Heyerdahl sails papyrus boat - HISTORY
Year
1970

Heyerdahl sails papyrus boat

On May 17, 1970, Norwegian ethnologist Thor Heyerdahl and a multinational crew set out from Morocco across the Atlantic Ocean in Ra II, a papyrus sailing craft modeled after ancient Egyptian sailing vessels. Heyerdahl was attempting to prove his theory that Mediterranean civilizations sailed to America in ancient times and exchanged cultures with the people of Central and South America. The Ra II crossed the 4,000 miles of ocean to Barbados in 57 days.

Heyerdahl, born in Larvik, Norway, in 1914, originally studied zoology and geography at the University of Oslo. In 1936, he traveled with his wife to the Marquesas Islands to study the flora and fauna of the remote Pacific archipelago. He became fascinated with the question of how Polynesia was populated. The prevailing opinion then (and today) was that ancient seafaring people of Southeast Asia populated Polynesia. However, because winds and currents in the Pacific generally run from east to west, and because South American plants such as the sweet potato have been found in Polynesia, Heyerdahl conjectured that some Polynesians might have originated in South America.

To explore this theory, he built a copy of a prehistoric South American raft out of balsa logs from Ecuador. Christened Kon-Tiki, after the Inca god, Heyerdahl and a small crew left Callao, Peru, in April 1947, traversed some 5,000 miles of ocean, and arrived in Polynesia after 101 days. Heyerdahl related the story of the epic voyage in the book Kon-Tiki (1950) and in a documentary film of the same name, which won the 1952 Oscar for Best Documentary.

Heyerdahl later became interested in the possibility of cultural contact between early peoples of Africa and Central and South America. Certain cultural similarities, such as the shared importance of pyramid building in ancient Egyptian and Mexican civilizations, perhaps suggested a link. To test the feasibility of ancient transatlantic travel, Heyerdahl built a 45-foot-long copy of an ancient Egyptian papyrus vessel in 1969, with the aid of traditional boatbuilders from Lake Chad in Central Africa. Constructed at the foot of the Pyramids and named after the sun god Ra, it was later transported to Safi in Morocco, from where it set sail for the Caribbean on May 24, 1969. Defects in design and other problems caused it to founder in July, 600 miles short of its goal. It had sailed 3,000 miles.

Undaunted, Heyerdahl constructed a second papyrus craft, the Ra II, with the aid of Aymaro Indian boatbuilders from Lake Titicaca in Bolivia. With a multinational crew of seven, the Ra II set sale from Safi on May 17, 1970. After a voyage of 57 days and 4,000 miles, the ship arrived in Barbados. The story of this voyage is recorded in the book The Ra Expeditions (1971) and in a documentary film.

In 1977, Heyerdahl led the Tigris expedition, in which he navigated a craft made of reeds down the Tigris River in Iraq to the Persian Gulf, across the Arabian Sea to Pakistan, and finally to the Red Sea. The goal of the expedition was to establish the possibility that there was contact between the great cultures of Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley, and Egypt across the sea. Heyerdahl later led research expeditions to Easter Island and an archeological site of Tucume in northern Peru. For the most part, Heyerdahl’s ideas have not been accepted by mainstream anthropologists.

ALSO ON THIS DAY

Donna Summer, queen of disco, dies

On this day in 2012, singer and songwriter Donna Summer, who rose to fame during the 1970s with such disco anthems as “Love to Love You Baby” and “Hot Stuff,” dies at age 63 in Naples, Florida, after battling cancer. Also known for such 1980s hits as “She Works Hard for the ...read more

Televised Watergate hearings begin

In Washington, D.C., the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, headed by Senator Sam Ervin of North Carolina, begins televised hearings on the escalating Watergate scandal. One week later, Harvard law professor Archibald Cox was sworn in as special ...read more

Toyota announces plans for hybrid Camry

On this day in 2005, Toyota Motor Company announces its plans to produce a gasoline-electric hybrid version of its bestselling Camry sedan. Built at the company’s Georgetown, Kentucky, plant, the Camry became Toyota’s first hybrid model to be manufactured in the United States. ...read more

Brown v. Board of Ed is decided

In a major civil rights victory, the U.S. Supreme Court hands down an unanimous decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, ruling that racial segregation in public educational facilities is unconstitutional. The historic decision, which brought an end to federal tolerance ...read more

Henri Barbusse is born

Henri Barbusse, author of Le Feu (Under Fire), the prize-winning, best-selling novel based on his service during World War I, is born on this day in 1873 in AsniÈres, France. As a young man before the war, Barbusse became a member of Paris’s literary and artistic circles as a ...read more

Operations continue in Cambodia

A force of 10,000 South Vietnamese troops, supported by 200 U.S. advisers, aircraft and logistical elements, attack into what was known as the “Parrot’s Beak,” the area of Cambodia that projects into South Vietnam above the Mekong Delta. The South Vietnamese reached the town of ...read more

Islanders win fourth consecutive Stanley Cup

On May 17, 1983, the New York Islanders win their fourth consecutive Stanley Cup, sweeping the Edmonton Oilers four games to none with a 4-2 win at home on New York’s Long Island.After struggling in their inaugural season as an expansion team in 1972-73, losing 60 games and ...read more

Andrew Johnson marries Eliza McCardle

On this day in 1827, future President Andrew Johnson marries a shy, quiet, 16-year-old daughter of a shoemaker named Eliza McCardle. He was 18 years old. Johnson met Eliza while looking for a job as a tailor in Greeneville, Tennessee. The couple married in Warrenton, Tennessee, ...read more

Geronimo flees Arizona reservation

For the second time in two years, the Apache chief Geronimo breaks out of an Arizona reservation, sparking panic among Arizona settlers.A famous medicine man and the leader of the Chiricahua Apache, Geronimo achieved national fame by being the last American Indian to surrender ...read more

Final episode of Beverly Hills 90210 airs

Donna Martin (Tori Spelling) and David Silver (Brian Austin Green) finally say their vows, and on-and-off couple Kelly Taylor (Jennie Garth) and Dylan McKay (Luke Perry) reunites, as the curtain closes on the teen drama series Beverly Hills, 90210 after 10 seasons. The final ...read more

Fire engulfs Honduras prison

A fire in an overcrowded Honduras prison kills 103 people on this day in 1994. An overheated refrigerator motor sparked the horrible blaze that raced through the outdated jail. Only a year earlier, a gang fight at the same prison had left nearly 70 people dead. The prison, in ...read more

LAPD raid leaves six SLA members dead

In Los Angeles, California, police surround a home in Compton where the leaders of the terrorist group known as the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) are hiding out. The SLA had kidnapped Patricia Hearst, of the fabulously wealthy Hearst family publishing empire, months earlier, ...read more