“Civilization grew in the beginning from the minute that we had communication, particularly communication by sea that enabled people to get inspiration and ideas from each other and to exchange basic raw materials” – Thor Heyerdahl
Was it a coincidence that both the Pharaohs and the Aztecs built pyramids? Or that the Inca, just like the Pharaohs, practiced mummification? Or that both Ancient Egyptians and Native Americans built reed boats? One man, a Norwegian ethnologist and explorer, thought it was not at all a coincidence.
Between what he thought and what he proved, an epic voyage would immortalise his name and practically demonstrate a fact that shocked everyone: contact could have been established between Ancient Egyptian seafarers and Native American cultures millennia before the Vikings and Columbus.
What did it take to prove this theory? It took an extraordinary man called Thor Heyerdahl and a weird-looking boat called Ra II.
To understand the relationship between the Pharaohs and Pre-Colombian civilizations, one has to start in Oslo, and to be more accurate, at the Kon-Tiki Museum. The Museum is named after the Inca-style balsa raft that carried Heyerdahl on one of his most famous journeys, in which he sailed across the Pacific for 101 days from Peru to Polynesia (1947). The raft is on display at the Museum, and so is ‘Ra II’, the ship that carried him and his crew on an expedition that further immortalised his name and cemented his legacy.
A GOD SAILS INTO THE SETTING SUN
“Sailing a ship of papyrus reeds, held together only with rope, we crossed the Atlantic from Africa to the West Indies. We make the 57-day trip in this incredible craft to learn if such a boat – a copy of those used thousands of years ago – could have crossed the ocean and carried elements of ancient culture of the Mediterranean to the Western Hemisphere" – Thor Heyerdahl, The Voyage of Ra II (National Geographic, January 1971, Volume 139, Number 1).
Passion and belief can work miracles, especially for an explorer. That was exactly the case for Heyerdahl, who defied all the long-standing theories, which held that it was impossible for Ancient Egyptian and Mediterranean vessels to cross the Atlantic. Following a failed attempt with a papyrus boat (called Ra, after the Egyptian God), he set sail again from Safi (a Phoenician port in Morocco) with the same crew in a new boat, Ra II.
On board, eight men from eight nations formed a multicultural crew working in harmony under the sun disc that adorned the sail (one of the crew members, Georges Sourial, was Egyptian).
Day after day, the crew faced the bad temper of the Atlantic, unaware they were making history. The whole world held its breath as the 12-metre reed boat floated like a cork on the surface of a ruthless ocean, finally reaching Barbados after an epic journey of 6100 km over 57 days.
The expedition’s success quickly made headlines all over the world, and proved that prehistoric journeys of the sort were possible. No one believed a reed boat could survive more than two weeks on the high seas, let alone cross the Atlantic. Heyerdahl put an end to the controversy: cross-oceanic contact is much older than we thought, and so is cross-cultural exchange.
Later, Heyerdahl would embark on other expeditions, most notably on the Tigris, in which he set his boat on fire as a political statement against the war. He received countless honours and published many books, two of which remain to be among the best travel literature of all time: The Kon-Tiki Expedition and The Ra Expeditions.
The Ra II Expedition eventually inspired generations of explorers, adventurers and scientists. Dominique Görlitz was one such figure. Building on the –disputed- discovery of traces of tobacco and coca (native to the Americas) in some ancient Egyptian mummies, he decided to set sail in 2007 in a reed boat (Abora III) from the US to Spain (and then North Africa). The point was to prove that sailing the Atlantic against the current was possible, and that tobacco could have reached Egypt through Western seafarers.
The legacy of Heyerdahl is not limited to his scientific work. His humanistic values remain to inspire everyone that reads about his life and work: value like peace, condemning violence, respect for cultural diversity, and above all, the power of the dream.
Throughout a long career marked by bitter failures and spectacular successes, he never gave up on dreaming and working hard on pursuing his dreams. Last year, Heyerdahl’s Archives were inscribed in the UNESCO Memory of the World Register. Photos, films, documents and diaries, the Archives are of great historical and cultural value, but the true value lies in his humanism, something that can be appreciated when we contemplate what he said reflecting on his personal experience: “Borders, I have never seen one. But I have heard they exist in the minds of some people.”