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The raft that rewrote Polynesian history

Posted in Anthropology, Exploration, Famous news stories, Ships on Monday, 28 November 2011

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This edited article about Kon-Tiki originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 864 published on  5 August  1978.

Kon-Tiki, picture. image. illustration

The voyage of the Kon-Tiki, with Thor Heyerdahl (inset), by John Keay

Sadly the experts shook their heads when they saw the raft of nine huge balsa logs lashed together with hemp rope.

“The logs will become waterlogged and the raft will sink when you take it to sea,” they said.

“After a fortnight every single rope will be worn through by the movement of the big logs rubbing against each other,” said others.

But Thor Heyerdahl, a Norwegian explorer, refused to be deterred by their gloomy predictions from his intention to sail a raft across the Pacific Ocean from Peru to the South Sea Islands, a distance of over 6,400 kilometres.

Heyerdahl was making his journey to prove his theory that the brown-skinned people who lived on the South Sea Islands must have come from Peru in South America. He and his companions built a raft of the kind the Peruvians would have made.

On the sail they painted the face of an Inca god, Kon-Tiki. Their frail craft, which was to brave rough seas and danger from dolphins, whales and sharks, was towed out to sea from the naval dockyard at Callao on 28th April, 1947.

On the first day out, the wind blew at full strength and the waves were large and formidable. The crew clung desperately to their steering oar, fighting against the powerful currents to stay on course.

Eventually, after three days, the sea grew calmer and the crew crept into their little bamboo cabin to sleep.

They settled down to their long journey and, after 101 days, they saw an island. As they came near to the island (which they discovered was east of Tahiti), the swell grew heavier and heavier. Kon-Tiki disappeared under masses of water. Then there was a shudder as it hit a reef.

In a few seconds, the raft had become a wreck. Everything above deck was smashed, but the nine balsa logs were as intact as ever.

They had saved the lives of Thor Heyerdahl and his crew and enabled him to prove his theory that the Peruvians, in ancient times, could have crossed the Pacific to the islands of the South Seas.

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