When Norwegian adventurer and ethnographer Thor Heyerdahl set sail from Peru on a makeshift wooden raft very few people gave him any chance of reaching Polynesia. The Kon-Tiki's successful 4300-mile voyage made Heyerdahl a global celebrity but his real goal would prove more elusive. While he had proved resoundingly that such a feat was possible he was never able to convince the scientific establishment of his theory that Polynesia and Easter Island were first populated by sailors from South America.
Thor Heyerdahl was a real-life Indiana Jones. When he set sail in April of 1947 from Callao, Peru, with one Swede, four fellow Norwegians, and a parrot, many called him crazy. Not for his choice of shipmates, but for his intention to cross the Pacific Ocean en route to Polynesia —a journey of 4,300 miles— on a raft made from balsa wood.
Heyerdahl and his crew took that journey on the Kon-Tiki, a raft named after the Inca sun god. They constructed the 45-foot long raft from balsa logs collected in Ecuador, mangrove wood, hemp, and banana leaf thatch using the same techniques ancient Peruvian seafarers might have used. In an effort to be fully authentic, no metal was used in the raft's construction. Kon-Tiki’s mainsail was a 15 by18-foot tapestry made from several bamboo stems lashed together. The 19-foot-long oar was made of mangrove wood, as was the 29-foot-tall mast. For shelter against the elements, they built a thatched-roof cabin 14 ft. long by 8 ft. wide with a banana leaf roof.
Heyerdahl’s contention that the first settlers of Easter Island, (Rapa Nui), came from Peru conflicted with commonly held migration theory that the earliest inhabitants came from Asia. He had tried in vain for 10 years to convince the establishment of his belief, which he based on Polynesian myth. As evidence, he pointed to the monuments of Easter Island known as Moai —those mysterious stone heads that look more like pre-Colombian artifacts than typical Polynesian sculptures. The scientific community was not impressed and wrote him off as an eccentric conspiracy theorist. Not only was his theory way off the mark, they said, but making such a long voyage aboard such a basic craft would be utterly impossible.
After the president of Peru had stepped in to offer financial assistance, in a show of mythic bravery, Heyerdahl and his crew put their lives on the line and set off from the port of Callao, just west of Peru's capital Lima. Naysayers expected the craft to sink almost immediately but after two weeks at sea Heyerdahl proudly proclaimed the Kon-Tiki to be "a fantastic seagoing craft." On August 7th, 1947, after a journey of 101 days and 4,340 miles, Kon-Tiki struck a coral reef and beached on a small, uninhabited island in French Polynesia. Everyone on board had survived. Days passed, and debris from the raft reached neighboring islands. Kon-Tiki’s crew was rescued by a friendly flotilla of canoes from Raroia Atoll, and a French schooner arrived to salvage Kon-Tiki and transport its crew to Tahiti.
Even though he proved it could be done, Heyerdahl’s critics never accepted his premise and modern experts are equally skeptical. The conventional theory that the islands were populated by people from South-East Asia remains unchanged, and scientific data supports it. In 2011, nine years after Heyerdahl's death, research by Professor Erik Thorsby of the University of Oslo showed that the DNA map of today’s Polynesian population contains a minute genetic contribution from South America. While this gave Heyerdahl's followers a glimmer of hope, more recent research suggests that this drop in the genetic ocean comes from three Chileans and a Mexican who landed up in Tahiti in 1864 on an ill-fated mission to capture Polynesian slaves. (Read this for the full, fascinating tale.) But none of this explains how South American sweet potatoes ended up on the islands...
The skipper of Kon-Tiki wrote a best-selling book about his momentous trip in 1948, titled: “Across the Pacific in a Raft.” He also directed a documentary about Kon-Tiki that won the Academy award for Best Documentary Feature in 1951 (the full documentary is embedded below). And in 2012, the Norwegian feature film garnered largely positive reviews for its exciting and largely-accurate treatment of the epic story. The original raft is on display at the Kon-Tiki museum in Oslo, which boasts a fascinating a wide-ranging collection that stands as a testament to the power of the human spirit to drown out naysayers and forge ahead in pursuit of a cherished dream.
A trip to Callao, the metropolis west of Lima, will take you back to the start of that bold endeavor (after seeing the chaotic port it will come as no surprise that Kon-Tiki was towed by Peruvian tugs for the first 50 miles of its journey) but this is not Heyerdahl's only connection with Peru. Between 1988 and 1992 he led archeological excavations at the La Raya complex near Tucume that unearthed 26 thousand-year-old pyramids.
Alternatively, a visit to Easter Island (Rapa Nui) will make you feel like Heyerdahl himself as you traipse the haunting, mystical landscape filled with archaeological treasures that elicit strange imaginings. Not the least being those large stone faces for which Easter Island is famous—an enduring mystery that inspired an amazing, life-affirming expedition.
Keen to see Callao and Easter Island for yourself? Check out our Chile & Easter Island and Peru and Machu Picchu tours or speak to one of our Destination Experts about crafting the bespoke vacation of your dreams.
Author bio: Angie Picardo is a writer at NerdWallet’s TravelNerd blog, where you can learn money-saving tips on how to save up for a South American sojourn by setting sound financial goals. The title image of this blog was taken from the Kon-Tiki Museum's Facebook page.