Mosaic / Reviews / January 19, 2011

Kon-Tiki reborn

A new paperback edition of “Kon-Tiki — Across the Pacific by Raft” by Thor Heyerdahl has been released, making the original text and photos readily available. Likewise, Heyerdahl’s documentary “Kon-Tiki” has also recently been released on DVD.

“Kon-Tiki — Across the Pacific by Raft” was first published in 1950. It is a detailed account of Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl’s 1947 expedition across the Pacific Ocean from South America to the Polynesian islands on a balsawood raft. Heyerdahl and a crew of five made the 101 day, 4,300 km voyage as proof of concept for his anthropological theory that the Polynesian islands had in fact been populated from east to west by natives of South America, rather than the prevailing theory that the Polynesian islanders came from South East Asia.

To that goal, using extensive anthropological research, Heyerdahl traveled to South America with several companions from Norway. There they traveled deep into the interior of the continent to acquire massive balsawood logs, which they then used to build the raft. The rest of the book details their voyage across the expanse of the Pacific, living mainly off fish and coconuts, fighting sharks, surviving storms and eventually reaching the Polynesian islands where they crashed on a reef and eventually were greeted by the natives of the islands.

The book is a factual narrative peppered with Heyerdahl’s always vivid, sometimes melodramatic descriptions of all that the expedition encountered. During the trip to acquire the balsa logs, for instance, Heyerdahl does not refrain from informing the reader that he had heard warnings that they would be killed with poisoned arrows by head hunters in the jungle.

Heyerdahl was never content to say the crew was awed by some creature of the deep, whether it be whale-shark or octopus, and that everything the crew encountered brought with it great danger. And while at times this is assuredly hyperbolic, it was also quite frequently true. One of the reasons that the book and the video documentary were and are so captivating (the documentary won the 1951 Academy Award for Best Documentary) is that they are fundamentally about people surviving against all odds by their own ingenuity and belief in their own intelligence. Heyerdahl very easily could have died somewhere in the Pacific (as many critics predicted he would), either lost, becalmed, shipwrecked or, quite literally, eaten by a shark.

If Heyerdahl had been wrong about the ability of an essentially unsteerable balsawood raft to make the voyage, he and his crew would have assuredly died. Unlike today, in 1947 there were no satellite phones, no freeze-dried food, no helicopter rescue. The expedition’s only contact with the world outside of their tiny raft was sporadic contact made by a shortwave radio, which, if waterlogged, would not function. Even more incredible is what the voyage succeeded in doing given their limited technology. They managed to create an Academy Award winning documentary with easily water damaged, easily broken reel-to-reel video cameras.

Although his voyage was successful, recent and modern analysis of mitochondrial DNA has shown that the Polynesian islanders likely came from Asia. Despite this, the book and the documentary became major phenomena when they were released, and Heyerdahl is remembered to this day as being one of the great explorers of the human race. The raft Kon-Tiki is housed in its own museum in Oslo, Norway. Heyerdahl died in 2002 at the age of 87, after receiving dozens of honors from nations and organizations around the globe. Even today the book and the documentary remind the reader or viewer that Kon-Tiki should be remembered for what is was: a pioneering expedition and example of human perseverance and adventure.

Book: “Kon-Tiki Across the Pacific By Raft” — By Thor Heyerdahl; Skyhorse Publishing, Inc, 2010. ISBN: 9781602397958

Documentary: “Kon-Tiki Collector’s Edition” — 2006 Janson Media, 2006. ISBN: 9781568392271

Ben Reeves

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1 Comment

Apr 22, 2013

Excellent, cogent review. I found the book in a yard sale box and read it again. This one and MOBY DICK defined my youth in landlubbing “nautical” terms.

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