Kon-Tiki is the raft used by Norwegian explorer and writer Thor Heyerdahl in his 1947 expedition across the Pacific Ocean from South America to the Polynesian islands. It was named after the Inca sun god, Viracocha, for whom "Kon-Tiki" was said to be an old name. Kon-Tiki is also the name of the popular book that Heyerdahl wrote about his adventures.
Heyerdahl believed that people from South America could have settled Polynesia in pre-Columbian times. His aim in mounting the Kon-Tiki expedition was to show, by using only the materials and technologies available to those people at the time, that there were no technical reasons to prevent them from having done so. (Although the expedition carried some modern equipment, such as a radio, watches, charts, sextant, and metal knives, these were incidental to the purpose of proving that the raft itself could make the journey.)
The Kon-Tiki expedition was funded by private loans, along with donations of equipment from the US Army. Heyerdahl and a small team went to Peru, where, with the help of dockyard facilities provided by the Peruvian authorities, they constructed the raft out of balsa logs and other native materials in an indigenous style as recorded in illustrations by Spanish conquistadores. The trip began on April 28, 1947. Heyerdahl and five companions sailed the raft for 101 days over 4,300 miles across the Pacific Ocean before smashing into a reef at Raroia in the Tuamotu Islands on August 7, 1947. The crew made successful landfall and all returned safely.
Thor Heyerdahl's book about his experience became a bestseller. It was originally published in 1950 as The Kon-Tiki Expedition: By Raft Across the South Seas, later reprinted as Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific in a Raft.
The voyage was also chronicled in the documentary TV-series The Kon-Tiki Man: The Life and Adventures of Thor Heyerdahl, directed by Bengt Jonson.
The original Kon-Tiki boat is now on display in the Kon-Tiki Museum in Oslo.
The Kon-Tiki was crewed by six men, all Norwegian except for Bengt Danielsson, who was from Sweden.
The main mast was made of lengths of mangrove wood lashed together to form an A-frame 8.8 m (29 ft) high. Behind the main-mast was a cabin of plaited bamboo 4.2 m (14 ft) long and 2.4 m (8 ft) wide was built about 1.21-1.51 m (4-5 feet) high, and roofed with banana leaf thatch. At the stern was a 5.8 m (19 ft) long steering oar of mangrove wood, with a blade of fir. The main sail was 4.6 m by 5.5 m (15 by 18 feet) on a yard of bamboo stems lashed together. Photographs also show a top-sail above the main sail, and also a mizzen-sail, mounted at the stern.
The raft was partially decked in split bamboo. No metal was used in the construction.
Three days later, on August 7, the raft struck a reef and was eventually beached on an uninhabited islet off Raroia Island in the Tuamotu group. The team had travelled a distance of around 3,770 nautical miles (c.6980 km) in 101 days, at an average speed of 1.5 knots.
After spending a number of days alone on the tiny islet, the crew were greeted by men from a village on a nearby island who arrived in canoes, having seen washed-up flotsam from the raft. The crew were taken back to the native village, where they were feted with traditional dances and other festivities. Finally the crew were taken off Raroia to Tahiti by the French schooner Tamara, with the salvaged Kon-Tiki in tow.
While this was an interesting experiment that demonstrated the seaworthiness of Heyerdahl's raft, his theory of the Polynesians' origins has never gained acceptance by anthropologists. Physical and cultural evidence had long suggested that Polynesia was settled from west to east, migration having begun from the Asian mainland, not South America. In the late 1990s, genetic testing found that the mitochondrial DNA of the Polynesians is more similar to people from southeast Asia than to people from South America, showing that their ancestors most likely came from Asia.
It should be noted, however, that Heyerdahl claimed the race that settled Polynesia from South America was a white race that was distinct from the South Americans, and had in fact been driven from those shores. Therefore, it would be expected that the DNA of the Polynesians would be dissimilar to that of South Americans.
Thor Heyerdahl never set out to prove that the current Polynesians were descended from South America. According to Heyerdahl, some Polynesian legends say that Polynesia was originally inhabited by two peoples, the so-called long-eared and the short-eared. In a bloody war, all the long-eared peoples were eliminated and the short-eared people assumed sole control of Polynesia. Heyerdahl asserted that these extinct people were the ones who could have settled Polynesia from the Americas, not the current, short-eared inhabitants. One of the problems with this argument is that traditions involving long-ears and short-ears are found only at Easter Island, and are unknown in the rest of Polynesia.
Heyerdahl further argues in his book American Indians in the Pacific that the current inhabitants of Polynesia migrated from an Asian source, but via an alternate route. He proposes that Polynesians traveled with the wind along the North Pacific current. These migrants then arrived in British Columbia. Heyerdahl called contemporary tribes of British Columbia, such as the Tlingit and Haida, descendants of these migrants. Heyerdahl claimed that cultural and physical similarities existed between these British Columbian tribes, Polynesians, and the Old World source. Heyerdahl's claims aside, however, there is no evidence that the Tlingit, Haida or other British Columbian tribes have any particular affinity with Polynesians. Their morphologically complex languages are about as far from Austronesian and Polynesian languages as it is possible to be, and their cultures evince links to the rest of the peoples of North America.
Anthropologist Robert C. Suggs included a chapter on "The Kon-Tiki Myth" in his book on Polynesia. He concludes:
The Kon-Tiki expedition attracted many comments similar to the above. Donald P. Ryan presents a retrospective overview about Heyerdahl's theories and their reception.
On April 28, 2006, a Norwegian team attempted to duplicate the Kon-Tiki voyage using a newly-built raft, the Tangaroa, named after the Māori sea-god Tangaroa. Again based on records of ancient vessels, this raft used relatively sophisticated square sails that allowed sailing into the wind, or tacking. It was 16m long by 8m wide. It also included a set of modern navigation and communication equipment, including solar panels, portable computers, and desalination equipment. The crew posted to their web site. The crew of six was led by Torgeir Higraff, and included Olav Heyerdahl, grandson of Thor Heyerdahl. The voyage was completed successfully in July 2006 and a documentary film is forthcoming.
The expedition has been parodied or referenced in a number of entertainment programs, including: