Oct 062017

Today is the birthday (1914) Thor Heyerdahl, Norwegian adventurer and (sort of) ethnographer with a background in zoology, botany, and geography. He became notable for his Kon-Tiki expedition in 1947, in which he sailed 8,000 km (5,000 mi) across the Pacific Ocean in a hand-built raft from South America to the Tuamotu Islands. The expedition was designed to demonstrate that ancient people could have made long sea voyages, creating contacts between separate cultures. This was linked to a (now discredited) diffusionist model of cultural development. Heyerdahl subsequently made other voyages designed to demonstrate the possibility of contact between widely separated ancient people, notably the Ra II expedition of 1970, when he sailed from the west coast of Africa to Barbados in a papyrus reed boat. His Rapa Nui expeditions are less well known popularly, but on the island he is well remembered for a number of reasons including his efforts to re-erect moai (stone statues) that had been toppled (as a result of internecine warfare according to local oral tradition). Anthropologists are not generally convinced by his efforts to show that Polynesian peoples could have migrated from South America.  He showed it was possible; he did not show that it actually happened. The west to east migration of Polynesian peoples is much more widely accepted, although DNA evidence is complicated. DNA tests mostly confirm the west to east theory, but Polynesians also carry small percentages of South American DNA that pre-dates contact with Western peoples. Don’t let me go down that path too much; I’m an anthropologist, I’ve studied the evidence, and I’ve visited Rapa Nui. It’s complicated. I’ll try to be brief.

Heyerdahl was born in Larvik in Norway, the son of master brewer Thor Heyerdahl and his wife, Alison Lyng. As a young child, Heyerdahl showed a strong interest in zoology. He created a small museum in his childhood home, with a common adder (Vipera berus) as the main attraction. He studied zoology and geography at the faculty of biological science at the University of Oslo. At the same time, he privately studied Polynesian culture and history, consulting what was then the world’s largest private collection of books and papers on Polynesia, owned by Bjarne Kropelien, a wealthy wine merchant in Oslo. In 1936, after seven terms, and consultations with experts in Berlin, Heyerdahl’s zoology teachers, Kristine Bonnevie and Hjalmar Broch, developed and sponsored a project for Heyerdahl to visit some isolated Pacific island groups and study how the local animals had found their way there.

In 1947, Heyerdahl and five fellow adventurers sailed from Peru to the Tuamotu Islands, French Polynesia in a pae-pae raft that they had constructed from balsa wood and other native materials, christened the Kon-Tiki. The Kon-Tiki expedition was inspired by old reports and drawings made by the Spanish Conquistadors of Inca rafts, and by indigenous legends and archaeological evidence suggesting contact between South America and Polynesia. The Kon-Tiki smashed into the reef at Raroia in the Tuamotus on August 7, 1947, after a 101-day, 4,300 nautical mile (4,948 miles or 7,964 km) journey across the Pacific Ocean.

Kon-Tiki demonstrated that it was possible for a primitive raft to sail the Pacific with relative ease and safety, especially to the west (with the trade winds). The raft proved to be highly maneuverable, and fish congregated between the nine balsa logs in such numbers that ancient sailors could have possibly relied on fish for hydration in the absence of other sources of fresh water. My main question is why you would want to attempt such a thing? The Pacific is a pretty big ocean and the Polynesian islands are rather small. Finding them wouldn’t exactly be like Columbus finding the Americas. What did they think they were looking for?  Why did they leave in the first place? The same questions could be asked of a west to east migration, of course, but island hopping makes more sense.

Heyerdahl got much more involved with speculations about Rapa Nui which are too complex and controversial to go into here.  The (very) short and oversimplified version is that Heyerdahl investigated pre-Columbian Inca legends and hypothesized that a group of people set out from Peru and colonized Rapa Nui around the 13th century. Later, around the 16th century, Polynesians arrived and settled on the island as an underclass, dominated by the original settlers. The moai were erected by the upper class as tributes to their ancestors, but when the overlords were defeated in a rebellion by the Polynesians, they were all killed and the moai toppled.

Heyerdahl’s experiments and speculations got stranger and more far-fetched as he got older. For example, in later years he became interested in demonstrating that legends of the Norse god Odin ultimately originated in central Asia and migrated to Scandinavia. This conjecture was based on rather sketchy and selective readings of ancient texts and images.  Herein lies the essential weakness of what we can generously call his “methodology” which owes its directions to discredited anthropological views of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Anthropologists of that era saw everything as connected to everything else in one gigantic historic web of diffusion of ideas. So, if you found a legend or image of a white dragon in England and another in China they must somehow be linked. Just ignore the fact that the color white and the dragon have completely separate meanings and histories in those two cultures – run out and find the “links.” You end up with a lot of idle and pointless theorizing that appeals to masses of people who have little or no training in proper methods. If you are of that mindset you’ll assume that pyramids in Yucatan and Egypt must have a common origin because they look (sort of) alike, even though their construction and purposes are completely different.

Nowadays anthropology and archeology see independent invention as a much more likely explanation for common features in disparate cultures than ancient diffusion.  Domestication of plants and animals is the most obvious example.  It was independently invented at least 5 times and possibly more.  The development of domestication in east Asia has nothing whatsoever to do with its development in Mesoamerica.  Marco Polo did not introduce pasta to Italy from his travels in China, they had already known about it for centuries. It doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to mix flour with water to make a dough and then boil it in water. Ideas do diffuse, but we are long past believing the idea that ideas have only one source from which they diffuse outward.

To celebrate Heyerdahl’s birthday I thought Norwegian fusion would be a good idea. This website gives a recipe for Norwegian halibut cooked in an Asian kind of way (in a manner of speaking). https://thornews.com/2015/07/07/fusion-cuisine-norwegian-halibut-asian-style/  I’m no more of a fan of contemporary fusion styles than I am of Heyerdahl’s speculations, so maybe the recipe is apt in that respect. I’m also not so naïve as to believe that the cooking styles of any culture or region have a “pure” core. All cuisines blend the cuisines of cultures they come in contact with. Euro-Asian fusion is just the latest in a long line of eclectic mixes.  The thing is that I prefer dishes that have a reasonably long history in one place where they have come to have a stable tradition no matter what their roots are.  Christmas pudding may have swum the English Channel from France at some point, but it changed in the process and found a home in England where it flourished as an English dish.  You can go to the website (where I found the image also) for the recipe.  I don’t want to copy it or modify it.  Failing that, go with your favorite fusion dish whatever it might be.