An Interview with Famed Explorer Thor Heyerdahl
April 1972

“An Interview with Famed Explorer Thor Heyerdahl,” New Era, Apr. 1972, 16

An Interview with Famed Explorer Thor Heyerdahl

Q—What did you learn about pollution from your Ra expeditions?

Dr. Heyerdahl—I can tell you that one of the things I looked forward to when I stepped aboard Ra I was to see the ocean again as I had seen it on Kon-Tiki, because that was an unforgettable beauty to get into the deep sea and be so close to the water and see this completely clear blue water, where you can see down to an endless depth—see the fish all swimming about. What beauty! On Kon-Tiki, for 101 days, we saw no sign of man until we saw a wreck on the beach of one of the atolls near our destination. But on Ra I, we had hardly been to sea three days before we discovered that we were in something like a city sewer—and yet we were 100 miles or more from land. Our first thought was that a tanker had just passed. But it kept happening again and again. So on the Ra II voyage, I decided to make a day-by-day survey, dipping down with a dipper and taking samples of the oil clots. We found oil clots on 43 days of the 57. Apart from this we saw plastic containers, nylon bags, empty bottles, all sorts of refuse.

But what really concerned us were all the insecticides that collect in hydrocarbons that won’t sink, that float on the surface and get absorbed by oil clots. Some of these clots dissolve and sink but many don’t. I’ve visited Malta, where you find a belt six to eight feet, from water level up, where the surf has sent the oil clots against the rock. It is gray to pitch black. The insecticides impregnate the cliff, and there is no life—no sea weed, shells, or marine life so important to coastlines. The plankton that is so necessary to fish life is absent.

All of us must come to the understanding that the ocean is a conveyor—it conveyed ancient man, and it conveys our refuse and garbage. People ask, Did you find it even in the middle of the ocean? Yes; and the middle, a few weeks later, may be next to your coast line. The ocean is constantly moving. My reports have caused great concern, and I’ve spoken before the United Nations, the U.S. Senate and House committees, and in Europe. We must do something. America has so polluted its Lake Erie that it is a great sorrow. Well, the Atlantic is just a dozen or so Lake Eries. If we do not do something before another decade, all of mankind is going to pay for this tragic misuse of nature.

I used to take it for granted that big industry or the big politicians would take care of these problems. Well, I don’t believe it anymore. I think it’s time for every man in the street to demand that something be done—we must preserve our environment, whether water or land or air. For too long we’ve thought that nature can take care of herself. Well, man has become too good at destroying nature.

What really depresses me is the lack of fish life I found in the Atlantic compared to all the fish that followed us on the Kon-Tiki. I attended a recent conference where the fishing industry noted that with their new techniques they might double their catches of fish in ten years. Well, that is only on the assumption that there are that many fish to catch—and that the water will continue to feed and nurture that many. The world is facing a big problem in regard to pollution, and all of us must do our part. That is my immediate concern for the years ahead.

Q—Do you see yourself making any more voyages?

Dr. Heyerdahl—Not for the moment, because I think the Pacific and the Atlantic were the two oceans and the raft and reed boats were the two types of vessels that have been in dispute. Nobody would deny that the Vikings could get across from Newfoundland to Greenland or that it was possible for contact to exist between Mesopotamian areas and India. That’s all accepted. My interest for the immediate future concerns pollution.

Q—We’re all students of the Book of Mormon, and we’d be interested in your thoughts on the old and new world comparisons.

Dr. Heyerdahl—Well, I’m not a Mormon, and it was not because of any religious belief that I came to my conclusions. I understand we’ve come to our conclusions using completely different paths. What I can say is that the more research I do, the more I come to a conclusion about the relationship of people in the new world to people in the old world that seems to be in favor with what I understand you have come to by different channels. From my studies I feel more and more strongly that there is some kind of link between the area of the Mediterranean and the Mexican Gulf areas.

Q—Were you pleased with the experiment?

