The Japan Times
September 15, 1999

Traveling along ancient routes to modern theories


OSLO (Reuters) After braving the world's oceans on flimsy rafts, Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl still hopes to defeat scholars who sneer at his theory that ancient South Americans sailed the Pacific.

Heyerdahl, 84, says he is ever more convinced that Stone Age peoples sailed across the world's oceans and that Polynesia was first settled by ancient South Americans rather than from Asia as most scientists contend.

"I have always been convinced of my theory [about South American settlement of Polynesia]. But now I can accumulate much, much more evidence for it," Heyerdahl said in an interview.

Heyerdahl won world fame in 1947 by sailing on the Kon Tiki balsa raft from South America to Polynesia in a 101-day voyage, defying predictions that he and his six-man crew would drown.

Heyerdahl, who says he has no plans to retire, more than 50 years after his landmark voyage, says recent evidence of his theory includes the 1992 discovery of 1,000-year-old carvings in a Peruvian temple depicting large, ocean-going vessels.

Yet rival scholars have long cited everything from the Asian roots of languages in Polynesia to a lack of pottery among early settlers to show that they came from the West. Ancient South Americans were skilled potters.

Apparently most damning, a 1998 genetic study showed that prehistoric settlers on Easter Island had Polynesian DNA. The study, based on findings by scientist Erika Hagelberg, brought headlines including: "DNA work scuttles Kon Tiki."

Heyerdahl dismisses Hagelberg's evidence, saying that the first settlers cremated their dead and that the bones she studied were from later settlers from the West.

Heyerdahl's overall theory is that the first settlers reached Polynesia from South America, followed by a second wave from Southeast Asia.

Hagelberg, now working at the University of Otago in New Zealand and partly supported by a grant from Heyerdahl's Kon Tiki Museum, says a problem with Heyerdahl's theory is a lack of evidence — apart from his epic voyage.

"My DNA evidence showed that some people [to be exact 12 individuals] living on Easter Island in late prehistoric times had 'Polynesian' genes," she said. "Thus my evidence fits with most archaeological evidence that supports the view of a settlement from the West."

"However, it is quite possible for people to have reached the island from South America in earlier times," she said, urging all scholars to keep an "open mind about the possibility" of such settlement.

Others are more dismissive.

Jo Anne Van Tilburg, an archaeologist at the University of California in Los Angeles who has studied huge stone statues on Easter Island, said flatly that "archaeological, linguistic and biological" evidence points to Asian origins for the peoples of Polynesia.

Among Heyerdahl's strongest arguments is the enigma about how plants like sweet potatoes — indigenous to South America — found their way thousands of kilometers across to Polynesia in pre-Columbian times.

Rival scholars have no clear answer but suggest that ancient Polynesians might have visited South America and returned with potatoes in unrecorded voyages. The plants could not have been borne by ocean currents since they would rot.

Heyerdahl feels twinges of regret that his theories have failed to gain wider respectability. "Many scientists have always viewed me like a daredevil who's gone over Niagara Falls in a barrel," he grumbled.

"I was bitter many times. When you are accused of humbug then you are bitter but not now," he said. "I am getting more curious all the time."

Heyerdahl, who now lives in Tenerife, followed up the Kon Tiki expedition with the Ra expeditions in reed boats across the Atlantic in 1969 and 1970 to show that ancient Egyptians might have crossed the oceans.

In 1977, he traveled on the Tigris reed boat to research ancient trade routes in the Middle East and the Indian Ocean.

"I feel I have shown it is totally erroneous to look at the world's oceans as a means of isolating people of the past from each other," he said.

"We have come to the theory that to cross a big ocean you have to have an enormous ship, the bigger the safer, and you must have a ship with a watertight hull. It's quite the opposite, it mustn't hold water, the water must run off," he said.

He is convinced that neither Columbus in 1492 nor the Vikings were the first Europeans to sail to North America.

"I think Phoenicians are among the competitors. They had the sea-going ability and they were sailing with women and plants for settlement as early as 1200 B.C.," he said.

Along the way, Heyerdahl has written more than a dozen books and won a best documentary Oscar for his film about the Kon Tiki. As probably the best-known Norwegian, he even fronted the opening ceremony for the Lillehammer Winter Olympics in 1994.

His greatest fondness remains for the Kon Tiki.

"The Kon Tiki introduced me to the ocean and opened my world. I grew up with fear and dreaded deep water but to suddenly see how friendly the big waves are when you are on a small raft or a reed boat," he said.

He said that he frequently receives invitations to travel on reed boats built by imitators but that he has yet to be tempted. "But I have no plans to retire," he said.