Azerbaijan International

Spring 1995 (3.1)
Pages 62-63, 76

Thor Heyerdahl in Azerbaijan

by Betty Blair

Other articles related to Thor Heyerdahl:

(1) The Azerbaijan Connection:
Challenging Euro-Centric Theories of Migration by Heyerdahl (AI 3:1, Spring 1995)
Azerbaijan's Primal Music Norwegians Find 'The Land We Come From' by Steinar Opheim (AI 5.4, Winter 1997)
Thor Heyerdahl in Baku (AI 7:3, Autumn 1999)
Scandinavian Ancestry: Tracing Roots to Azerbaijan - Thor Heyerdahl (AI 8.2, Summer 2000)
Quote: Earlier Civilizations - More Advanced - Thor Heyerdahl (AI 8.3, Autumn 2000)
The Kish Church - Digging Up History - An Interview with J. Bjornar Storfjel (AI 8.4, Winter 2000)
Adventurer's Death Touches Russia's Soul - Constantine Pleshakov (AI 10.2, Summer 2002)
(8) Reflections on Life - Thor Heyerdahl (AI 10.2, Summer 2002)
(9) First Encounters in the Soviet Union - Thor Heyerdahl (AI 10.2, Summer 2002)
(10) Thor Heyerdahl's Final Projects - Bjornar Storfjell (AI 10.2, Summer 2002)
(11) Voices of the Ancients: Rare Caucasus Albanian Text - Dr. Zaza Alexidze (AI 10.2, Summer 2002)
(12) Heyerdahl Burns "Tigris" Reed Ship to Protest War - Letter to UN - Bjornar Storfjell, Blair (AI 11.1, Winter 2003)

Dr. Thor Heyerdahl in Baku, November 1994. Book is Russian translation of "The Tigris Expeditions" that Heyerdahl made in 1978.

He's still best known as "Kon-Tiki Man" - the nickname which dates back to his first voyage expedition in 1947 when he crossed the Pacific in a primitive balsa-log raft. But Dr. Thor Heyerdahl, 80, is still vigorously pursuing the same life-long goal that drove him to risk traversing deep oceans nearly 50 years ago. "People think I'm just an adventurer," he'll tell you. "They don't realize that all my projects are related like pearls on a stringthat they're part of a single pattern."

Norwegian by birth, Heyerdahl by profession and practice is an internationalist. While other social scientists have set about to study what makes ethnicities, races and nationalities different and distinct from each other, Heyerdahl is still preoccupied with searching for the glue that connects them together. He looks for the possibility of a common cultural heritage, prior to the earliest known civilizations 5,000 years ago in Egypt, Sumer, and the Indus Valley. The geographer-zoologist turned expeditionist-archeologist is driven by an insatiable curiosity that has convinced him that many of the pieces in the chronology of prehistoric human life have yet to be discovered.


He's convinced that the ocean was only a barrier to man as long as our ancestors were strictly pedestrians, but it became a conveyor for cultural contact and the growth of diversified civilizations from the moment the first sea-going watercraft was invented. Heyerdahl accepts the "isolationist" claim that cultural parallels are often due to the analogies of man's need and nature, but he holds a "diffusionist" view when it comes to explaining the concentrated clusters of cultural identities and analogies which suddenly emerged in coastal areas of the Old and the New World as shipbuilding spread from the Middle East some five thousand years ago.

The question for Heyerdahl has simply become: "Where and when did the 'zero hour' of civilized man begin?" (See Thor Heyerdahl's article in this issue -"The Azerbaijan Connection" in which he makes public for the first time, his "growing suspicion" that the region of Azerbaijan may be one of the important early dispersion centers.)



Above: Left: Boat petroglyphs on rune stone (Copenhagen National Museum). From Larousse World Mythology, 1965.

Above: Right: Cane boat petroglyphs near Fredrikstad, Norway. Photo: Jacqueline Beer.

Sails before Saddles
Heyerdahl is fond of saying that "man hoisted sail before he saddled a horse. He poled and paddled among rivers and navigated open seas before he traveled on wheels along roads." Like a detective in search of missing clues, Heyerdahl believes the search for mankind's first vehicles - water craft - will take him back to the source of civilization.

"I believe I've opened the locked door to the hidden evidence that the vessels of antiquity permitted unrestricted voyages in pre-European times and that there is a complex global root relationship between all those rapidly growing civilizations that suddenly grew up with evidence of advanced boat building some 5,000 years ago."

Evidence for this comes from Heyerdahl's expeditions which all were based on authentic boat designs, either found on petroglyphs, etched or painted on ancient walls, burial crypts, ancient seals, or from the memories of people who still use such craft.

Looking back, one would have hardly found the young Thor a likely candidate for a career that would make him so vulnerable to the world's largest bodies of water. Before "Kon-Tiki" he had never sailed a boat, much less a raft. As a child he had almost drowned in an accident.

Even now when Heyerdahl looks back on the oceanic voyages, he'll admit, "There were moments during every one of my experimental voyages that I was momentarily deadly afraid. Like seafarers throughout the ages in similar situations, I felt I survived through my faith in some superior invisible power. Gradually, I got used to the friendly partnership between the dancing ocean and its gentle playmate, our flexible, wash-through aboriginal raft-ships. Of course, my closest friends worried about me, but they knew I loved life and assumed I had founded my unshakable faith in my scientific theories on solid facts."

