Reprinted from NRK (a Norweigian newspaper).  See

Thor Heyerdahl

- Norway's National and International Hero

By Zena Støp

Thor Heyerdahl: Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen and television audiences around the world, we wish you most heartily welcome to the opening ceremony of the 17th Olympic Winter Games at Lillehammer, Norway.

Music: Kon-tiki man theme

The voice of Thor Heyerdahl, the Kon-Tiki man, echoed round the world that day in February 1994, when Norway welcomed the world to the Lillehammer Winter Olympics. And it was a voice recognized by people the world over - the voice of a world citizen and probably Norway's most famous living son.

Heyerdahl is the most internationally known Norwegian today. Sixty million copies of his books have been translated into almost seventy languages. Wherever he is he makes news, and as an ambassador for his country, there is no one of similar stature anywhere. Last October, he was 80 years old but still going very strong indeed. Heyerdahl is an explorer - in the true sense, both actively and in his scientific approach to ancient civilizations. And how you may wonder does a man like this become Norway's public relations ambassador number one?


He first burst upon the world stage in 1947 after his voyage across the Pacific Ocean on a balsa wood raft, the Kon-Tiki. The book of this venture was read all over the world - the film, made by him with a very primitive camera, won an Oscar for the year's best documentary, and Heyerdahl became the target of academics who disliked his popular approach to a science they considered none of his business.

But Heyerdahl was unperturbed by all the opposition. He had suddenly put Norway on the world map, but his intention with this voyage was purely scientific - his kind of science. It was a combination of practical, theoretical and non-traditional research which annoyed the specialists in the fields of archeology, ethnography and anthropology. He had proved it was possible for primitive peoples to travel great distances across the oceans of the world, in and on crafts that were previously considered unseaworthy.


The idea had come to him some years earlier - before the Second World War - when he was living on a South Sea island among the islanders and living like them. He noticed that the prevailing winds and currents were always in the same direction - blowing from east to west - and he listened to the stories, the myths and legends of the local people, and began to think out his theory that similarities he had noticed between the ancient cultures in Polynesia and in Peru could be the result of the contact between these two peoples way back in their history.

He had to wait until the end of the war before he could put his theory into practice - to show that itwas possible to cross an ocean on a primitive raft. This had been the main stumbling block to his theory - the voices of the opposition demanding how on earth could people from Peru arrive in Polynesia? But after he had shown them that itwas possible - his theory was far from accepted. Definite proof was demanded and this, as yet, he was unable to provide.


One of Heyerdahl's close friends and a fellow archeologist, is the director of the Kon-Tiki museum in Oslo, Øystein Koch Johansen. He has worked together with Heyerdahl excavating at Tucume in Peru - more about this later - and unlike many of his fellow academics, wholeheartedly supports Heyerdahl's methods.


Johansen: I think a lot of Thor's excavations, I mean archeological excavations, are very, very good scientific research. In a way he sees things from his own angle, quite different very often from the real scientist, I mean the archeologist and I think that's why he really has some good results when he's doing explorations. For instance in Peru now the last years since '88, in Easter Island as most people know since '55 and even in different parts of the world and that's because of his different angle towards the object, quite different as I said from the real archeologists.

Thor very often believes in myths and oral stories and uses them more or less as his guide books and that's why he really finds things and that's something strange and quite different from an archeologist's way of behaving.

Much more than myself as an archeologist. I would never have used that angle towards an object, but it seems he got real good results and that's the way to do that I think.

Johansen has worked closely with Heyerdahl, and here he tells what it is like to work with him.


Johansen: He's fantastic, he's a great organizer and he's kindly, friendly and he's a very simple man strangely enough but I like him as a friend- to me he's much more a friend than a scientist. We are friends and he's great to work with.

He's both an explorer and a scientist. He's educated in biology but he's also an eminent explorer because of his hand of administration. He's a very good administrator - I think he could be the head of Statoil, for instance.