Dr. Heyerdahl—Very much so. It was perhaps the most satisfactory part of the trip. We had some quarrels and problems—especially language problems. During a storm you couldn’t hear from one side of the boat to the other. We used English, French, and Italian until we developed our own kind of Esperanto. But our problems were minimal, really. You develop an instinctive cooperation. I think I would have had more problems with eight Norwegians than with a mixed group. We learned that no space is too narrow, no stress too great, if men will only join hands for common survival. That was a thrill to experience. We ended the voyages as the best of friends.

Q—How did you assemble your crew for your Ra voyages?

Dr. Heyerdahl—I had the idea to get men of different nationalities to show that despite differences of language, politics, religion, or culture, we could work together. So for Ra I, I chose seven men, picked among or by friends, from various nations. On Ra II, we had eight persons, and, except for two, the crew was the same as Ra I. I was from Norway; our only sailor was an American civil engineer I had met in Tahiti years ago; our anthropologist was a Mexican; we had an Italian alpinist; our doctor was Russian; we had an Egyptian skindiver. Ra I had our African Lake Chad papyrus expert. Ra II exchanged this Lake Chad tribesman for a Moroccan businessman, and we added a Japanese cameraman. In choosing my crew, I deliberately selected men who symbolized the conflicts of humanity—black and white, Jew and Moslem, Russian and American.

Q—What kinds of thoughts come to mind at such moments?

Dr. Heyerdahl—You feel a certain timelessness. You feel that man is today what man was in the past and will be in the future. You get a certain comfort in feeling that if we can learn to understand mankind, we can control our problems. You also begin to think that there is something more than man. I think that when you are really out in touch with the universe, with the immensity of the ocean, with the starry sky above, that’s when you realize you are just a little fry and you didn’t construct all this. It becomes something more than you can grasp.

Q—When you think of the Kon-Tiki and the Ra voyages, which did you enjoy the most in terms of pure adventure?

Dr. Heyerdahl—The Ra voyages were more adventurous than Kon-Tiki. But I enjoyed Kon-Tiki much more. Kon-Tiki, in a sense, was a vacation. I would compare Kon-Tiki with a donkey and Ra with a Chevrolet. I have a donkey myself, and anyone can climb on his back. He walks, and you turn his head and he turns. The Chevrolet is a better machine, but you must know what button to push and how to turn the wheel. If you start fooling around with it, you might ruin the whole car before you get it going. That’s what happened on Ra I. The reed boats are much finer machines, but we had no living instructors. The balsa raft was just big chunks of wood tied together with rope. You go on board, dance with the waves, and go with the wind and current. All you have to do is hang on. But the papyrus boat—you have the papyrus swelling and drawing, twisting like a snake, and you don’t know whether to loosen or tighten the ropes, and maybe the papyrus will absorb water and you’ll sink. The noise of the creaking and twisting papyrus and the crashing waves is thunderous at times. During rough sea it is terribly noisy—just like a hundred newspapers being twisted up. But it’s rhythmic, and you get to like it. On calm days you may hear nothing—it’s just absolutely calm.

Q—How else do you spend your time on a reed boat?

Dr. Heyerdahl—Believe me, you don’t have to worry about that. There’s always something. On a reed boat of this kind, the rudder’s always changing so suddenly that you find some ropes are stretching. Someone calls out, “If we don’t loosen these stays, the mast is going to turn over to the side.” There’s displacement of cargo, and sometimes jars are so close together that the boat’s movement has worn holes in them, and you lose your fresh water. There’s always work to do. I can assure you there is no time for boredom. There isn’t a minute without some kind of surprise or someone yelling, “Come and see! We have to pull this or that.” Remember, we were constantly discovering how to work a boat that the ancients knew how to operate. The day was so filled that we just collapsed when we had some minutes for sleep.

Q—Outside of the different designs of Ra I and Ra II, what were the other major difficulties of the Ra voyages?

Dr. Heyerdahl—Our greatest difficulties were to keep the wooden parts from breaking, because the papyrus is flexible. Each time we got a thundering wave over us, the papyrus would twist and bend, but it never broke. So I thought that by adding dimensions to the steering oar—up to telephone pole size—it would hold. But even that broke when the reeds held. By losing steering control in a gale, you turn side to the wind, and then you get the ocean over you. As long as you have your stern against the wind, the vessel will lift like the tail of a sea bird. That was the main trouble—to keep the stern to the wind.

