Adventurer Thor Heyerdahl Dies

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"I graduated in nothing," he says. "I quit zoology. Obviously, this is why I had a terrible fight with the whole world in the beginning, because I had gone my own path."

In Canada, Heyerdahl elaborated one major part of his theory that Polynesians came to the West Coast of North America from Southeast Asia before they returned to the sea and sailed westward across the Pacific.

"All the early explorers pointed out the similarities between the people of New Zealand and the people of British Columbia," he said. "The physical types. The similarity in the canoes. The similarity of the maori (statues) and the Northwest totem poles. ... Every single element was pointed out by them."

Despite his evidence, he found no publisher for his conclusions.

Research Expands

It was after World War II, in 1947, that he was able to offer his most dramatic proof. He boarded the balsa raft Kon-Tiki for the 101-day journey across the Pacific from Callao, Peru. An authority on primitive navigation wrote that a balsa raft could not possibly float for two weeks.

Heyerdahl remembered the triumph he felt when he and his five crewmen pulled themselves from the surf on the Polynesian atoll of Raroia.

"I crawled up on the dry sand and counted the men around me. That feeling can never be matched. We had really made it and we were all alive!"

Heyerdahl led an expedition to the Galápagos Islands, 600 miles off Ecuador, in 1952 and found pre-Inca pottery and other artifacts.

He followed that expedition in 1955 with his first study of Easter Island. That trip proved to be a benchmark in two critical areas: It was a turning point in his campaign for academic acceptance, and it left him broke.

The excavation team found the mysterious, brooding stone statues of Easter Island actually were twice as large as previously thought, and that the island had been inhabited 1,000 years earlier than previously believed.

The University of Oslo changed its bylaws so it could award Heyerdahl an honorary doctorate, an award previously reserved for foreigners. The Royal Geographical Society in London awarded him a gold medal.

Another scientific conclusion challenged by Heyerdahl was that papyrus reed would dissolve after two weeks in water.

"That papyrus had been tested in a bathtub," Heyerdahl said. "Any kind of reed will rot in stagnant fresh water. But in clean ocean water it is preserved. The longer it is in seawater the tougher it gets."

Heyerdahl's papyrus ship Ra remained afloat eight weeks in the Atlantic. It disintegrated shortly before reaching Barbados because of faulty construction of the stern. The Ra II completed the crossing in 57 days.

After his Ra voyages were plagued by petroleum refuse, he denounced pollution from oil tankers and off-shore wells. He crusaded for an ocean cleanup in the United Nations and in lectures, radio and television appearances in 23 countries.

Source United Press International 2002

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