Kon-Tiki voyager Thor Heyerdahl dies

 

ITALY: The Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl, who crossed the Pacific on a balsa raft and the Atlantic in a reed vessel, died of cancer yesterday at the age of 87. Heyerdahl, who won worldwide acclaim with his 1947 voyage across the Pacific on a replica of an aboriginal balsa raft called Kon-Tiki, died in his family home in the Italian Mediterranean town of Alassioin.

He had been suffering from a cancer that had spread to his brain despite surgery last year, and was admitted to hospital at Easter. Although terminally ill, Heyerdahl renounced medical treatment and returned to his home in northern Italy to "sail into the sunset in the company of his loved ones," his son, Mr Thor Heyerdahl junior, said earlier this week.

The explorer was among the most colourful adventurers of the 20th century, and used unconventional means to question conventional wisdom in human anthropology and other disciplines.

Born in 1914 in the Norwegian town of Larvik, he was a brewer's son and studied zoology and geography in Oslo before leaving Norway at the age of 22 for the Polynesian Marquesas Islands to research the region's flora and fauna. There he developed the theory that the indigenous population could have originated in Latin America and was not exclusively the result of migration from south-east Asia as prevailing theories held.

To prove that his idea was viable, Heyerdahl and five others set sail in 1947 from Peru aboard the Kon-Tiki and made the 8,000 km journey across the south Pacific in 101 days.

A film of the voyage won an Oscar award, the book Kon-Tiki has been translated into 67 languages, and with the successful completion of the journey Heyerdahl was recognised as a specialist in migration of peoples who left no written records.

In a similar adventure in 1969, Heyerdahl led a group of adventurers who set out to cross the Atlantic Ocean in Ra, a papyrus raft, to demonstrate that the ancient Egyptians could have reached the Americas long before the Vikings or Columbus. The expedition failed when the raft went down. However, with the help of indigenous people in Bolivia, Heyerdahl built Ra-2 and succeeded in his Atlantic crossing the following year.

Later, in 1977, he sought to prove that the ancient Sumerians, could have sailed from the Iraqi port of Basra to destinations in India and Africa. One of Norway's most celebrated figures, Heyerdahl was also among the most controversial of the country's academic elite. One project led a Norwegian university professor to comment:

"He might as well just start digging to find the Garden of Eden."