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Thor Heyerdahl of 'Kon-Tiki' Fame Dies


Thor Heyerdahl, the Norwegian scientist who gained worldwide fame more than half a century ago when he sailed a primitive balsa-log raft called the Kon-Tiki halfway across the Pacific from Peru to Polynesia, has died. He was 87.

Heyerdahl, who was hospitalized recently, died of brain cancer Thursday at the family retreat in Colla Micheri in northern Italy.

In 1947, Heyerdahl and five Scandinavian companions set sail on their raft from the port of Callao in Lima, Peru, to demonstrate Heyerdahl's controversial theory that the South Pacific islands may have been settled by ancient Peruvian Indians using similar watercraft--a theory that defied the prevailing anthropological view that all South Pacific peoples originally came from Southeast Asia.

Some critics warned the Oslo University-trained zoologist that his primitive balsa sailing vessel, named after the Peruvian sun god, would become waterlogged and sink within two weeks.

But after 4,300 nautical miles and 101 days at sea, the Kon-Tiki landed on an uninhabited Polynesian atoll.

Heyerdahl's feat didn't prove that ancient South Americans had reached Polynesia, but it did show that the prehistoric rafts of Peru were capable of making long voyages over the open ocean.

The voyage of the Kon-Tiki captured the imagination of a postwar public and made the raft's blue-eyed captain a global celebrity.

Heyerdahl's lively chronicle of his remarkable voyage, "Kon-Tiki, Across the Pacific by Raft," became a bestseller that has sold 30 million copies and has been published in 67 languages. In 1951, a black and white documentary of the voyage won an Academy Award.

Hailed as a national hero in Norway, Heyerdahl was invited to the White House and Buckingham Palace. When Soviet Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev later visited the Kon-Tiki Museum in Oslo, where the famous raft is displayed, the Cold Warrior wistfully offered to serve as a cook on the next expedition.

Through organizing other raft voyages and archeological digs--in the Galapagos Islands, Easter Island, Peru and elsewhere--Heyerdahl devoted his life to searching for proof to support his theory that there was more contact between peoples of the past than most anthropologists once thought.

"The Kon-Tiki expedition opened my eyes to what the ocean really is. It is a conveyor and not an isolator," he wrote in the foreword of the 35th edition of "Kon-Tiki." "The ocean has been man's highway from the days he built the first buoyant ships, long before he tamed the horse, invented wheels and cut roads through the virgin jungles."

In 1969, to demonstrate that other types of ancient vessels were capable of transporting people across vast oceans, Heyerdahl and an international crew of seven men headed west across the Atlantic from Safi, Morocco, in a 50-foot papyrus reed boat of ancient Egyptian design and named Ra in honor of the Egyptian sun god.

After covering 2,700 miles in eight weeks, the Ra became waterlogged in a storm and had to be abandoned 600 miles from Barbados in the West Indies.

Undaunted, Heyerdahl and his crew set sail again from Morocco in a new papyrus reed boat named Ra II in 1970. They successfully completed the 3,270 nautical-mile voyage to Barbados in 57 days.

Heyerdahl also organized and led a third voyage, aboard a Sumerian-type reed boat called the Tigris, from Iraq to the Red Sea in 1977 to demonstrate the possibility of contact between the great ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, the Indus valley and Egypt.

To help fund his many projects, Heyerdahl wrote many popular books, including "Aku-Aku: The Secret of Easter Island," which chronicled his 1955 archeological expedition on the Polynesian island closest to South America.

Although highly honored for his work--he received numerous gold medals from geographical and anthropological societies around the world as well as 11 honorary doctorates--Heyerdahl remained controversial throughout his career.

"I think he was basically an adventurer, someone who felt passionately about understanding the past and was willing to engage in all sorts of nontraditional ways of making an argument," said Richard Burger, a professor of anthropology at Yale University, who met Heyerdahl several times.

But Burger said most scientists remain skeptical of Heyerdahl's theory that ancient South Americans reached Polynesia.

"There are various pieces of [archeological] evidence that people might argue over," he said, "The general consensus right now is if there was contact it was probably not terribly significant."

As for Heyerdahl's view that there was intercontinental contact between early civilizations, Burger said, "there is even more skepticism about that."

The more widely accepted view, he said, is that there was more independent development throughout the world than was previously appreciated--that similar characteristics such as pyramid building arose spontaneously in different areas.

Critics, however, never caused Heyerdahl to veer from the course he set more than six decades ago.

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