Q—How did the scientists respond to Ra I?

Dr. Heyerdahl—Well, that was what caused me to take Ra II. I discovered that there were actually some people, the extreme isolationists, who still said it couldn’t be done—and they were measuring those last hundreds of yards. They said those were the most important: unless you really get to the other end, you haven’t proven that it can be done. Also, my own curiosity about reed boats continued to build. By continuing to research, I learned that the Aymara Indians of Lake Titicaca in Bolivia build boats much like those in ancient Egypt—more so than those in central Africa. I felt it was worth a second experiment because of the way they build the stern; also, the way they tie the papyrus together in bundles is much different. So I brought four Aymara Indians over to Morocco to build Ra II. We built a boat forty feet long, ten feet shorter than Ra I, and of different design. We set sail May 17, 1970, and after 57 days of sailing—3,270 miles—we reached Bridgetown, Barbados Islands. Ra I had left on May 25, 1969, and we had abandoned her July 18, about 600 miles from Barbados.

Q—When did you decide to go on a Ra II expedition? Was it while you were still on Ra I?

Dr. Heyerdahl—No, because from a scientific point of view, Ra I proved more than Ra II—much more. Ra I started as a complete drift voyage—we broke both steering oars the first day off port—and yet we ended up at our destination. There we were—landlubbers, with only one sailor aboard; one man didn’t even know the ocean was salty until he took a drink from it. And we still ended up where we were supposed to.

Also, we had shown that a papyrus boat wouldn’t sink in two weeks—we had been out fifty-five days. And we had made every mistake in the book. I knew that if we had had the knowledge of the ancients, it would have been much easier to make the trip. And the distance covered by Ra I was almost twice the distance across the Atlantic at its shortest point. So, at Ra I’s end, I had not intended to undertake a second expedition.

Q—What caused the actual failure of Ra I?

Dr. Heyerdahl—Even with all these mistakes and blunders, we still kept floating toward America—in fact, there was nothing we could do about it. We had got on the conveyor, and we were going to end up where I knew we would. But when we were about 600 miles off Barbados, the waves had moved our little cabin back and forth so many times that the ropes on one side had been cut off, and we started losing our papyrus. We had to swim underneath with rope and keep tying the papyrus together. This worked fine until we came near the Caribbean and collected about thirty sharks swimming around us. When my Egyptian friend nearly lost a leg, I stopped all swimming underneath and we had to satisfy ourselves by watching our papyrus boat gradually tear away and float beautifully behind us—still floating after two months at sea! It was a hard task for me. All my men wanted to continue. As leader, I knew that we would make it, that there was enough of the vessel left; but I also knew that the chances of losing one or two men were very great. I didn’t feel it was worth risking human life for a scientific experiment. It was a terrible feeling to have all my men want to go on and have to decide to quit. But we stopped then.

Q—It sounds as if you were re-inventing the way to use a reed boat.

Dr. Heyerdahl—In very large measure that is true. You know, after we broke the huge oars, as big as telephone poles, that we used later on Ra II, I said to myself, There’s no way of making the big oars strong enough to resist the waves as long as the ropes are tied as we have them. We had huge ropes so strong that they would resist the sea; but they allowed the big oars to be broken. Suddenly I got an idea. How stupid! I said to myself. Suppose we were to use a weak rope at the bottom and a strong rope at the top, and then when great force was exerted, the smaller rope would break instead of the oars. We could then throw another rope around the bottom of the oar. It’s much easier to change rope than to mend a broken oar. When I returned and met the leading authority on Egyptian boat design, I said, “Look, this is a mistake. If I were to do it again, I would use a thin rope down below at water level and a thick rope at the top,” and I explained why. Then he said, “Oh, my heavens! Now I understand. On all the drawings of the ancient Egyptians I’ve noticed that they had a thick rope at the top and a thin one below. But I thought it was just the whim of the artist.”

Q—Why did Ra I fall? What did you learn on that trip about reed boats?

