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Thor Heyerdahl  

NPR/NGS Radio Expeditions
19 Jan 1999

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Daniel Sandweiss on Thor Heyerdahl
Don Smith
January 19, 1999

DS
00:01:10 How do you pronounce Thor Heyerdahl? 00:01:12

DSw
00:01:13 (Pronounces.)

DS
00:01:38 Start by telling me your name and what you do. 00:01:41

DSw
00:01:42 I¿m Dan Sandweiss and I¿m an Asst. Professor of Anthropology and Quaternary Studies at the University of Maine and my area of specialization is the archeology of Peru.

DS
00:01:55 Heyerdahl¿s most famous theory is that South American Indians might have populated Polynesia. Is there anything to that theory? 00:01:06

DSw
00:02:08 There¿s something to it definitely. It seems very clear that most of Polynesia was populated by people from Southeast Asia , never the less, some domesticated plants from South America definitely got out into the islands by some kind of human contact during the Prehistoric Period. Before the Europeans were there so there was definitely contact. And there is still some debate if there was a population of South Americans before the Polynesians arrived.

DS
00:02:37
And how would they have gotten there? 00:02:39

DSw
00:02:40 They would have presumably would have gotten there by the kind of rafts that Heyerdahl studied such as the Kon Tiki the raft that he made his famous voyage on in 1947.

DS
00:02:51 Tukume¿ I understand you are associated with Heyerdahl there.00:03:03

DSw
00:03:04 Yes, I first met him in a hotel in Peru in 1988 completely by accident we spent a couple hours chatting in the bar in the evening and about 3 months later I got an offer to work full time at Tukume for three years which I did and since that time we¿ve been working together.

DS
00:03:22 Are you still involved in Tukume? 00:03:24

DSw
00:03:25 That project is mostly closed down but Thor and I have become involved in a variety of other projects together. He¿s been involved in getting financing for some of my work in Peru including giving some money out of his own pocket and he also was the center for forming a new foundation called FERCO, the Foundation for Exploration and Research and Cultural Origins, actually made by some of his very wealthy Norwegian friends. It¿s a Canary Island based Foundation and we had our first activities last year and this year we are in the middle of a grant competition. We will be giving out about a $100,000 in grants this year.

DS
00:04:00 What about the Tukume site why is that shut down, did you find everything ? 00:04:06

DSw
00:04:07 By no means, Tukume is a huge site and we could spend generations working there and continue to find new things. However, it¿s ¿ because it¿s such a large site it¿s an expensive place to work and it takes a great investment it time and in money and basically both of those ran out.

DS
00:04:24 What is the site? Who lived there? 00:04:27

DSw
00:04:28 It was first built around 1100 AD by local people from a Valley called the Lombacki Valley, this is where it¿s located in Northern Peru. They began it as a Pyramid Center, probably a religious center. That¿s what we think at this point, and then around 1350 AD it was conquered by an empire from further south called the Chimu and they turned it in to their administrative center for this Northern part of Peru. And then around 1470 AD the famous Inca Empire conquered Tukume and they also used it for their administrative center for some section of Northern Peru and finally the Spaniards arrived in 1532 and within 15 yrs. or so the site was in ruins.

DS
00:05:10 So the original inhabitants were very early people in Peru? 00:05:15

DSw
00:05:16 Well, actually I would say they were fairly late. 1100 AD is 10,000 yrs. after people arrived in South America for the first time.

DS
00:05:27 You work with Walter Altha (?) 00:05:47

DSw
00:05:48 Yes, Walter was part of the original Tukume project in fact. He held down the Peruvian responsibility, the Peruvian side of it for the first year and then as it became clear that Cepan was going to be a permanent ongoing project that would take all of his time we got in other Peruvian archeologists to work with us at Tukume.

