The Kon-Tiki Expedition by Raft Across the South Seas

The Kon-Tiki Expedition by Raft Across the South Seas - Thor Heyerdahl This is the first person account of Thor Heyerdahl of his 1947 voyage with five companions across the South Pacific; over 4,000 nautical miles in 101 days with five companions on a balsa log raft. There are various genres this book could be said to fall into: anthropology, adventure/exploration and memoir, and I have mixed feelings about its success in each. The entire purpose of the voyage was "to support a theory that the South Sea Islands were populated from Peru." Heyerdahl did have some compelling points for his theory. Given his expeditions sailing in craft of ancient design, Heyerdahl has good reason to claim that the ocean is "a conveyer, not an isolator." (Although in that case one must ask why Old and New Worlds lost contact for centuries.) Right in the front matter is a map showing the Humboldt currents and trade winds--going west, not east, making it seem plausible the islands were peopled from the Americas rather than Asia. And the sweet potato, which comes from South America, is a Polynesian staple. Nevertheless, Heyerdahl couldn't even get a legitimate scholar to look at his manuscript, because the Incas didn't have boats--only rafts which were believed unseaworthy. So Heyerdahl decided to have constructed a craft made of the same design and materials as pre-Columbian Peruvians and sail it from Peru across the Pacific to one of the South Sea Islands to prove it could be done, so his theory could be taken seriously. From what I can gather, despite the success of his voyage, this is considered by anthropologists today to be at best a fringe theory, if not downright crackpot. Worse is Heyerdahl's fixation that every "high" aspect of pre-Columbian New World came from "legendary white people" who voyaged to the New World, presumably from Europe, and created Aztec, Inca and Polynesian civilization and then were displaced by later Amerindian settlers. So as anthropology, although there's not much discussion of it, for me the book fails pretty resoundingly. Especially when you consider his craft had to be towed out of harbor, didn't land so much as wreck itself on a South Sea Island reef, and that, as Heyerdahl admits, it was sheer luck they used just cut balsa wood which still had enough sap to keep the craft afloat. Had they used dried logs as planned, they would have floundered. And then there's the memoir/adventure tale aspect, which I consider a qualified success. Qualified because note the above part about luck--and admittedly guts. But I'm somewhat a fan of tales of exploration and I couldn't help compare Heyerdahl to his compatriot Roald Amundsen, the polar explorer. Amundsen famously said that "adventure is just bad planning." He won that race to the South Pole because of rational and efficient planning, preparedness, experience and skill--little of which seemed evident in Heyerdahl. Reading of how Heyerdahl prepared and planned for the Kon-Tiki expedition on the other hand, it's hard for me to understand how he didn't wind up with a Darwin Award. Several maritime experts told him the Kon Tiki was unseaworthy, just as anthropologists had told him his migration theories were unsound--he launched anyway. And as memoir, if you're expecting to find much psychological insight into what he and his five companions went through on a raft for nearly four months, you're going to be disappointed. Ah, but there are some redeeming qualities to reading this--namely as a tale of the sea. It was often (although perhaps not often enough) fascinating to read about the marine life they came across, the storms and dangers they faced. An encounter with a whale shark was particularly memorable--as was just the abundance of food available to them living off the sea in that raft. They had enough flying fish jumping into the raft to make fishing superfluous the way Heyerdahl told it. Crab, squid, even plankton around them could make a tasty meal, although their favorite was the Bonito fish. So it's as an account of nature and the sea that this tale makes up points for me, even if I look at the theories that inspired this voyage with a jaundiced eye.