Dr. Heyerdahl—Well, let me say that when we built Ra I, we did what any sailor would have done. We used the best advice and the guidance of our Lake Chad builders, but we made every mistake you could possibly make. First, the stern on Ra I was built wrongly. Our Lake Chad tribesmen added a stern, as I requested, but since they weren’t accustomed to doing it, they did it so loosely that at sea the stern collapsed. Second, since we were sailing into the trade-wind belt, we knew we would get wind from the starboard side, the right-hand side, which means that with a big sail and a light boat, you will capsize with the wind unless you put all your heavy weight on the side with the wind. So, knowing this, I told the men to tie the cabin not in the center but to the side where the wind came in. We put all our heavy cargo on that side also. Well, when we sailed away, it was perfect. But soon the whole boat started to capsize the wrong way. We started to carry all the load to the opposite side. Then we discovered that a reed boat should be loaded on the opposite side, contrary to all other boats in the world, because where the wind comes the waves will splash, and the papyrus above the water level will absorb water and become heavier. After we were out two weeks, we couldn’t start changing the cabin in mid-ocean. Third, we broke the rudder oars the very first day off the coast, and the second day we broke the yardarm holding the sail. But even so, we drifted—forwards, sideways, and backwards—toward America.

Q—How did you know how to build your reed boat?

Dr. Heyerdahl—Well, I studied closely the mural paintings and early Egyptian tomb wall drawings of reed boats. And I decided, just as with my experience with the Peruvian Indians, that it was best to ask the advice of people who still made them. Since I was going to leave from African Morocco, I decided to ask the Africans for help. I turned to tribesmen of Lake Chad, who still use reed boats today. These people and myself built Ra I. However, as we were to learn, these tribesmen build their boats differently from the ancient Egyptians. The Egyptians had them turned up at both ends—and pointed perfectly for ocean navigation. But on Lake Chad you don’t have big waves, and the reed boat is shaped more like an elephant tusk.

Q—Why? What had you learned about reed boats?

Dr. Heyerdahl—By this time I knew there was an error in the scientists’ claim that there were reed boats only in Egypt and Peru. I had discovered that they were used throughout Mexico at the time of its discovery; they were used in scattered areas of the Mediterranean, from Mesopotamia, Egypt, and in the islands of Greece and Sardinia, to the Atlantic coast of Morocco. This was a path, with short jumps, the longest of which is from Morocco to Central America. So if a reed boat could cross an ocean, then there was reason to believe that these reed boat parallels and other cultural parallels between the Americas and the Mediterranean had some basis other than independent evolution. Even in my explorings of Crater Lake on Easter Island, 2,000 miles from Peru, we discovered that the islanders had brought reeds from the irrigated swamps of Peru and planted them in local fresh water at about the time of Christ. These reeds were brought so that they could build reed boats identical to those on Lake Titicaca. This was a strong argument to me that a reed boat was navigable.

Also, my research has shown me that we are greatly mistaken if we think we are very much more intelligent than man at the time of ancient Mesopotamian and Egyptian high culture. I was convinced that the reed boat was a good boat; otherwise these people would never have built it, and they certainly wouldn’t have continued to build it for hundreds of years, even millennia. But once again I met the claims of scientists that such a boat was foolish. Even the Papyrus Institute in Cairo insisted that they had been testing papyrus in water tanks and that it absorbs water completely before two weeks. They had also tested papyrus in sea water, and the papyrus dissolved and deteriorated. But I knew from my Kon-Tiki experience that there is a big difference between the material and the boat. Just like iron—you drop it in the water and it sinks, but we build Queen Marys and giant war vessels of iron, and they float.

Q—Why did you get involved in the Ra expeditions? is there any relationship between them and Kon-Tiki?