DS
00:06:08 Heyerdahl does want to give up in the Polynesian population of South ,or Central American Indians. That theory has been fairly well dispensed with hasn¿t it? 00:06:32

DSw
00:06:33 In terms of a major migration of people responsible for populating most of Oceanania, most of the Polynesian region¿ (Coughing.. Repeats)¿ That has been fairly well discarded but there is still a possibility that there was a South American presence on Easter Island and Heyerdahl is particularly concerned with following that up. One of the things about Thor which is important to note is that he approaches his theories from a truly scientific point of view, he had theories but he recognizes them as such. He them works out what would be the implications of those theories and then goes out to try and find out whether or not the data actually supports these implications. He¿s organized archeological expeditions to Easter Island to the Galapagos Islands, to the coast of Peru similarly he¿s carried out several raft voyages to show that the technology for seafaring available for peoples in the region was indeed capable of reaching these Islands. He recognizes that being possible it was not the same as actually having happened but when he first started working in the 1930¿s and 40¿s most people thought that you didn¿t have to consider a South American presence out in Oceania because they had no boats capable of reaching there and he showed that that was wrong.

DS
00:08:13 And he sees also possibly a Mesopotamian influence in the Canary Islands? 00:08:26

DSw
00:08:27 Well that¿s a different situation. The Canary Island s were definitely populated from North Africa or from Southern Europe or from both. Going back at least to Roman Times and probably a little bit earlier but that¿s in the Atlantic Ocean, a very different situation form Polynesia, except of course, it does show early seafaring abilities.

DS
00:08:48 He ties this together with the Theory of Diffusionism as opposed to Isolationism. Could you explain what that¿s about? 00:08:58

DSw
00:09:03 Diffusionism is the idea that certain innovations among people spread from contact between one group and another rather than being independently invented and isolationism as he would put it is the idea that different cultures of the past were never in touch with one another. I think that most archeologist today would agree that there was contact between many of the ancient civilizations thought not all of them and that people all had the same capacity for invention some that it¿s perfectly reasonable and probably true that in many places similar things, agriculture, building stepped pyramids were invented independently but in other cases they probably do show contact between ancient peoples and one of the things that Heyerdahl has done is to show that most of the ancient civilizations of the world did have the seafaring capability to be in contact. Whether or not they were is a matter of archeology and this is why he¿s organized archeological expeditions and many of his ideas there remain quite controversial. But he has forced archeologists to consider the possibility of contacts that at one time were thought to be impossible because of a lack of seafaring technology. 00:10:17

DS
00:10:18 He offers the Atlantis story as a possible explanation for diffusion. What is he talking about there? 00:10:33

DSw
00:10:34
I don¿t think I could comment on that .I haven¿t discussed the issue of Atlantis with him. I¿m pretty sure that he doesn¿t believe in the Atlantis story as recorded by Plato which probably is just a myth. It is thought by some archeologists that there were events in the Mediterranean which may have inspired Plato to make up this story of Atlantis but I really couldn¿t comment on that.

DS
00:10:58 What do you think about a civilization of a civilization in the middle of the ocean destroyed by a great flood? And those would got out did and they spread throughout the world? 00:11:23

DSw
00:11:24 It¿s virtually impossible. There¿s no evidence for it anywhere in the archeological world and it¿s geologically virtually impossible that there was a large island in the middle, even a small island that we don¿t know about in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. There was an island, still is an island in the middle of the Mediterranean Thera also called Santorini, half of which disappeared in a major volcanic eruption during the middle Bronze Age and some people link this to the origin of the Atlantis myth. But in terms of an island with the sophisticated civilization in the Atlantic Ocean , I think that we can pretty well rule that out. 00:12:02

DS
00:12:03 You would almost call that pseudo science. 00:12:07

DSw
00:12:08 If you supported the idea of a highly sophisticated civilization existing on a now disappeared island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, yes I¿m pretty certain that is not what Thor is talking about.

DS
00:12:21 A lot of scientists feel resentment toward Thor, as a freelancer scientist, without a strong science background. Is that fair? 00:13:15

