The century of Thor Heyerdahl

Thor Heyerdahl during his first visit to Leningrad in 1961
Thor Heyerdahl during his first visit to Leningrad in 1961

Today is the 100th anniversary of the famous traveler and honorary member of the Russian Geographical Society.  

On October 6, 1914 in a small Norwegian town Lavryk a future great traveler - Thor Heyerdahl - was born.  Soon the world will find out about him and he will inspire the whole generations. 

Thor was born in a fairly wealthy family. His father was a brewer. Thanks to his mother at an early age Tour showed great interest in biology. Even as a child he organized a house museum, the main exhibit of which was a live snake. Not surprisingly that after Thor graduated from school, in 1933, the future traveler entered the Faculty of natural geography of the University of Oslo. 

First Steps 

In parallel with studies of zoology Thor independently studied the history and culture of Polynesia. At that time he met Christina Bonnevie and Hjalmar Broch - scientists who were studying the culture of this region. Heyerdahl get the maintenance to study the fauna of the Marquesas Islands. And in 1937 with his young wife Liv he went to Tahiti. Thor wrote about his life in the South Seas and the first experience of such expeditions in his first book - På Jakt efter Paradiset (Hunt for Paradise),1938, an extended version of which was later released under the title «Fatu Hiva» (Fatu-Hiva: Back to Nature - changed title in English in 1974). The book was not the banal description of the climate and wildlife but a prove that Heyerdahl was a talented writer who knew how to make the notes about his research and adventures striking and interesting and how to immerse the reader into this mysterious world. 

Expedition "Kon-Tiki" 

In the first year after WWII - 1946, the Norwegian conjectured that Polynesia was inhabited by migrants from America, not from Southeast Asia. To confirm this, he organized an expedition - «Kon-Tiki». 

The task of the expedition was to cross the Pacific from Peru on a replica of the rafts which were made in ancient times by the locals, to Polynesia, using the same knowledge possessed by people many centuries ago. 

Besides Heyerdahl five people participated in the expedition. They built a raft called "Kon-Tiki" of balsa wood and other natural materials. 

"Kon-Tiki" spent 101 days at sea until it was brought to the reef of Raroia atoll of the Tuamotu Islands - part of Polynesia. By that time the raft swam 8,000 kilometers.

Heyerdahl described the «Kon-Tiki" expedition in his book and made a documentary, which in 1951 won the "Oscar". And in 2012 the film based on the diaries of the expedition was released. 


An autograph by Thor Heyerdahl on the title page of «The Kon-Tiki Expedition: By Raft Across the South Seas»
An autograph by Thor Heyerdahl on the title page of «The Kon-Tiki Expedition: By Raft Across the South Seas»

The travel to Easter Island, "Ra", "Ra-II" and "Tigris" 

In 1955-1956, Thor Heyerdahl organized the Norwegian archaeological expedition to Easter Island. In 1957 he published the book «Aku-Aku: The Secret of Easter Island» which is also very popular. 

In 1969-1970 the Norwegian explored the possibilities of papyrus boats trying to cross the Atlantic Ocean from Morocco to America on them. 

The first boat built of reeds, was designed according to the drawings of ancient Egypt and was named "Ra". However, soon after the start it fell to pieces, and the team had to to escape from the sinking ship. The second boat «Ra-II» was improved. And it was built by experts from Lake Titicaca in Bolivia, not by the ones from lake Chad. A Soviet doctor and a famous traveler Yuri Sienkiewicz participated in this expedition. 

"Ra-II» safely reached Barbados, proving that ancient mariners could make transitions under sail across the Atlantic Ocean using the Canary Current. 

However, Heyerdahl did not stop there. And in 1977, he built another boat of reeds - "Tigris", to prove that the sailors had been able to establish and maintain business contacts between Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley Civilization. The international team, (again with the participation of Yuri Sienkiewicz) consisted of 11 people, and the boat went under the UN flag. The boat sailed 6.8 thousand km - from the Shatt al-Arab in Iraq through the Persian Gulf to the Indian Ocean, and then through Muscat in Oman at the mouth of the Indus in Pakistan. The voyage lasted five months and was completed in Djibouti, where the members of the "Tigris" expedition in protest against the military conflict between Ethiopia and Somalia burned their ship. Thor Heyerdahl  - «against inhumanity» -  sent a letter to UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim, where he appealed to all "people of all industrialized countries to realize the insane reality of our time" and think about the future of "our civilization, so that it will not suffer the fate of a sinking ship." 

In 1950 on the initiative of Heyerdahl the «Kon-Tiki» Museum opened in Oslo. The museum exhibits not only the original famous raft, but also the papyrus boat "Ra-II», the model of "Tigris",  sculptures from Easter Island and objects of ancient peoples of Latin America.


New hypotheses 

Later Heyerdahl explored mounds in the Maldives in the Indian Ocean and the pyramids on the island of Tenerife. 

At the end of his life, Thor Heyerdahl hypothesized that during the great migration of peoples, the tribes of the steppes around the current Azov came to Scandinavia. He carried out the archaeological excavations in the lower reaches of the Don and in the Caucasus and published two books on the basis of the collected material: in 1999 he published his monograph Ingen grenser (No Boundaries, Norwegian only), and in 2001 - its revised version - Jakten på Odin (Theories about Odin, Norwegian only). Both books were written in collaboration with the Swede Per Lilliestremom. The books got lots of negative reviews by historians, who called Heyerdahl and Lilliestrem «pseudo scientists». But no one could deny the travelers’ findings. 


Thor Heyerdahl at the meeting of the Geographical Society of the USSR. October 26, 1984.
Thor Heyerdahl at the meeting of the Geographical Society of the USSR. October 26, 1984.

Thor Heyerdahl and the Russian Geographical Society

During his long and illustrious life he won numerous awards and honors, including an Honorary member of the Russian Geographical Society. 

There are a couple of editions signed by Thor Heyerdahl in the Scholarly Library of the Russian Geographical Society, which he left during his visits to Leningrad. 

The first visit of the great traveler to the Geographical Society of the USSR  was on May 10, 1961. He delivered a lecture on "Sea routes to Polynesia». On September 30, 1969 in the Great Hall of the Society Thor and the crew of the papyrus boat "Ra-II» spoke about their voyage across the Atlantic. 

But perhaps the most memorable visit was in the mid 80-ies of the last century. 

On October 26, 1984 the Great Hall of the Society was not able to accommodate everyone who wanted to attend the event. And to control the streets the city authorities had to introduce horse police - to regulate the traffic across Grivtsova Street since it was impossible to drive to the mansion - the whole street was filled with people. The traveler himself was so excited and shocked by this fact that he went out on the balcony to greet all the people in the street. 

In 2000 in Arkhangelsk Thor Heyerdahl took part in the Congress of the Russian Geographical Society as an honorary member of the Society. 


Thor Heyerdahl and his wife at the Congress of the RGS in Arkhangelsk. 2000
Thor Heyerdahl and his wife at the Congress of the RGS in Arkhangelsk. 2000

The Russian Geographical Society preserves the memory of its great friend, a fearless explorer and a scientist. Among the names engraved on the plate of the historic grandstand of the Russian Geographical Society, the name of Thor Heyerdahl is on a par with the names of great Russian scientists and travelers such as Nicholas Miklukho-Maclay, Pyotr Semenov Tian-Shansky, Nikolai Przewalski, Nikolai Vavilov, Alexey Treshnikov and Lev Gumilev. 

Text: Alice Veselkova, Tatiana Nikolaeva 

Photo: Science Archive of the Russian Geographical Society