Adventure sailor Thor Heyerdahl’s audacious attempt to voyage across the Pacific using a rudimentary raft is a great human achievement. The book in question chronicles his jaw-dropping journey from Peru to the Polynesian islands on the hand-made balsa wood raft with only natural accessories at disposal. The stupendous success of the book is as much owing to the author’s story-telling skills as it is about the thrills inherent in the adventure. In other words, Heyerdahl brings all ingenuity and creativity to bear on his writing, just as they were amply evident in the actual voyage. He utilizes varied literary devices of narration, description and comparison to illustrate the central thesis. The main point of the work is that the native inhabitants of Polynesian islands, contrary to being thought of as of Asiatic origin, are actually from the Americas. Heyerdahl and his crew’s simple-sounding task was then to simulate the navigational experience of the Peruvian tribes who were said to have taken a journey on the same Pacific route several centuries ago.
The central concern of the book is to find out whether indigenous Polynesians arrived on the islands from the West or the East. The voyage undertaken by Heyerdahl and team is to simulate the eastward arrival theory. If Heyerdahl were to succeed in completing the journey, it would pose a big challenge to conventional anthropology on Polynesia. It is with such high scholastic stakes that Heyerdahl begins his adventure, not to mention the real high stakes of life and death that awaited the sailors en route.
Heyerdahl employs the device of anthropological description in supporting his argument. For instances, he conducts a detailed and descriptive cultural-historical study of the huge Moai rock statues on Easter Island. The study reveals how these impressive monolithic structures were more reminiscent of pre-Columbian Peruvian art than the more proximate Polynesian art tradition. The author does not lack narrative skills either, as his passages on the myth of Hanau epe and Hanau momoko warring factions makes obvious. In narrating the oral folklore about these two historical groups in conflict, Heyerdahl subtly suggests how these two groups could be symbols for the earlier settlers on the islands and the new wave of South American immigrants. This proposition is not irrational, especially in light of DNA evidence of traces of South American genes found alongside Asiatic genomes in the extant Polynesian tribes.
Furthermore, Heyerdahl performs a comparison with a contemporary social group in rebutting his critics’ claims. For example, he observes correctly that it is more accurate to decide the historical origins of black Americans on the basis of their skin color rather than their fluency in English. If the former method was adopted, this demographic group would naturally be traced to Africa, whereas the second approach would lead to the wrong conclusion that they originated from England.
Finally, the advanced genetic marker analysis tools available today actually prove Heyerdahl’s point. But this has to be qualified by saying that the South American voyagers on the raft were not the first inhabitants of the Islands. More likely, when they bumped into the reefs of these islands, they were greeted by the early settlers from the geographically nearer South East Asian peoples.
Heyerdahl, Thor. (1984). Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific by Raft. Published by Rand McNally.