But none of the criticism or opposition had an effect on Heyerdahl. He continued as always - studying, excavating, looking at carvings, drawings, listening to the information contained in the myths and legends of many lands. He became more than ever convinced that communication was an important factor among the ancients. This time he focused on the link between ancient Egypt and Central and South America. In 1969, he built a reed boat in Egypt, based on the pictures and carvings he had found in many places in the Middle East. He also found the same type of boat was being made in Bolivia - high up on a mountain lake - Titicaca. And this was to be another proof of communication between peoples, as Heyerdahl intended to cross the Atlantic on a boat of this kind.

Indian music

All the sceptics said it was impossible. The boat would be waterlogged within a week or two or sink, they said. The first reed boat - RA I - called after the Egyptian sun god, nearly did, and had to be abandoned. All the experts were proved right - or so they thought. But Heyerdahl tried again the year after. This time he went to the Indians from Titicaca who built him a better boat- the RA II- and in 1970, he crossed the Atlantic from North Africa to Barbados in the West Indies in 57 days.

Indian music

Again his theories were strengthened, but again the orthodox archeologists said it was all speculation and he still had no real proof that such contact had been made, even if he had shown that it was possible.

In 1978, he tried again. He built a really large reed boat - the Tigris - in Iraq and sailed it down the Persian Gulf out into the Indian Ocean. A multi-national crew of eleven sailed on it for five months, until they reached the Horn of Africa. The craft was eminently seaworthy and there is no knowing how far it would have gone if Heyerdahl and his crew hadn't decided to make a &127;bonfire of it on the coast of East Africa.

Indian music

In 1988, Heyerdahl was revisiting South America and the Pacific region, among other things to see an interesting pyramid he had photographed years ago. By chance, he bumped into an old friend from the University of California, an archeologist who was excavating ruins of a pre-Inca temple. He told them that a little further to the north, grave robbers had found the century's largest gold buried treasure. When Thor and his friends arrived at the site and saw the amazing collection which had been confiscated, he realized he was looking at items from a culture that was far from primitive and this was apparently more than a thousand years before Columbus and hundreds of years before the Vikings. It had always been thought that only the civilizations of the old world had mastered navigation at sea!

After this, Heyerdahl was shown an area of enormous pyramids close by the little town of Tucume. He was asked if he could consider excavating there and accepted at once. He had to get permission from the Peruvian authorities who had never even heard of Tucume or of any pyramids! But his reputation was such that he was given permission to organize the first project at Tucume as a &127; joint venture between the Kon-Tiki Museum in Oslo and the the National Institute of Culture in Lima - Peru's capital.

Indian music

For several years, excavations continued in Tucume, financed by the Kon-Tiki Museum and here at last Heyerdahl found the most positive proof of his theories from years back. Temple reliefs were uncovered showing that there had been a pre-Inca seafaring people here using the same symbols which he had found earlier on Easter Island. He found maritime motifs of large reed boats. He found carvings of men with bird heads holding an egg in their hands, just as at Easter Island. The motif was previously distinctive for Easter Island and here were the birdmen again on Peruvian soil. There were carvings of waves and fish. It was an amazing discovery and the ultimate proof of all Heyerdahl had been saying for years.

Indian music

1995 was only a few days old when Heyerdahl was awarded the Strømmes Foundation's "Help to Self Help" prize for his work among the Indians in Tucume. He was the first recipient of the prize which was established in 1994 and will be awarded annually to people in Norway or abroad who have contributed towards this ideal in their work for development among the peoples of the world. The ceremony took place in the Kon-Tiki Museum and the prize of 50,000 Norwegian kroner was presented to Heyerdahl together with a metre high blue/green vase designed by artist Kjell Nupen. Heyerdahl received the award for his work for the local people of Tucume. His excavations had discovered a proud past history for these people and given them a renewed self-respect and hope for the future. Thanking the Foundation for the prize, Heyerdahl said it would go in its entirety to the people of Tucume:


Thor Heyerdahl: In reality, it isn't a prize to me but it is to be conveyed to the people of Tucume who really need it. And I'm going down there directly to Peru tomorrow to pass on the prize to the local town of Tucume, so they can build a new school on a higher level than anything they've had so far. School is important today when modern civilization is getting vicariously spread all over the world. If they shall live up to the pressure from us, they must be armed with the learning we have to survive.