DSw
00:13:16 Only if they read their work carefully and I¿m afraid that that has not been the case with much of Heyerdahl¿s work. I think that part of the problem with Heyerdahl and I would accept him for most of the other cases. Certainly I would differentiate him from Gene Savoy. Certainly these people are very successful at getting their ideas tot he general public. Something that unfortunately most academic archeologists are not very good at doing and that in itself causes a certain amount of resentment. But if you actually look at the corpus of Heyerdahl¿s work it¿s actually quite scientific. He has two kinds of books. One are his popular accounts of expeditions, both archeological expeditions and the seafaring expeditions, Rah, Tigress or Kon Tiki. The second kind of book that he¿s involved with are scientific reports of archeological excavations, meant to shed light on this theories, not necessarily to prove them but to shed light on them and in every archeological expedition that he¿s organized he¿s always contracted professional academic archeologists to work with him and he has never censored what they have written and the reports that they have published have always been well reviewed and stand as important contributions to world archeology. So he¿s a really different case. He also has more of a scientific background then most archeologists realize. He has a strong rigorous undergraduate background in zoology. He also holds over a dozen honorary documents from a variety of institutions including the Univ. of Maine. And although in some ways he¿s largely self taught, he is a careful reader and has been interacting with scientists on a personal basis for so many years that he frankly knows more than most of us.

DS
00:14:59 Is there a case to be made on the other side, some scientists are bound within their discipline? 00:15:14

DSw
00:15:15 That is sometimes the case.

DS
00:15:17 What year were you born in? 00:15:22

DSw
00:15:23 1957

DS
00:15:24 57, so that was 10 yrs. after the Kon Tiki Adventure? (That¿s correct) You must have read about it. 00:15:30

DSw
00:15:31 I certainly did, it was required reading for 7th grade. It was a part of our summer reading list.

DS
00:15:37 Did that affect your wanting to become an archeologist? 00:15:41

DSw
00:15:42 In the back of my mind it must have. I hadn¿t identified archeology as a goal when I was in high school. I did that when I was in college, but I think part of the appeal of archeology came from being excited by books like Kon Tiki.

DS
00:15:54 Actually, your field of science is anthropology. 00:15:59

DSw
00:16:00 What we call an anthropological archeologist in the United States is, most archeologists are found in Anthropology departments and have graduate degrees in anthropology but really our specialization is anthropology.

Ds
00:16:12 What is the value of people like Heyerdahl?00:16:33

DSw
00:16:34 They play an extremely important role because they¿re not afraid to cross disciplinary boundaries or to come up with ideas that are a little bit out of the mainstream but aren¿t crazy ideas. His theories are perfectly reasonable theories. They might be wrong. Some of them certainly are wrong but they have inspired a tremendous amount of work including among those scientists that were offended by his ideas, who took most exception to them. They found themselves forced to revise their ideas to go out and gather more evidence in order to argue their side of the question. So he¿s inspired a huge amount of work to be done, so that¿s important. People like Heyerdahl, play an extremely important role in that way. He himself has also been important in bringing together scientists from lots of different disciplines. We recently had a conference at the University of Maine funded by this new FERCO that Heyerdahl was involved in getting started in which we brought archeologists and paleoclimatentolists from all over the world, a series of very distinguished scholars and I don¿t know how many of them got up at the beginning of their talk before going on to detailed academic talks and said that they had been very much inspired from reading Kon Tiki or Tigress or Rah or all of those books when they were young people to go in to the field of science, to go into the field of explorations. SO they do also, people like Heyerdahl do serve as important inspirations for people.

DS
00:17: 56 These recreations, are they useful? 00:18:19

DSw
00:18:20 It is useful because it shows us what ancient technology was capable of and that has, I think 2 major purposes. It means, 1 that we have to be alert to evidence of possible contacts that,.. before we knew that such seafaring was possible that we might simply have eliminated from our thinking and we would not have been alert to possible evidence. It doesn¿t mean that these voyages took place but if we know they are possible then we will be looking out for evidence that might show that they really took place. That¿s one side. The other thing is that it reminds all of us that prehistoric people we just like us. They didn¿t have they same technology but they did have the same capability for invention and the same intelligence that we have, no matter where they were in the world and seeing that they were capable of building a boat like Rah, which was capable of sailing to Polynesia, whether anyone did it or not or ¿ they are capable of building a boat like Kon Tiki that could sail out to Polynesia or a boat like Rah that could cross the Atlantic, these are all based on the designs from Ancient times reminds us of how intelligent people have always been and I think that¿s an important message that we often forget.

DS
00:19:25 People have been as intelligent as us for how long? (About 100,000 years) Why has it taken so long to get to the point we are now?

