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thor heyerdahl, explorer
Ra, Kon Tiki

THOR HEYERDAHL (1914 - 2002)

Thor Heyerdahl is a world-renowned explorer and archaeologist. He was born in 1914, in Larvik. From his earliest days, he was an enthusiatic nature lover, and he was inspired by his mother (who was head of the local museum) to take an interest in zoology and nature. While still in primary school, he ran a one-room zoological museum from his home. Mr. Heyerdahl later enrolled at the University of Oslo, where he specialized in zoology and geography until leaving on his first expedition to Polynesia in 1937-1938.


Arriving in Polynesia, the young student Heyerdahl and his bride Liv were adopted by the supreme Polynesian Chief of Tahiti, Teriieroo in 1937. After training in the Polynesian way of life and customs, the Heyerdahls settled for one year on the isolated island of Fatu hiva in the Marquesas Group. While doing research on the transoceanic origins of the island´s animal life, the naturalist lived an otherwise traditional Polynesian life.

During this time, he began to contemplate the existing theories of how the South Pacific inhabitants reached the islands. Stuggling with the eternal easterly winds and currents whenever he and his Polynesian friends ventured into the sea to fish, he lost faith in textbook claims that these islands had been discovered and settled by as yet unidentified stone-age voyagers from Southeast Asia who had sailed and paddled against the currents for ten thousand miles. Instead Heyerdahl became convinced that human settlers had come with the ocean currents from the west just as the flora and fauna had done.

Abandoning his study of zoology, Heyerdahl began an intensive study of testing his theory on the origins of the Polynesian race and culture. He suggested that migration to Polynesia had followed the natural North Pacific conveyor, therefore turning his search for origins to the coasts of British Columbia and Peru.

While working at the Museum of British Columbia, Heyerdahl first published his theory (International Science, New York, 1941) that Polynesia had been reached by two successive waves of immigrants. His theory suggested that the first wave had reached Polynesia via Peru and Easter Island on balsa rafts. Centuries later, a second ethnic group reached Hawaii in large double-canoes from British Columbia. The results of Heyerdahl´s research were later published in his 800-page volume, "American Indians in the Pacific" (Stockholm, London, Chicago, 1952).

Interupted by the outbreak of the Second World War, Heyerdahl returned to Norway to volunteer for the Free Norwegian Forces, eventually serving in a Nowegian parachute unit in Finnmark.


After the war, Heyerdahl continued his research, only to meet a wall of resistance to his theories amongst comtemporary scholars. To add weight to his arguments, Heyerdahl decided to build a replica of the aboriginal balsa raft (named the "Kon-Tiki") to test his theories. In 1947, Heyerdahl and five companions left Callio, Peru and crossed 8000 km (4300 miles) in 101 days to reach Polynesia (Raroia atoll, Tuamotu Archipelago). Despite skepticisim, the seaworthiness of the aboriginal raft was thus proven and showed that the ancient Peruvians could have reached Polynesia in this manner.


Following the success of the Kon-Tiki Expedition, Heyerdahl organized and led the Norwegian Archaeological Expedition to the Galapagos Islands. The group investigated the pre-Columbian habitation sites, locating an Inca flute and shards from more than 130 pieces of ceramics which were later identified as pre-Incan. The Galapagos Islands are located about 1000 km off the coast of Ecuador and thus South American archaeology was extended for the first time in to the open Pacific Ocean. Parallel to this expedition, Heyerdahl worked with experts in rediscovering the lost art of the "guara", a kind of aboriginal center-board used by the indians of Peru and Ecuador for navigation. From this tool, not used on the Kon-Tiki voyage, it become clear that ancient South American voyagers had the means to navigate as well as travel great distances in the Pacific.


Following his successful work, Heyerdahl was encouraged to direct a major archaeological expedition to the Pacific´s most isolated island: Easter Island. An expedition of 23 persons reached the island and began the first sub-surface archaeological excavation every attempted. They soon discovered that Easter Island had once been wooded until deforested by its original inhabitants, who also planted water-reeds and other South American plants. Carbon dating showed that the Island had been occupied from about 380 A.D., about one thousand years earlier than scientists previously believed. Excavations indicated that some ancient stone carvings on the Island were similar to ancient traditions in Peru.

