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Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The Ra II Sets Sail, May 17, 1970

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Today in 1970, Thor Heyerdahl set out across the Atlantic from Morocco in a boat made entirely of papyrus. The Ra II, as the boat was named, was a copy of an ancient Egyptian design and was built to prove Heyerdahl’s theory that it was technologically possible for the Egyptians of antiquity to travel to the Americas. This was not Heyerdahl’s first attempt to prove that early cultures communicated across oceans and continents, nor would it be his last.

Thor Heyerdahl was born in Norway in 1914 and was educated as a marine biologist. He developed a great interest in anthropology and soon came to believe in many theories shunned by modern anthropology. He set out to prove that some of these theories were plausible at least from a technological perspective with regard to ocean travel.

Heyerdahl’s first gained public attention during the Kon-Tiki Expedition of 1947. Heyerdahl and a small team built a raft made from balsawood and other materials available in South America and based on Spanish drawings of 16th century Inca rafts. The team set out from Callao, Peru and landed on the island of Raroia in Polynesia 101 days later. The only modern device they took with them was a radio. This 4300 mile voyage proved that the islands of Polynesia were within range for the ancient peoples of South America. This supported Heyerdahl’s theory that Polynesia was settled by people from the Western Hemisphere.

Heyerdahl’s next expedition centered around the theory that ancient Egyptians could have sailed to South America and taught the people there about pyramid-building. With the help of the Burundi tribe from Chad, Heyerdahl built a papyrus vessel at the foot of the pyramids at Giza in Egypt. Once completed, the craft, dubbed Ra, was transported to Morocco and set sail for Barbados. The journey went well for nearly 3000 miles, at which time problems with the stern of the boat arose and it had to be abandoned.

Heyerdahl was ready to try again ten months later with the Ra II. This boat sailed 4000 miles without incident and made it to Barbados in 57 days. Like his earlier voyage, this journey proved the technical possibility of an cross-ocean voyage in ancient times.

Heyerdahl continued his anthropological work for the next thirty years, both on the oceans and on dry land. He intentionally burned the Tigris, another reed craft, in 1978 to protest the wars that were then being waged in the Middle East. Heyerdahl’s theories were sometimes original and sometimes the idea of others, but most are still rejected by anthropologists. Even so, his daring exploits on the oceans of the world inspired generations of people to learn more about the origins of their ancestors.

Thor Heyerdahl died in Italy in 2002.

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