Nov 7, 2011

The Lessons of Kon Tiki 

Thor Heyerdahl had developed a theory that the Polynesian peoples had originally come from South America to populate the islands of the Pacific. The civilizations of South America had constructed balsawood rafts with which they could sail far out into the Pacific. Heyerdahl researched these subjects for many years and wrote up his thesis in an attempt to persuade others. However the lettered men of academia refused to even read his proposals and flatly rejected any origin for the Polynesian peoples other that their favored Asian one.
Heyerdahl decided that the only way to prove his theory would be to actually duplicate the feat himself – build and float an Indian raft across the wide Pacific to Polynesia. So he set about preparing for the adventure. He recruited 5 others to make that trip with him. He obtained funding and equipment from private and governmental sources. He obtained the now scarce palsawood logs from far up in the Ecuardorean jungle and shipped the logs to a port near Lima, Peru where the actual raft was built in a naval shipyard.
Almost everyone discouraged them from even attempting this voyage. They were told that the raft would fall apart before it ever reach the destination. That the logs would become waterlogged and sink. That they would run out of water. That they would not find any food available out in the middle of the Pacific. And many other discouraging arguments. The only thing that kept them going was their own conviction that the theory was correct and that the Precolumbian Indians had done it before them.
So on April 28, 1947 the crew set out for their destination, 4,300 miles away across a vast ocean. Taking the Humbolt Current off the coast of Peru, they were driven north until they joined the South Equatorial Current flowing west. They found that very little navigation was even necessary as the wind and the currents carried them toward the far away islands like a giant river ever flowing toward a remote shore. A hundred days later they reached their destination and were shipwrecked on the coral reef of a small island.  All survived and lived to tell their story.
In my opinion, this is one of the great adventure stories of the 20th century. It has all the elements of a great odyssey: violent storms at sea, sea monsters, hand to hand combat with dangerous sharks, and of course the ultimate shipwreck. Yet the event is almost forgotten. In spite of having proven the feasibility of his theory, it is largely rejected or ignored. No one has attempted to expand on his discoveries. No Hollywood movie has been made of his exploits. And I doubt very much if the event is ever mentioned in any high school history class.
But Heyerdahl's discoveries were important ones and validate some aspects of the Book of Mormon for those of us who are believers in this ancient record. For it is generally believed in Mormon circles that the Polynesians were descended from Nephites who sailed out into the unknown (such as Hagoth and his sailors in Alma 63:5-10). In the following paragraphs I would like to enumerate some of Heyerdahls findings.
  1. Migration of peoples across the Pacific was possible and rather easy following the ocean currents; much easier than land travel. The sea currents and associated winds made sea travel by the ancients a real and likely possiblity. Following an ocean current is much like floating down a large river. They originally thought they would be kept constantly busy steering the raft with the steering oar, but found that they could leave the steering to the current and the wind.
  2. Green balsa logs don't become waterlogged but stay bouyant the entire trip.
  3. There was no shortage of food on the ocean, in fact they probably threw away much more than they consumed. They found that even the plankton could be collected and eaten if the need arose.
  4. Water was not a problem. In addition to collecting rainwater to augment the supplies they took with them, they found that you can mix 20-40% seawater with freshwater for drinking purposes without any ill effect. If things got desparate, they found they could get enough liquid from the large fish they caught by cutting open the body cavity and letting the body fluids collect there.
  5. The design of the raft placed them near the water surface where they could better observe sea life. Many fish sought cover and protection under and around the raft. This made fishing an easy task. The ropes didn't wear as had been predicted, but cut into the balsa logs and were thus protected. Any waves which broke on the raft immediately drained through the cracks between the logs and the raft always floated like a cork even in the roughest seas. The length of the raft made it possible to ride the waves easier than a larger ship could have and they were able to weather even the worst storms
  6. Seeds and plants can be transported across the sea on a simple raft. As long as they kept the plants and seeds out of the sea itself, they survived. Potatoes and sweet potatoes were sprouting by the end of the journey. The coconuts above sea level also survived and one was sprouting and was planted on the island on arrival. But they found that coconuts could not survive in sea water and would spoil. Thus a coconut could not have floated across the Pacific and then sprouted on a distant island, but had to have been transported by man.
  7. The rudder boards, which were inserted between the cracks in the logs, could be used to steer the raft by withdrawing or inserting one or more.
  8. The Polynesian tradition of navigating by the stars is practical and provides fixed points of reference.
  9. Approaching landfall could be recognized by sea birds and clouds over the low islands.
  10. The low lying raft without a noisy motor or exhaust discharge, made it possible to observe much more sea life, and in several cases even observe new species, previously unrecognized.
From Heyerdahl's findings it is apparent that ancient peoples could have migrated across the oceans. Rather than being an impassable barrier, the seas were an open pathway, once the unknown was removed. There has been tremendous resistance in the scientific community against the idea that the inhabitants of the Americas could have come by sea. But with Heyerdahl's proof, we can see that it would have been much easier for Asians to come to the shores of the new world by ship on the northern currents, than it would have been for them to travel on foot across an Asian/Alaskan land bridge and then down the spine of the North American continent.

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