Reed Boats Only Look Fragile
Heyerdahl admits that a single reed of papyrus seems so fragile that you could hardly dare think about entrusting it with your life on a violent ocean. But when reeds are harvested in the appropriate season and tied together in bundles, he found they made a boat that was exceptionally seaworthy, virtually unsinkable and safer than any canoe or ship with a vulnerable hull. When breakers surge over a reed boat, all the water which showered onboard disappears the same instant through a thousand fissures.

Heyerdahl first became interested in marine migration after his first visit to the Marquesas Islands in Polynesia in 1937-38. Trained as a biologist at the University of Oslo, he had specialized in studying animal and plant diffusion to Oceania. He noticed that a number of the most important food plants cultivated in aboriginal Polynesia, as well as the Polynesia dog, appeared to have spread from South America prior to European arrival. That's when he became suspicious of anthropological dogma which insisted that the Peruvian balsa raft could not have floated there in pre-Columbian times.

The Trans-Oceanic Voyages
And that's when he set out to prove that such migrations were possible. The quest would take him on four trans-oceanic voyages over a span of 29 years. The first was the balsa raft, "Kon-Tiki", (1947) which sailed 4,300 miles from Lima to Polynesia. In 1969 he constructed a papyrus reed boat, the "Ra" which crossed the Atlantic via the Canary Current from Morocco, traveling 3,000 miles in eight weeks and arriving within 600 miles of Central America.

In 1971, Heyerdahl commissioned the Aymara Indians from Lake Titicaca (Bolivia) to construct a second version of the reed ship, "Ra II". This one crossed the Atlantic "without loss or damage to a single papyrus stem" from Morocco to Barbados in 57 days (two months). For Heyerdahl Mexico should be perceived as only a few weeks away from Morocco-not centuries or millennia as had been thought previously.

In 1978, his fourth expedition was of ancient Sumerian design. The "Tigris", a 60-foot reed vessel, began its journey at the convergence of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and sailed 4,200 miles in 143 days (five months plus) out through the Arabian Gulf eventually arriving at Djibouti at the entrance of the Red Sea.

Pyramid Excavations in Peru
Dr. Heyerdahl's most recent project is directing archaeological excavations at Tucume, Peru, South America's largest complex of pyramids (26 large pyramids plus numerous smaller ones). Curiously, early art found on site shows boats built of reed bundles as well as balsa-log rafts.

The Tucume Pyramid project is financed by the Kon-Tiki Museum in Oslo in collaboration with the Peruvian government. Currently, the archaeological team have interrupted major field operations to publish their discoveries in a volume to be published by Thames and Hudson (London) this spring.

The Peruvian Tourist Department has built a site museum in Tucume to exhibit the archeology findings which include large pre-Inca adobe reliefs of bird-headed men navigating among ocean fish on reed-ships which depict a cabin on deck and rows of oars in the water.

In the meantime, Heyerdahl has initiated a purely humanitarian development project in the neighboring town of Tucume, named "Tucume Vivo" in honor of the local village people who are descended from the former pyramid builders. Its sponsors (a private Norwegian welfare organization and the Norwegian government) have equipped the town with running water, a sewer system, schools and inventory, bridges, irrigation channels, dams against floods, etc. Plans also include the construction of a technical school.

Heyerdahl has been criticized as being a showman and adventurer. Since he does not act like a scholar in the conventional, traditional sense of the word, his academic colleagues have often been disgruntled and skeptical of his work. But Heyerdahl insists that his work is based on solid research. Despite his successful voyages, some people still find it hard to accept alternatives to the Trans-Bering Straits Hypothesis for migration from the Old to the New World. And some still can't believe that reed boats are seaworthy enough to have made long ocean voyages prior to the European efforts in the 14th and 15th centuries.

Environmental Concerns
Despite the fact that Heyerdahl formally researches ancient history, he has always advocated a deep concern for contemporary problems. When his reed boats encountered oil slicks and chemical pollution spills in the ocean in the late 60s, Heyerdahl was the first to send a report to the United Nations and appeal to governments and international environmentalists. He has since testified on ocean pollution for governmental and scientific institutions in 23 countries, including the US Senate and the Soviet Academy of Sciences.

Heyerdahl is convinced that if more money were spent on the environment, there would be fewer wars. "History and archaeology both show us that no progress in the quality or quantity of arms can secure peace. It can only lead us into ever more horrible and inhuman wars. Therefore, we should be spending more money on research related to environmental protection of our globally deteriorating planet than on arms to protect ourselves from each other.
This is our only alternative; otherwise we will all sink together by undermining the delicate and highly complex environmental ecosystem, thus committing suicide by interfering with biological recycling and hastening climatic changes."

By studying the past, by searching for missing gaps in the prehistory of mankind, Heyerdahl is hoping to find links that tie humanity together. It's his way of trying to persuade contemporary man that we are really of one blood and, therefore, have even one more reason to work together to preserve our future.

Further Resources
Dr. Heyerdahl's voyages are documented in various books and films-"Kon-Tiki", "The Ra Expeditions" and "The Tigris Expedition". The most famous expedition was Kon-Tiki, and Heyerdahl's book describing the voyage has been translated into 67 languages while the film was awarded an Oscar. As well, he has written Aku-Aku, Fatuhiva, Early Man and the Ocean: A Search for the Beginning of Navigation and Seaborne Civilizations and the Art of Easter Island and The Maldives Mystery as well as several scientific volumes and articles. The most recent biography is Thor Heyerdahl, the Explorer, 1994 by J.M. Stenersens Forlag, Oslo.

From Azerbaijan International (3.1) Spring 1995.
© Azerbaijan International 1995. All rights reserved.

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