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Kon-Tiki, the Raft of the Gods...

...manned by five madmen at the wheel or, rather, at the helm...

Kon-Tiki Expedition

Más allá del mar habrá un lugar... [Photo: Nasjonalbiblioteket from Norway, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons]

Of course, the crew of this famous raft did not intend to travel unknown routes, cross uncharted seas or directly challenge Mother Nature with reckless routes. Quite the contrary, Thor Heyerdahl and his companions tried to experiment with the practical possibilities of some of his theories on transcontinental migrations of primitive peoples, and to do so they repeated a trip that they supposed the primitive inhabitants of Peru had made centuries before. The Kon-Tiki expedition aimed, therefore, at solving an ethnological problem.

The Norwegian Thor Heyerdahl, who finished his university studies in Oslo in 1937, had the opportunity to be part of a scientific expedition to the Marquesas Islands, a small Polynesian archipelago located almost in the center of the Pacific Ocean. From that trip came the intuition of a possible relationship between the ancient Peruvian civilization and that of the central Pacific, which he had had the opportunity to investigate.

The problem arose of knowing whether it was possible that some audacious but primitive navigators, by means of one or more migratory waves, could have covered the 4,300 miles -almost 8,000 kilometers- of distance between the eastern coasts of South America and the islands of the Polynesia. Heyerdahl thought he had found a series of indications that confirmed his hypothesis that the Pacific islands had remained uninhabited until relatively modern times, that is, until, in two migrations, around the year 500, the first one, and around the 16th century, the second one, a people from Peru managed to settle in them.

Crops, Myths and Common Traditions with Water and 4,300 Miles in Between

The clues in question were of various kinds, from an extraordinary similarity in the cultivation technique of the batata to a set of traditions and myths common to the various population centers of Polynesia. There was, in particular, a striking resemblance between the Polynesian sun god Kon-Tiki and the god Viracocha, worshiped by the pre-Inca populations of Peru.

However, such hopeful considerations faced an unquestionable fact: the ancient Peruvians were, technologically speaking, in the Stone Age. They had stone axes and intertwined fiber ropes, but no nails, metal threads or other iron objects. How, with such poor elements, could they have built boats capable of traveling such long distances?

To find out to what extent his hypothesis was valid, Heyerdahl studied the boats of the ancient inhabitants of Peru, and decided to build a reproduction of them to try to reach Polynesia following the route that the primitive migrations probably followed. After obtaining the approval of the governments of Peru and Norway, he found five companions willing, like him, to risk their lives to show that the Indians not only crossed into Asia through the Bering Strait and the Aleutian Islands, but also, as the legendary Vikings, were capable of longer and more dangerous voyages.

Heyerdahl's companions were Hermann Watzinger, a skilled shipbuilding technician, an expert in hydrography and meteorology, and who would also hold the position of second in command; Erik Hesselberg, painter; Knut Haugland and Torstein Raaby, who were in charge of radio communications, and Bengt Danielsson, an ethnologist at Uppsala University. They were all Norwegian, except for Danielsson, who was Swedish.

Balsa Wood, Bamboo, Hemp, Straw... and Adventure

In order to reproduce as faithfully as possible the conditions in which the primitive Peruvians acted, Heyerdahl entered the jungles of Peru in search of the trunks necessary for the construction of a typical raft. He was able to verify that the wood used must have come from a tree called precisely balsa, very porous and light wood, and with nine trunks of this tree, 70 cm. in diameter, he built a kind of platform. The deck of the raft was raised 50 cm. above the water level; on the platform he erected a thatched-roofed bamboo hut, and fitted two masts that would support elemental square sails, on the larger of which he painted an image of the god Kon-Tiki. In summary, we are talking about a rudimentary but efficient boat barely 14 meters long and approximately 6 meters wide.

Kon-Tiki Naval Museum Oslo
Kon-Tiki at the Naval Museum in Oslo, Norway. [Photo: Bahnfrend, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons]
No metal element was used in the construction of the raft, since the various trunks that made it up were linked together by hemp ropes. A six meter long oar, mounted on suitable supports aft, assured the direction of the raft. The only concessions to modern civilization were the radio sets -with which the navigators were in permanent contact with various radio amateurs, who in turn were responsible for relaying the most important data to the Washington weather station-, a rubber boat, a small paraffin lamp and an oil stove, in addition to 73 Ethnology books that Danielsson loaded on the ship.

