Today in 1947, a raft made of balsa wood named “Kon-Tiki” finished a 4,300-mile voyage. The Kon-Tiki, captained by Thor Heyerdahl, a Norwegian anthropologist, took 101 days to sail from Peru to Raroia, near Tahiti. The voyage validated Heyerdahl’s theory that prehistoric South Americans may have populated the Polynesian islands, drifting there on wooden craft similar to Kon-Tiki.
Heyerdahl and five others embarked from Callao, Peru on April 28, 1947. The Kon-Tiki, only forty square feet, was close quarters for five people.
The raft was modeled after designs used by early South American Indians. The primitive craft carried the six-person crew safely through inclement weather and marauding sharks to deliver them to the shores of Raroia.
Heyerdahl’s theory that Polynesia was colonized by South Americans was contradictory to the scientific consensus of the time, which held that the settlers were originally from Asia. Even after the success of his voyage, many theorists continued to dispute the South American hypothesis.
The Kon-Tiki did become an international news item. Heyerdahl published a book about his voyage that became a bestseller around the world, translated into sixty-five languages. He also produced a documentary about the project that was awarded an Oscar in 1951.
He first developed his theory while on an expedition to Polynesia with his wife in 1937. They lived mostly on Fatu Hiva in the Marquesas Islands, where they studied the island’s flora and fauna.
Heyerdahl continued following his theories about ancient migrations across the oceans, making expeditions to the Galapagos Islands, Easter Island and Peru.
He once again embarked on a voyage on a primitive craft in 1970, when he sailed to Barbados from Morocco in Ra II, a reed boat. He hoped to prove that the Egyptians may have had contact with pre-Columbian American Indians. He also sailed the Indian Ocean in a reed ship in 1977 to test whether or not prehistoric Mesopotamians may have made contact with the Indus Valley and Egypt.
Heyerdahl remained a controversial figure in the world of anthropology, with many experts rebuking many of his theories. He was beloved in Norway, though, who named him “Norwegian of the Century.” He died in Italy in 2002.
Kon-Tiki is currently housed at Oslo’s Kon-Tiki Museum. The Kon-Tiki story was also adapted into a 2012 movie by the same name, which was not terribly successful globally but was a huge hit in Norway. It was the most expensive film production ever undertaken in Norway and was 2012’s biggest box office hit in the country.