Dr. Heyerdahl—Yes, there is a relationship. However, in Kon-Tiki I set out to prove a theory. In the Ra expeditions I had no theory. I just wanted to find out if a voyage was feasible. You see, there was one thing that did not satisfy me completely, and that is that in Polynesia there seemed to be many links that tie up with the opposite end of the world—Asia Minor and Egypt. Ra, for example, the name of the sun in Polynesia, was also the name for the sun and sun god in ancient Egypt. And the characteristics of pyramid construction, sun worship, mummification, road building, and other elements that appear in South and Central America also appear on the other side of the Atlantic. This was of no direct concern to me until a congress of experts on American Indians met in Argentina about five years ago. I was asked to organize a symposium for and against the possibility of pre-Columbian contact with America from peoples across the Atlantic. Many reasons were drawn up showing why no contact could have been made. Well, one of the reasons involved a reed boat. It was pointed out that American Indians, at the time of their discovery by Europe and until recently on Lake Titicaca, built big boats of reed, identical with those used on the Nile by ancient Egyptians. But the experts said that since there was no possible way of navigating from Egypt to Peru, this merely showed independent invention of the two different peoples. Furthermore, they said, a reed boat would never hold up long enough for a trip. They said it wouldn’t even last two weeks. Well, it was the same story all over again—just like the balsa raft. I was convinced that science was wrong on the reed boat.

Q—You said you knew nothing about sailing. Probably not many people would believe that; you’re regarded as quite an expert now.

Dr. Heyerdahl—Well, not on sailing—on drifting, maybe, but not on sailing. I wouldn’t even be able to sail a Viking ship, even across the Oslo Fjord. I am really very ignorant about sailing; it is a very complicated art. I mean, if I had known anything about sailing, I would never have had the courage to do what I did. Instead, I went—what do you say?—like a fool where angels fear to tread. It was because I knew nothing about sailing that I had the courage to test my theory. My expeditions have proven that even the most ignorant landlubbers could sail away on the current and arrive at the other end. The Ra expeditions proved this also.

Q—You feel, then, that your ideas about Polynesia have been accepted?

Dr. Heyerdahl—Yes. Of course, there will always be varying opinions of how important the American-South American influence is compared to the Asiatic, or which came first, but the idea is now accepted.

Q—Did your Kon-Tiki expedition change the views of scientists?

Dr. Heyerdahl—Well, that is when the storm really began. Everybody thought that I was just a good sailor and that the raft never would have made it had it not been for my seamanship, which to me was absolutely comical. The truth is, both Kon-Tiki and my Ra expeditions have been filled with landlubbers. All we had to do was get caught in the current, and we couldn’t help but end up at the other end. I had to fight for my ideas in country after country—in the U.S., the Soviet Union, Germany, England, and in my own Scandinavian countries. For years I continued to fight because most scholars were reluctant to drop the concept that America was an ocean-isolated sort of appendix to the rest of the world that could only be reached by land—never by sea. I was invited by academies of science and universities all over the world to speak; and to support my theory of navigational possibilities, I led archaeological expeditions first to the Galapagos Islands near South America, then south to Easter Island and further out. We found archaeological and botanical evidence that early Americans had reached these islands. Gradually my theory gained strength, and in 1961 in Honolulu at a scientific conference, about 3,000 scientists voted unanimously on a resolution that South America as well as Southeast Asia were the main sources of Pacific Island people and culture.

Q—How was your theory received?

Dr. Heyerdahl—With great argumentation, with terrific debate! Scientists said that it would be impossible for anyone to leave America with a raft. Well, I had collected a thick volume of evidence, but no scientists wanted to read it because they said that balsa rafts and reed boats were the best vessels used by South American Indians and such vessels would get waterlogged and sink in two weeks. Well, even to me a reed boat sounded completely crazy at that time. So I discarded that. But I thought that a log raft would be sturdy enough to make it. Fortunately I knew nothing about sailing—otherwise, I never would have gone ahead. But I just believed in my ideas enough to do it anyway. The scientists kept warning me that a balsa raft would sink in two weeks. They’d taken a piece of dry balsa and put it in a tank, and it did absorb water and sink in two weeks. But if you do it like the Indians, go into the jungle and cut a tree with sap, the sap acts against impregnation. So together with four Norwegians and a Swede, right after World War II ended, I built the raft we called Kon-Tiki, after the legendary sun god of Peru. We left Peru and in 101 days had floated to Polynesia. Not only did the raft stay afloat off the Polynesian coast for several months after our arrival, but we took it to Norway and it floated for six months in the Oslo Fjord before we took it ashore to a museum.

Q—How did you get interested in doing the things that have made you world-famous?