Some Easter Islanders claimed that according to their legends, they orginally arrived from the far away lands to the East. The results of Heyerdahl´s work were widely discussed and presented at the Tenth Pacific Science Congress in Honolulu (1961) where they were supported by the unanimous statement: "Southeast Asia and the islands adjacent constitute one major source area of the peoples and cultures of the Pacific Islands and South America". Thus, Heyerdahl´s eastern migration theory had gained considerable influence.

Thor Heyerdahl´s hometown, Larvik


Thor Heyerdahl continued his research on ancienct navigation and turned his attention to the ancient reed-boats made of papyrus. These boats were deemed insufficient to cross the Atlantic as the reeds were believed to become water-logged after less than two weeks on open water. Heyerdahl believed that contemporary science underestimated the the ancient vessels and undertook to prove this by experiment. In 1969, he bought 12 tons of papyrus and worked with experts to construct an ancient-style vessel. The result was a 15 metres boat which was launched at the old Phoenician port of Safi, Morocco. In the spirit of cooperation, Heyerdahl embarked under the UN flag with a crew of seven men from seven countries. The papyrus craft, Ra, sailed 5000 km (2700 nautical miles) in 56 days until storms and deficiencies in the construction caused the team to abandon their target only one week short of Barbados.

Ten months later, Heyerdahl tried the same voyage with the smaller (12 meter) Ra II. This vessel crossed the widest part of the Atlantic 6100 km (3270 nautical miles) in 57 days, from Safi to Barbados. Once again, this voyage showed that modern science under-estimated long-forgotten aboriginal technologies. The theory that Mediterranean vessels built prior to Columbus could not have crossed the Atlantic was thrown on its head.

In subsequent years, Heyerdahl continued on many other expeditions, including the Tigris river (1977) and the Maldives Islands (1982, 83 and 84). In his eighties, Heyerdahl remains an active participant in archaeological expeditions, as well as an international promoter of cooperation and understanding between peoples across the globe.


Right up until his death in 2002, Heyerdahl never hid the fact that he was from Larvik - quite the opposite, he was very proud of his roots. Larvik is once again focusing on Thor Heyerdahl and, during a 3 year generator project, will "bring" him home. There are a number of landmarks and attractions named for Thor Heyerdahl in Larvik:

Thor Heyerdahl High School
Monument of Thor Heyerdahl, signed by Nico Wideberg at Tollerodden
The Thor Heyerdahl Institute
a street name
The Larvik Maritime Museum
Steingata 7, Thor Heyerdahl´s Childhood home (soon to be renovated)

Many more events and attractions are being planned under the project - Thor Heyerdahl´s hometown.


Thor Heyerdahl is the recipient of numerous medals, awards and honours. He has been a regular member of various scientific congresses, notably the International Congress of Americanists, the Pacific Science Congress, and the International Congress of Anthropology and Ethnology.


"Paa jakt efter Paradiset", Oslo (1938)

"The Kon-Tiki Expedition" (translated into 64 languages), Oslo (1948)

"American Indians in the Pacific", "The Theory Behind the Kon-Tiki Expedition", Stockholm, London, Chicago (1952)

"Archeological Evidence of Pre-Spanish Visits to the Galpagos Islands" (With A. Skjoldsvold). Memoir of the Soc. for American Archeology, N. 12. Salt Lake City (1956)

"AKU-AKU. The Secret of Easter Island" (translated into numerous languages). Oslo (1957)

"Reports of the Norwegian Archeological Expedition to Easter Island and the East Pacific" (With co-editor: E.N. Ferdon, Jr.). "Vol. I: Archeology of Easter Island", Vol, II: Miscellaneous Papers", "Monograph of American School of Research, the Musem of New Mexico and the Kon-Tiki Museum", Santa Fe, London, Chicago, Oslo (1961)

"Vanished Civilizations", (co-author chapter: Navel of the World). London (Thames Hudson) (1963)

"Sea Routes to Polynesia", London, Chicago (1967), (various translations from the original: Indianer und Alt-Asiaten im Pazifik. Vienna 1965)

"The Ra Expeditions", (numerous translations), Oslo (1967)

"Quest for America", (co-author, chapters: Isolationist and Diffusionist and The Bearded Gods Speak). Pall Mall Press Lts., London (1971)

The Kon-Tiki Museum
Institute for Pacific Archaeology
and Cultural History
Bygdøynesveien 36