DSw
00:20:14 Partly. Because science and technology are a cumulative process and partly because they simply weren¿t necessary when there were fewer people around. One of the things that anthropologists have gathered is that hunters and gatherers, people like the Kalahari bushmen actually have more leisure time then farmers and it¿s likely that people only became farmers when they were forced to do so when their were more people then could be fed by a hunting and gathering lifestyle. So perhaps we simply didn¿t have a need for these things. But also there is the cumulative aspect. Certainly if you think about the way computers develop or cars or any of the technology that we use today you can see that it¿s a progress and one design builds on a previous one and so on so it is cumulative.

DS
00:20:58 Well I¿ve certainly heard that theory. Could there not have been some population that grew up before ours that we have no record of? 00:21:09

DSw
00:21:10 I think that any civilization that had any technology like ours would necessarily have left traces that by now we would have discovered.

DSw
00:21:34 If I could just add a few things. One .. Thor¿s attitude toward scientific controversy I think is important. Recently when he was here at the University of Maine he made a personal grant from his pocket to the University for research in Peru. And he gave a little speech in advance and one of the things he said in this speech was that he feels that it¿s very important not only to support people that believe in his theories or anybody¿s theories whoever he may be but also to support research of people who don¿t believe in your theories, who believe opposite theories. If you really want to find out what happened you have to investigate all serious points o f view and the best support for any particular theory, say his idea about populating Polynesia from South America would be to have somebody who believed the opposite go out and try and prove the opposite and then become convinced that Heyerdahl as right or any other person like Heyerdahl. So he stated that publicly that it¿s just as important to support research by the opposition as it is to support research along your own lines of thinking, otherwise science won¿t move forward. The other thing that I would like to say is that he is truly a very democratic person. ( DS Hold, on.. That¿s amazing in science that someone would support research contrary to their own theories?) 00:23:00 I can¿t say that I know of other cases but I can¿t say that it doesn¿t happen though. Often, much of our funding comes from somewhat disinterested foundations these days in which if you make a good strong proposal, you can be funded and they might in a given year or in different years fund proposals that go in different directions. So, in effect that happens through our national funding systems today. But I don¿t know of another individual that has put themselves on the line and actually stated that this is something that they believe in. That you must fund people with theories that go in counter to yours in order to advance science better. I¿m sure that many scientist s believe this to be true but I haven¿t actually heard anybody else say that.

DS
00:23:41 Well, I haven¿t either.

DSw In Heyerdahl¿s case he has been willing to do that ( DS:I¿m sorry you started to say..) Yes, I did want to also say that Heyerdahl is a very democratic person in the sense that I¿ve seen him drinking and dancing and enjoying himself and eating out in the Peruvian countryside with rural farmers and at the same time I¿ve also sat with him having coffee and a civilized chat with Fidel Castro. I know that he¿s a friend of kings and president¿s. I know he spent Christmas with the president of Iceland. He moves in all levels of society and he¿s equally happy at all levels of society and with people from all parts of the world. I think that that¿s a rather remarkable capacity for somebody who¿s as important we might say, as Heyerdahl is. He maintains his sense of interest in all kinds of people and all kinds of life ways all parts of the world equally.

Asides between Carolyn and Don

DS
00:25:52 What are your thoughts as to Thor as an explorer of the century?

DSw
00:25:58 I think it¿s clear that he¿s going to be remembered as one of the great explorers of this century, indeed of all historic time that we now about. Not only for what he did but for what he did but for the way his work popularized .. has inspired people. The way I mentioned before that these scientists participating in the conference, many of them spoke about how their interests in being scientists was sparked by reading Kon Tiki or seeing the documentary or reading one of Thor¿s other books, so in that sense I think he¿s also been important in inspiring people. I think that that¿s a .. one of the most important things that any one can do is to get more people to get out and to do science and to do a good job of it. So I think that that will go down in history as an important aspect. He¿ll be remembered as controversial some of his theories will ultimately be decided to be wrong and I don¿t think that that will particularly or would upset him if he were around to observe it and he may well be. AT age, I believe 84, he has more energy then most people I know, he gets up early, he runs all day, takes a 15 min. nap that¿s a habit he¿s had probably all of his life and he could go to 1 or 2 or 3 in the morning. I¿ve seen him do it time and again. (Don) It¿s the genes and the diet. He doesn¿t eat canned or frozen food.

Talking about future projects.

Tape ends at 00:30:03

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