On this date in 1947, the Kon-Tiki expedition came to a successful (of sorts) conclusion when it struck a reef at Raroia in the Tuamotus. The Kon-Tiki expedition was a journey by raft across the Pacific Ocean from South America to the Polynesian islands, led by Norwegian explorer and writer Thor Heyerdahl. The raft was named Kon-Tiki after the Inca sun god, Viracocha, for whom “Kon-Tiki” was said to be an old name. Kon-Tiki is also the name of Heyerdahl’s book, the Academy Award-winning documentary film chronicling his adventures, and the 2012 dramatized feature film nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
Heyerdahl believed that people from South America could have settled Polynesia in pre-Columbian times. His aim in mounting the Kon-Tiki expedition was to show, by using only the materials and technologies available to those people at the time, that there were no technical reasons to prevent them from having done so. Although the expedition carried some modern equipment, such as a radio, watches, charts, sextant, and metal knives, Heyerdahl argued they were incidental to the purpose of proving that the raft itself could make the journey.
The Kon-Tiki expedition was funded by private loans, along with donations of equipment from the United States Army. Heyerdahl and a small team went to Peru, where, with the help of dockyard facilities provided by the Peruvian authorities, they constructed the raft out of balsa logs and other native materials in an indigenous style as recorded in illustrations by Spanish conquistadores. The trip began on April 28, 1947. Heyerdahl and five companions sailed the raft for 101 days over 6,900 km (4,300 miles) across the Pacific Ocean before landing on the reef at Raroia. The crew disembarked safely with the assistance of local Polynesians and all returned safely to Europe. For Heyerdahl this was just the beginning.
Thor Heyerdahl’s book about his experience became a bestseller. It was published in Norwegian in 1948, and appeared with great success in English in 1950, as well as in many other languages. You can read more about the Kon-Tiki expedition in Heyerdahl’s work or here in a previous post http://www.bookofdaystales.com/thor-heyerdahl/ In that post I explored the basic weaknesses in Heyerdahl’s hypothesis that Polynesians are descended from ancient peoples from the Americas. I probably do not need to point out that demonstrating that seafarers from the Americas could have made the journey to Polynesia, in no way proves that they did make the journey.
I suppose if you have Norse heritage and your name is Thor, you are on track to being a seafaring adventurer, and the Kon-Tiki expedition was certainly a daring adventure. But Heyerdahl was drawing conclusions from faulty premises, whereas the prevailing hypotheses of his day — which he opposed — have proven correct. He made the common error of assuming that the existence of cultural similarities in two different regions implies actual contact between the regions, whereas it is equally likely that the similarities are the result of independent invention. Archeological and linguistic evidence strongly supports the belief that Polynesians migrated from SE Asia, and in more recent times this hypothesis has been confirmed by DNA tests. But . . . I should point out that contemporary Polynesians do have small percentages of Native American DNA that is not accounted for by post-Columbian migration. That is, it is (minimally) theoretically possible that a small group of Native Americans in prehistory managed to travel to Polynesia where they met and interbred with Polynesians from Asia. It is more likely that the test samples were contaminated in some fashion, or misinterpreted.
To celebrate Heyerdahl I printed a Norwegian recipe, but for Kon-Tiki something Polynesian is warranted. Here’s a video about traditional methods of cooking taro with coconut: