When I was a middle-school kid growing up in the United States, Kon-Tiki was required reading. The incredible westward journey of Thor Heyerdahl and his crew on a raft across the Pacific Ocean to prove the mere possibility of a theory he had regarding the settlement of Polynesian islands by mariners from South America was a tantalizing mix of science, creativity, recklessness, determination and heady adventure. One of the scenes that stayed with me as a teen, and might even have formed the basis for my unease around deep waters, is the moment caught on the poster for the 2012 Norwegian film Kon-Tiki: the visit to the raft by a curious whale shark that could have ended with the raft being capsized. What a thrill!
The Oscar-nominated movie didn’t win the Best Foreign Film award, but at least it will be coming out in theaters in our general area soon – and I can’t wait to see it. Listening to a review on the radio, however, got me to thinking. When Heyerdahl postulated that South American settlers could have sailed balsa wood rafts from Peru to Polynesia in pre-Colombian times, what were his options for proving this unlikely thesis? Aside from finding similarities in artifacts (which is what set the whole thing in motion in the first place), or in settlement ruins, what scientific avenues were open to an anthropologist of the 1940s? Heyerdahl built a raft and sailed it for over three months, thus proving that settlement was, indeed, within the realm of the possible. Over twenty years later, middle-schoolers like me were still agape at the audacity of the experiment.
The fact that Heyerdahl was eventually proven wrong doesn’t detract from his commitment to inquiry.
Using maternal mitochondrial DNA samples, modern research suggests that Polynesians are genetically linked to indigenous peoples of parts of Southeast Asia. Linguistic and archeological studies support this DNA evidence. The early settlers were skilled navigators, they arrived by sea, but from the other direction – traveling toward the dawn rather than the dusk.
During the course of just fifty years, our ability to study details of human history well before written records has progressed from raft building to the study of deep genetic and linguistic roots. It’s hard for me to imagine a journey more awesome and magical – maybe with the exception of that of the sunset-bound Kon Tiki.
Polynesian Culture – Wikipedia
Kon Tiki – the book
Controversy over Thor Heyerdahl’s approach to settlement diffusion – article