75 years of Kon-Tiki: ‘Thor Heyerdahl’s theory of Polynesian-indigenous American contact still relevant today’

Two years ago, a study in Nature had said that about 2-5% of Polynesian DNA is from present-day Colombia, vindicating Heyerdahl

By Rajat Ghai
Published: Thursday 28 April 2022

A photo of the Kon-Tiki expedition. Photo: Kon-Tiki Museum, OsloA photo of the Kon-Tiki expedition. Photo: Kon-Tiki Museum, Oslo

Thor Heyerdahl’s theory of indigenous Americans and Polynesians being in contact with each other prior to European colonisation is still relevant today, as his Kon-Tiki expedition completes 75 years, the Kon-Tiki Museum based in Oslo has said.

The strongest validation the theory received was in 2020, when an American research group made a comprehensive study of Polynesian DNA, the museum said in a statement April 28, 2022.

The paper, published in the journal Nature, had presented three main conclusions:

  1. The majority of immigration to Polynesia had come from the west.
  2. About 2-5 per cent of the DNA in today’s Polynesian population is from the area of present-day Colombia, proving that these two groups once had met.
  3. The earliest element of this DNA material is found on the island of Fatu Hiva, in the Marquesas, where Thor Heyerdahl in 1937 began the outline of his theory.

“The study again brings to the fore Thor Heyerdahl’s experiment with the Kon-Tiki raft, in which he tested the seafaring capability of the primitive balsa-wood rafts of the indigenous peoples of South America’s west coast,” the statement added.

It was on April 28, 1947, that Heyerdahl, a Norwegian explorer, along with his crew, had set sail on the Kon-Tiki balsa wood raft from Callao, Peru, to the Tuamotu Islands in French Polynesia.

The statement noted that Heyerdahl was for many years both celebrated and controversial. “In 2007, Norway’s most important newspaper, Aftenposten, had the headline Kon-Tiki - In Eternal Headwind.

Members of the Kon-Tiki expedition sharing a meal. Photo: Kon-TikiMuseum, Oslo

“The article claimed that the Kon-Tiki had ceased to be relevant scientifically, because archaeologists had proven that the Polynesians had their origins in the southern tip of Taiwan. However, when the tides of history travel one way, they will eventually return,” it added.

It noted that US and European experts had once dismissed the seaworthiness of balsa-wood rafts. However, the Kon-Tiki expedition had proved them wrong.

“The indigenous maritime tradition of Peru dates back more than 1,500 years, undertaking trade-based sailing along the coast of South America, from Mexico in the north to Chile in the south.

Balsa wood being cut to make Kon-Tiki. Photo: Kon-Tiki Museum, Oslo

“Kon-Tiki took the knowledge of the indigenous peoples of Peru seriously and showed that they knew much better than the American and European ‘experts’ who had studied their culture,” it said.

Two years ago, Down To Earth had spoken to Reidar Solsvik, the curator of the Kon-Tiki Museum in Oslo, Norway and had asked him about the Nature study. “Future studies could validate more of Thor Heyerdahl’s hypotheses on the Pacific,” Solsvik had said.

The museum will be celebrating the 75th anniversary in a number of ways. A permanent exhibition will open at the Peruvian National Marine Museum April 28.

Another exhibition has already started at the Peruvian National Naval Museum (Museos Navales y Patrimonio Cultural, Callao). It will become a permanent one that will be “celebrating this adventurous voyage”, the statement said.

The museum will also open its archives and provide rare photos of the expedition to be used freely in the time period between April 28 and August 7, 2022.

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