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Eighty-year old Thor Heyerdahl had flown into Oslo from his present home on Tenerife in the Canary Islands. The next day, he flew on to Peru and Tucume where he handed over the prize money to the local community. Then back to Tenerife, with the same energy as before, where today he continues his archeological work - looking into the mystery of step-formed heaps of stones which have turned out to be the ruins of former pyramids, and working on his new project of investigation the overseas routes of ancient civilizations. His reputation was enough for the Spanish authorities to give him the go ahead. What is this man's driving force that has kept him active and searching all these years? It baffles his friend and colleague Øystein Koch Johansen too.


Johansen: I don't know what is his driving force. It's very strange that a man eighty years old continues to see forwards and forwards and forwards. He's not looking backwards, not once, he's only looking forwards and I don't know what is behind his thoughts.

Music: Kon-Tiki man theme

In the many interviews with Heyerdahl on his eightieth birthday, he was asked what was important to him today .


Thor Heyerdahl: Well, what is really important for me today is to make as many people as possible aware of the fact that we are on a small planet and we are a lot of people, and if we don't take care of this planet, we are going to destroy it for future generations. So my main concern is and has been for many years, the future. The protection of the environment and the environment in its widest means - the atmosphere and the oceans - both of which have no borders - they are moving from one nation to another all the time. I'm very concerned about the fact that we ARE today able to disturb both the air we are breathing in and the water that keeps the plankton alive that is necessary to have enough oxygen in the air.

I think we have started. I think this is extremely important. Twenty years ago nobody would believe that little man could pollute the ocean or the whole atmosphere. I think that in the twenty years that have gone, the world has become alert - I would almost say even the politicians - I mean I have a feeling it has mainly come up from the grassroot and from young people to the older and to the decision makers.

Also I have a feeling that we seem to believe that we know everything about this planet and about human life and the more science advances, the more we ought to realize that we know almost nothing.

We have always been taught that navigation is a result of civilization and modern archeology has demonstrated very clearly that this is not so. People had settled on the islands in the Mediterranean and around Great Britain long before the first Pharaoh built a pyramid in Egypt, and the art of the pre-Pharaohnic people in Egypt and the the pre-Sumerian in Mesopotamia shows ocean going vessels.

I always listen to firm historical traditions among people that we consider to be primitives, but having lived long enough among the Polynesians, I know they were anything but primitive, mentally.

I think that communication is extremely important. Civilization grew in the beginning from the moment we had communication, particularly communication by sea, so people could get inspiration and ideas from each other and raw materials. Today, we have to fight the political walls and splits and communicate across all political, religious and racial barriers.

Heyerdahl represents Norway with the qualities we like to think of as typical. Does he think he's a typical Norwegian?


Thor Heyerdahl: I feel that I am a typical Norwegian. I feel that I have the same love for nature, the mountains, the forests, the fjords, as all my fellow Norwegians, the same sense for adventure and the same feeling for brotherhood among different people. I cannot see that I am very different from most of my countrymen.


Every age has its heroes, those who dare to break conventions and the boundaries of human experience, who fire the imagination. In the last century, an English poet, Robert Browning, wrote: "...a man's reach should exceed his grasp or what's a heaven for?" [*]. It is for doing just that that we will remember Thor Heyerdahl and others like him for many generations to come.


[*] The quote comes from a poem called "Andrea del Sarto" which Browning wrote in 1855.