April 28 – Leaky Tiki

Today’s Factismal: Thor Heyerdahl and his crew started their 4,340 mi voyage from South America to Polynesia on the Kon-Tiki, 67 years ago today.

If you want to start an argument in an anthropology department, then ask how the Polynesian islands were settled. Though most anthropologists hold that the settlers all came from the shores of Asia, there are a dedicated few who think that at least some of the settlers arrived there from South America. And both sides have some evidence to support their ideas.

The most accepted theory of how Polynesia was settled (Image courtesy Christophe Cagé)

The most accepted theory of how Polynesia was settled
(Image courtesy Christophe Cagé)

The “out of Asia” group has it easy. The ocean currents mostly flow from Asia toward Polynesia, and the two groups have many physical and social characteristics in common. But the “South American” group also has evidence; the sweet potato is native to South America and Polynesia but not Asia, and there are statues with similar shapes in both areas. “Big deal”, was the common rebuttal, “There’s no way that people could make it from South America to Polynesia on a raft”.

The Kon-Tiki raft sets sail (Image courtesy NASA)

The Kon-Tiki raft sets sail
(Image courtesy NASA)

Tired of hearing the argument from incredulity, Thor Heyerdahl decided to put the theory to the test. With six co-workers, he built a 45 ft long raft out of all native materials such as balsa wood logs and hemp rope, gave it a mast of mangrove wood and a sail of woven bamboo shoots, and then set out on his great adventure. For the next 101 days, they followed the Humbolt current and slowly sailed from South America to the island of Raroia in the heart of Polynesia. They had proven that the trip was possible.

Of course, that didn’t settle the question; just because the trip was possible that didn’t mean that it had actually been made. But one of the arguments against the hypothesis had been conclusively squashed. Even better, the film that Thor made of the journey went on to win an Academy award, a first in anthropology. Research continues today on just how many people could have migrated from South America to Polynesia and what their impact would have been.

If you’d like to take part in a great expedition but don’t have three months to spare (or you get sea sick), then why not join in on the National Geographic’s Field Expedition: Mongolia – Valley of the Khans project? They need citizen scientists to look at images on their home computers and help them identify lost archeological sites:
http://exploration.nationalgeographic.com/mongolia/home

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