the age of 87.