Thor Heyerdahl’s Peru
Although it is often forgotten, the legendary Kon-Tiki expedition’s point of departure was the Peruvian port of Callao.
The daring journey across the Pacific in a balsa-wood raft was just the start of the great Norwegian explorer’s long relationship with Peru.
Fans of Peruvian history know well that it is packed with epic adventures, not least the Inca’s swift military domination of the Andes or the Spaniard’s subsequent ruthless subjugation of the Incas. One that is sometimes overlooked, however, is the Kon-Tiki expedition, which set off from Callao, Peru’s main port (which has now merged into Lima) on April 28, 1947. Led by the Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl, the journey married academic curiosity with potentially suicidal bravery.
For years, experts had been debating whether Polynesia and other Pacific islands had been inhabited by migrants from South America or Eurasia. Many regarded the very idea that ancient peoples on tiny rafts with small sails could have survived the journey westwards across the world’s greatest ocean as preposterous. Heyerdahl, however, was determined to prove them wrong, and in the most conclusive way, by undertaking his own voyage, from Peru. When he and his crew of five set off — with a raft that had been assembled with the help of Callao’s port authorities — many regarded their undertaking as a kamikaze mission.
Initially, it was towed 50 miles out to sea by a Peruvian Navy tug, to prevent collisions with passing
ships. The Kon-Tiki then only made intermittent radio contact with the outside world until, 101 days later, it ran aground on a reef off French Polynesia. The journey had been successful and Heyderdahl had proved his point. Despite that, academics still argue about how the Pacific islands were populated; genetic studies indicate a general pattern heading eastwards from Eurasia. But at least no one can now argue that that is the only possible way, and some anthropologists believe there may have been mixed migration, coming from both east and west. As for Heyerdahl, the Kon-Tiki expedition was the start of a lifelong love affair with Peru. That includes his 1990s research into the pre-Inca pyramids of Lambayeque, on the northern Pacific coast, and the establishment of an acclaimed museum there.
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