(As with all old non-fiction books deciding what you can and can’t talk about is difficult. The ending of the book is common knowledge if you have heard about Thor Heyerdahl. While I don’t think everyone has heard of Thor Heyerdahl, this review will spoil the ending, but not the journey).
I was taught about Thor Heyerdahl in school as one of the big sons of Norway. Leading a crew of six (himself included) over the Pacific Ocean in 1947 to prove to the world that it was possible that the Polynesia islands were populated from Peru. Defying all expectation of the academic community at the time. Winning an Oscar for the documentary he made alongside this book about his work. I read the book and despite knowing what happened I was gripped, a bit surprised that Heyerdahl was such a great author. The book follows him from the time he gets the idea to the end of the trip. I loved it.
So, I wrote a short letter, without any disingenuous persuasions, to Erik, Knut, and Torstein:
“Am going to cross Pacific on a wooden raft to support a theory that the South Sea islands were peopled from Peru. Will you come? I guarantee nothing but a free trip to Peru and the South Sea islands and back, but you will find good use of your technical abilities on the voyage. Reply at once.”
Next day the following telegram arrived from Torstein:
“Coming, Torstein.” (Chapter 2)
Then I looked around and found one negative in the sea of positive reviews. This review stated that the reader thought Heyerdahl arrogant to think the people who populated the Polynesia islands couldn’t navigate, that it had to be done by a white European man and why make a big fuss when his theory has been disproved.
And I was surprised that I took offence with this “attack” on one of the big sons of Norway. I was not prepared for my nationalistic pride grabbing me the way it did. And that I hadn’t thought about if the theory was ever proven to be true. Not that it’s not possible, Heyerdahl proved that, but if it happened that way.
First, I did react to the claim of Heyerdahl and racism. One of the reasons Heyerdahl was interested in his theory was because he saw similarities between the native stories in the Polynesian islands and Peru. He spent time in Polynesia as a zoologist and started to talk with the elders on the islands. There is a Norwegian word called Sagn. Sagn are stories that people hold up as having a basis in truth, but have been mixed up with fairy tale, history, religion and culture and now you don’t know what about the stories are true, if any. To me that’s the best word to describe what Heyerdahl was told by the elders, especially about Tiki who came in on rafters a long time ago. This made him interested when he heard about sagn in Peru who talk about Tiki whom left Peru on rafters and went out to sea. While the sagns he heard held Tiki to be a god, Heyerdahl started to wonder if this could have been based on an actual event and Tiki be leader of a tribe whom did left Peru and populated the Polynesia islands. It’s especially moving to hear when he talks to the Polynesians after the trip is done and they feel like their old culture, almost wiped out due to imperialism, got validation of being more than brown people’s mumbo-jumbo.
When it came to navigation, while he doesn’t state out right that he was wrong he does acknowledge that he was wrong.
On this little sailing trip up to the spurious reef we had learned quite a lot about the effectiveness of the centerboards as a keel, and when, later in the voyage, Herman and Knut dived under the raft together and salved the fifth centerboard, we learned still more about these curious pieces of board, something which no one has understood since the Indians themselves gave up this forgotten sport. That the board did the work of a keel and allowed the raft to move at an angle to the wind—that was plain sailing. But when the old Spaniards declared that the Indians to a large extent “steered” their balsa rafts on the sea with “certain centerboards which they pushed down into the chinks between the timbers,” this sounded incomprehensible both to us and to all who had concerned themselves with the problem. As the centerboard was simply held tight in a narrow chink, it could not be turned sideways and serve as a helm.
We discovered the secret in the following manner: (chapter five)
Heyedahl and his crew was clear on the fact that the raft had to be built based on the old tradition, and Heyerdahl states that if he hadn’t the raft wouldn’t have held. One of the things the builders in Peru reacted on was that there wasn’t really any visual means of steering the raft. Heyerdahl just stated that they had followed the currants and that was that. He and the crew learn that they were wrong. That Heyerdahl and his crew didn’t have the knowledge to do it is one thing, but Heyerdahl does say that this was unexpected discovery and something people at the time must have known how to deal with.
Yet, I get if people think there is a lot of racism in the book. Heyerdahl does talk about race a lot to separate between westerners, Polynesians and Peruvians. It’s cheap to blame it on the time and everyday racism that excited in the 1940s. While I don’t think Heyerdahl thought anything of it, I get that people might react to his language, and that his language is not okay.
As for this theory being right, the latest news is “probably not, but maybe a little”. DNA testing has shown that while the majority of people aren’t descendent from Peru, there might have been a small enclave of people from Peru who did mix with the existing Polynesians. Which meant that while Polynesia wasn’t populated by Peruvians, the sagn about Tiki traveling from Peru with a group of people on a raft people didn’t think would float might be based on a true event.