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Book Review : Solving Riddle of the 'Maldive Mystery'

October 21, 1986|LEE DEMBART

The Maldive Mystery by Thor Heyerdahl (Adler & Adler: $19.95)

Since the publication of "Kon-Tiki" in 1950, Thor Heyerdahl has established himself as a skillful and iconoclastic archeologist of primitive people and the sea. Unlike many researchers, who focus on minutiae, he has tackled large subjects and pursued grand ideas. As a result, Heyerdahl's explorations have added enormously to our appreciation of early mankind and to our understanding of how much people knew, explored and sailed the oceans thousands of years before Columbus.

Heyerdahl's latest book takes him (and us) to the Maldive Islands in the Indian Ocean. He first went there in response to a request from the archipelago's government, which wanted to investigate the islands' ancient past, and what he found has opened a broad new chapter in our knowledge of the prehistoric world. Along the way, he tells an enthralling story of archeologists at work--pursuing clues, making connections, advancing guesses, following leads and drawing conclusions.

When Heyerdahl first heard from the Maldive Islands, he turned to his atlas to find out where they were. When this book arrived, your humble reviewer did the same and found that the Maldives are dots on the map running due south some 600 miles from the tip of India to just below the Equator.

For the last 800 years, the islands have been strictly Muslim. But without much effort, Heyerdahl and his colleagues found conclusive evidence that many people had lived there before, including Buddhists before the Muslims and sun worshipers before them. He was able to link religious architecture and symbols as well as shards of pottery to similar items in countries ringing the ocean.

A Vital Role

Heyerdahl argues convincingly that although they are inconspicuous now, the Maldives played a vital and strategic role for prehistoric, ocean-faring people in the Indian Ocean. The islands were a stopping point for a vast ocean commerce that stretched far beyond its neighboring countries.

Heyerdahl concludes: "The Maldive Islands . . . appear like a barrier reef from which octopus tentacles spread to remote corners of the Old World. Into the Red Sea and the Mediterranean as far as Rome. Into the Persian Gulf and beyond as far as Finland and the Arctic coast of Norway. Into the Gulf of Cambay, and around India in the opposite direction past the straits of Indonesia to distant China. Directly and indirectly the prehistoric Maldives had been involved in global trade."

The process by which Heyerdahl reached this conclusion is riveting. He is a master storyteller who interweaves people, facts and events in just the right measure to give readers the sense of being beside him as he uncovers the handiwork of primitive people.

He was extremely lucky in stopping at just the right islands in the 1,200-island chain and looking in just the right places on those islands. But, as the old saying goes, luck favors the prepared, and Heyerdahl was prepared, partly by knowledge and partly by knowing the right questions and asking them at the right time. When he came across something, he knew what to make of it.

The Maldive Islands were converted to Islam in 1153, but the evidence of earlier civilizations abounds. The islands, which are made of coral, are naturally flat, rising barely a few feet above the ocean. Yet there are many mounds there--called hawittas-- some of which are extraordinarily tall.

To anyone who stopped to look and think about them, these hawittas were clearly man-made. But Heyerdahl was the first person to realize it. And he realized further that they had once been places of worship.

With a little digging, he found carved objects that obviously predated the arrival of Islam. The Koran forbids making objects in the shape of living things, so when the local people came across these statues, as they occasionally did, they destroyed them.

Objects From Other Places

Careful examination of the artifacts turned up materials and pictures that could not have been found in the Maldives. Heyerdahl writes: "Neither gold nor silver can be extracted from rocks of coral origin, there was no local clay for making the jars at the doorways, rice was not grown on these atolls, and hardly enough cotton for spreading cloth to walk on." But few before him had asked where these things came from and how they got there.

Heyerdahl explained to the local people the significance of the objects he was unearthing. Once instructed, the islanders eagerly joined in the hunt to learn about their past. When a Japanese camera crew that had heard about Heyerdahl's discoveries arrived in the Maldives, the people refused to cooperate with them or to lend them a pick and shovel for fear of harming the archeological treasures that were still below ground.

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