Adventurer Thor Heyerdahl Dies

United Press International
April 19, 2002

Norwegian explorer and archaeologist Thor Heyerdahl, 87, set off Thursday on his last great adventure. The man who challenged scientific thought and sailed primitive craft across vast oceans to buttress his views on human migration, died at his home of a brain tumor.

Relatives said the hero to many Norwegians died in his sleep at home in Colla Michari, Italy, surrounded by relatives. He had been refusing food and water in the last days after he was diagnosed in early April with a fatal brain tumor.

He made more than 70 airplane trips around the world in the last year of his life, relatives said, lecturing and supporting projects he liked. Heyerdahl may be one of the last of the great terrestrial adventurers. He crossed three oceans in primitive rafts and boats to prove theories about where man has been and how he got there.

The scholarly Norwegian adventurer was a daring navigator who was never a sailor, and a college dropout who spent a fortune trying to win acceptance from academia.

Heyerdahl said his life was dominated by three challenges: to live in harmony with nature and improve it, to make his mark on the scientific community, and to build on his conception of the basic unity of mankind.

New Polynesian Theory

As a student at the University of Oslo, he read about Pacific cultures and primitive island life, only to find that none of the experts agreed on how humans first came to Polynesia.

Heyerdahl developed a theory: Polynesia was not first settled by sailors from Indonesia, but by South American Indians crossing the oceans on primitive craft, taking the prevailing winds and currents near the Equator. It was not until later that the peoples of Southeast Asia, traveling via the Japan current, took prevailing winds toward North America and then circled back down to the South Pacific.

The heart of his theory was that primitive navigators always followed the winds and currents. The first proof came from botany.

When the first Europeans found the islands of Polynesia, the sweet potato and other plants already had been introduced and were available in abundance, just as they were in South America. At the time, those foods were unknown in Southeast Asia.

Later Heyerdahl found links between the ancient art, stone engravings and even the Indians of Canada, South America and Polynesia.

Always the maverick, Heyerdahl began his field research in the Marquesas Islands in the late 1930s as a zoologist. Then he switched to anthropology, dropping out of the University of Oslo in his fourth year so he could study the Bella Coola Indians of Western Canada.

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