Travel Book Review: Kon-Tiki

The closer we came into contact with the sea and what had its home there, the less strange it became and the more at home we ourselves felt. And we learned to respect the old primitive peoples who lived in close converse with the Pacific and therefore knew it from a quite different standpoint from our own. True, we have now estimated salt content and given tunnies and dolphins Latin names. They had not done that. But, nevertheless, I am afraid that the picture the primitive peoples had of the sea was a truer one than ours.

Thor Heyerdahl, Kon-Tiki

Author: Thor Heyerdahl

Published: 1948

Geographic Area: South America, Polynesia

Original Language: Norwegian

I’ve decided that the whole “Travel Book of the Week” thing was a bit too ambitious. So, from here on out, I’ll be transitioning to doing a Travel Book of the Month. Furthermore, any affiliate links in this post will grant me a small commission, if you choose to buy anything using them.

Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific by Raft is one of the classic adventure books. The author, Norwegian anthropologist Thor Heyerdahl, recounts his 1947 sea voyage across 4,300 nautical miles of open sea–on a wooden raft.

There was scientific reason for this daring voyage. Heyerdahl, having lived and studied in the South Pacific islands, wanted to answer the question of how people came to live on those islands, so far from the nearest landmasses. Having studied the people and histories of both Polynesia and Peru, he came to the conclusion that Viracocha (a legendary Inca ruler who fled Peru around the sixth century) and Tiki (the legendary first settler of Polynesia, who arrived by sea around the sixth century) were the same person.

Furthermore, Heyerdahl wanted to prove that the ancient Inca could have sailed across the Pacific Ocean using only pae-paes, balsa wood rafts with sails and small huts. He was so confident in his hypothesis that he recruited five other men to help him build a large raft out of lightweight balsa wood, and navigate it using only the technology that sixth century Inca would have possessed.

This hypothesis gives birth to a globetrotting quest of incredible proportions, an undertaking equal parts Indiana Jones and Werner Herzog. From its inception in the Explorer’s Club headquarters of New York City, the quest takes Heyerdahl and his companions to the mountainous rain forests of Ecuador, where they chop down balsa trees by hand, to Peru, where they fashion the logs into a raft in the Lima dockyards. From there, they are towed out to sea, and finally are on their own to ride the winds and waters of the Humboldt Current, where no trade routes operate and where search planes are unable to spot them.

Heyerdahl & Co.’s route across the Pacific

Sailing for 101 days, the crew sees incredible sights, discovering the then-unknown snake mackerel, and reporting several large sea creatures that were never scientifically explained. Heyerdahl is a masterful writer, whose clever use of personification and description make you feel as if you’re part of the crew, braving storms, waves, and flying fish attacks, all with an unshakable sense of humor.

I love not only the sense of adventure, but also the mixture of discovery and mystery that follows the little raft across the high seas. On a more personal note, when I was a kid, my dad used to help me build things out of balsa wood for school projects. For example, one time we made a Viking longship out of a small block of balsa. The idea of someone getting on a giant version of that boat and sailing it across open ocean amuses me and amazes me at the same time.

The actual Kon-Tiki raft.

Now, I’m going to step aside right quick and mention something rather unfortunate. According to the latest research and genetic testing, Heyerdahl’s hypothesis was, well, probably wrong. While most people might be forgiven for looking at the legends of Viracocha and Tiki and putting two and two together, science says otherwise. Mitochondrial DNA testing undertaken in the 1990s showed that the Polynesian islanders were related to the people of Southeast Asia, not South America. Archaeological studies have also shown that the islands were populated from west to east (coming from the direction of Southeast Asia), not east to west like Heyerdahl claimed.

Based on that evidence, I can’t recommend Kon-Tiki as an anthropological case study. However, I can recommend it as one of the great, quintessential adventure stories. It was a noble effort at proving a hypothesis, and it was done in the most bad-ass way. It is entertaining, well-written, and an absolute pleasure to read. You won’t be disappointed by this book!

Buy Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific by Raft on Amazon
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