Despite the initial distrust of the experts, the Kon-Tiki behaved magnificently: the ropes, which at first gave way and became loose, in contact with the water ended up swelling and becoming taut, gaining the surface of the raft stability; the flat surface of the boat prevented it from being filled with water during a storm; the ship was short enough to easily escape the onslaught of two consecutive waves, and on the whole the Kon-Tiki proved to be very seaworthy. As for the balsa wood, it was not totally impregnated with water, avoiding the risk of sinking; On the other hand, thanks to its softness, it did not wear out the ropes that joined the trunks either, and these ended up penetrating them and thus forming a unit that ensured the solidity of the boat.

Algae, Plankton, Fish and... Barnacles

As for the food problem, it was favorably solved, since the reserves, stored under the bamboo bridge, were perfectly preserved. The diet was supplemented by an abundance of algae and edible barnacles that grew on the living work of the raft itself, and also the sea offered an abundance of plankton, various crustaceans, minnows, squid, tuna, flying fish and even sharks.

The water, preserved in hollowed-out gourds and bamboo canes whose intermediate diaphragms had been pierced, according to Peruvian custom, lasted two months. There were, in addition, abundant rains, and with the addition of 20 to 40% of sea water, a drink that extraordinarily quenched thirst could be obtained. For the rest, it is not an exaggeration to assume that in all probability the ancient Peruvians, as the Polynesian legends tell, invigorated themselves during the journey by chewing coca leaves.

'Kon-Tiki' Documentary (1951), awarded with an Oscar for 'Best Documentary Feature'.

Dragged by a tugboat to the mouth of the port of Callao, the raft began its voyage on April 28, 1947. The beginnings were not easy due to the violent Humboldt Current. But later, having already entered the zone of the hundreds of trade winds, the situation returned to normal and the trip continued with some regularity, except for the usual mishaps on a sea voyage. The Kon-Tiki traveled about 42 miles daily -about 70 km.-, but on some occasions she covered up to 70 or 72 miles -approximately 110 km.- in one day.

Sharks of 13 Meters and Strong Storms as Company

All in all, and despite less optimistic forecasts, it was a relatively uneventful trip, though not without adventure. On several occasions, menacing sharks of up to 13 meters in length appeared around the apparently fragile boat, as well as some whales. The sailors had to weather two strong storms, in the second of which Watzinger had the misfortune to fall into the water; Thanks to the promptness of Haugland, who secured himself with a rope attached to the Kon-Tiki and quickly jumped into the water, the castaway was able to be rescued.

Three months later the Pakapuka atoll was passed, and after 97 days of navigation the Kon-Tiki passed close to the island of Angatau; the natives went out with their boats to meet the raft, and tried to tow it, but dominated by the sea current and the winds, it could not be deviated from its course; The indigenous then abandoned the company and after a few hours the island was lost on the horizon.

Kon-Tiki Route

Finally, on August 7 and after a journey of 107 days, the sailors were able to land on the Raroia atoll: it was the most dramatic and dangerous moment of the trip, since the small island is surrounded by dangerous coral reefs, against which waves dangerously beat. The Kon-Tiki  collided with them several times, and suffered some damage, but finally its crew managed to direct it towards calmer waters.

The inhabitants of the island hospitably welcomed the expeditionaries, and Heyerdahl proceeded to raise various coconuts that he had brought from Peru; the seeds germinated normally. The radio sets were also saved, and after a small repair, it was possible to quickly enter into contact with Tahiti; a French schooner, the Tamara, rescued the castaways.

In general, the expedition had fully achieved its objectives, although many scientists did not consider it sufficient proof of Heyerdahl's hypotheses. The voyage of the Kon-Tiki had at least demonstrated that it was possible to cross the Pacific with a vessel of this type, becoming a beautiful undertaking.

The raft was transferred to Norway and is currently on display at the Naval Museum in Oslo.


[Source: Vv.Aa. (1978). The Kon-Tiki. In Maravillas del Saber. Consultor Didáctico (Tome III, pp. 70-22). Milan, Italy: Editrice Europea di Cultura]