The 1947 Kon-Tiki expedition was a modern recreation of a hypothetical ancient Pacific voyage. Assembled by Thor Heyerdahl, the Norwegian ethnographer sought to demonstrate that long excursions in primitive rafts were possible suggesting that Polynesian settlers could have spawned from Peru rather than Asian sources. His suspicions were roused by Easter Island moai statues that bore greater resemblance to pre-Columbian sculpture than to Polynesian patterns.
Backed by private donations and some assistance from the U.S. Army, Heyerdahl built a raft approximately 45 feet by 20 feet using nine balsa tree trunks. Bamboo, mangrove, and assorted woods completed the trimmings. Heyerdahl took a team of five specialists aboard the raft whose group included navigators, sociologists, translators and radio experts. As no journey to the South Pacific would be appropriate without a parrot, Lorita rounded out the ship’s roster. The large Kon-Tiki figure appearing on the main sail was courtesy of artist and crewman Erik Hesselberg.
Anticipating a minimum of 97 days to reach the Tuamotu Islands, the crew carried 275 gallons of water to go with coconuts, sweet potatoes, various fruits, and army field rations. They also gathered fish along the way to supplement their dietary and fluid requirements. First contact came at the 97 day mark on arrival at the Angatau atoll. Unable to safely make land, the journey continued until reaching Raroia three days later. Total distance traveled: 3,770 nautical miles.
Heyerdahl’s accomplishment did not conclude with the landing on Raroia. In a slice of modern marketing genius that began before the voyage itself, Heyerdahl parlayed his exploits into a best-selling book and subsequent motion picture. Kon-Tiki won the 1951 Academy Award for best documentary and remains the only Norwegian Academy winner in any feature category. Fortunately, he did not bring home a giant ape to showcase.
The original Kon-Tiki voyage inspired numerous copycat expeditions, some very recently, including William Willis’s 1954 solo trip from Peru to Somoa and the 2006 Tangaroa expedition led by none other than Olav Heyerdahl, Thor’s grandson. The latter excursion carried extensive modern technology that permitted live updates to the expedition’s website.
Thanks to DNA evidence, the matter has been resolved with more certainty today. Genetic patterns confirm that the population is derived from Asian sources, although there are distinct, non-negligible traces of South American heritage among native Polynesian populations. Despite the popularity of the his voyage and “proof of concept,” Heyerdahl’s origin theories have been generally discredited.