Dr. Heyerdahl—My interest in the oceans developed from my experience in 1937 of being on a small little island in the Marquesas in the Pacific Ocean. It might be interesting to know that when I first went to the Pacific, it was as a man who was afraid of water, who could not swim, and who knew nothing about boats or sailing. At the time I was a student of zoology at the University of Oslo in Norway, and I had geography and anthropology as side topics. The main reason my young bride and I went to the islands was that I wanted to make a zoological survey of how animals could reach an island that had not broken away from the mainland in a split or something—these islands arose through volcanic activity.

Well, living that year as the only white people on the island with the Polynesians, we came into intimate contact with nature. To get food we had to go into the jungle and collect it or paddle in a canoe into the ocean and fish. And when you paddle in a canoe into the ocean, believe me, you get a completely different idea of what the ocean is from what you may get reading textbooks. Well, during this year I found out that all year, day and night, the wind and the current came from South America. If we wanted to go fishing, this was very important. If we went too far out on the Asiatic side, we would not be able to get back to land again. On the other hand, if we went out on the American side, we would be blown back even if we pulled in the paddles.

All this started me thinking. The idea then accepted by scientists was that the Polynesian Islands were peopled by Asians who paddled over from Asia—which is 10,000 miles away. I started to wonder how it could be that people living on these islands could have paddled from Asia when we could not paddle two miles out without risking being blown away towards Asia. Wouldn’t it have been more natural, I thought, for these people, like the animals, to have followed the laws of nature, the currents and wind, and have come from the American side?

Well, this theory presented a great problem. I had been strongly influenced by my teachers, and I too was convinced that Polynesians came from Asia. There are some similarities in the languages of the Malays and some Polynesians—and there has undoubtedly been Asiatic influence into Polynesia; the idea that America had made an influence was too difficult even for me to accept. So I developed a theory that perhaps the Asians had drifted with the wind and current from the Philippines along Japan to the northwest coast of America where the wind and current turn down to Hawaii. Still, this was not satisfactory to me. There were too many links in Polynesia tying it to the big civilizations of the Andes—the enormous statues of Easter Island, pyramids, mummification, trephination, the hieroglyphic writing on the tablets on Easter Island. All these and many more things tied Polynesia to South America, not to Asia. Well, I presented the theory that people had reached Polynesia by two different movements—by using rafts from Peru and by using double canoes from Asia by way of northwest America.

There are few persons in the world who have not heard at one time or another about the legendary Norwegian explorer, Thor Heyerdahl. He is justly famous for his Kon Tiki, Aku-Aku, and more recent Ra I and Ra II adventures. In the New Era’s deliberate search to acquaint Latter-day Saint youth with those who are making a significant contribution in our time, we arranged an interview with Dr. Heyerdahl and some Mormon youth. Participating with the New Era staff were three Brigham Young University students—Donald and Cindy Forsyth and Marilyn Malone—and three University of Utah students—Robert Burton, Brian Moench, and Mark Sorensen.

Dr. Heyerdahl fascinates and charms the New Era interviewers.

Dr. Heyerdahl; Cindy Forsyth; Marilyn Malone; Robert Burton; Brian Moench; Mark Sorensen

Photographs courtesy of Thor Heyerdahl and Doubleday and Company

“The sea sweeps across the deck of Ra II, nearly engulfing a crewman. But by bobbing like a cork and living with the water, the papyrus ship demonstrates a harmony with the sea that saves our lives.”

A—“With the boat out of control, alpinist Carlo Mauri from Italy helps civil engineer Norman Baker of the U.S. secure a sea anchor when both steering oars break—again.” B—“We studied many tomb reliefs and ancient paintings while designing and building Ra I.” C—“Egyptian hardtack was made from an ancient recipe found in the Cairo Museum.” D—“Only 600 miles from landfall Ra I broke up and sank.” E—“I examine the world’s oldest reed boat models from Egyptian mummy tombs.” F—“In a daily survey we observe the shocking pollution of the ocean. Blobs of solidified oil—complete with hitch-hiking barnacles—turn up frequently.” G—“ln the Ra’s cramped little cabin, Norman operates transmitter to keep in touch with radio hams.” H—“Reviving an ancient practice of his ancestors, our Egyptian, George Sourial, wears a life belt of papyrus around his shoulders.”