Friday, July 17, 2015

Kon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl

Why I Read It: Needed a small paperback to keep in my pocket while waiting; found it in the boxes in the garage.

Summary: The author has a theory and carries out an experiment to attempt to prove it.

My Thoughts: This may be one of the most remarkable adventures undertaken in the name of anthropology of all-time.

Heyerdahl's theory, in a nutshell, is that the islands of the South Seas were populated by ancient people who had sailed the Pacific currents from the western coast of South America on balsa rafts. But when he tried to promote the theory, he was told it was impossible, that despite the overwhelming evidence of linkages between the people of modern-day Peru and the people of the South Seas, there was just no way that a balsa raft could survive the trek across the Pacific.

So, he decided to try it. He gathered friends who, like him, had survived World War II, men who had fought underground, behind enemy lines, made makeshift radios, and had done anything to stay alive. He knew that if anybody would be up for the challenge, it would be this crew.

They gathered materials, with the help of several governments, built their raft and hit the open ocean.

Among my favorite parts of the book are the interactions with wildlife, such as the whale shark that visited them, and the flying fish that constantly leaped on deck. What an odd and sad turn of events for that fish. Imagine all the work that went into the development of the defense mechanism over thousands of years. The species learned to propel themselves out of the water in order to avoid predators, or at least throw them off their track. And for thousands of years, as far as we know, it worked. Then, along came men, and boats. Suddenly the fish flew away from their enemies into the hands of those with just as much hunger in their bellies. The fact that the fish landed on the Kon-Tiki helped prove Heyerdahl's theory. Food from the sea was abundant and easily gathered during this mid-20th century journey; in earlier times, before factory ships and overfishing, it must have been more so.

One of the lingering feelings I get about this book is that in some way it had to be an inspiration for Gilligan's Island (there was a 1930s movie that definitely resembled the idea, with a handful of people of different backgrounds stranded on an island). The story may just have been tucked in the back of Sherwood Schwartz's mind as he was creating the show a few years later, but it feels like it was there. America had a growing love affair with Polynesia at the time. Thousands upon thousands of soldiers, sailors and Marines had visited the islands, had eaten the foods and generally fallen for the culture. The 1950s saw the great rise of tiki restaurants in America. By the time the Gilligan showed his face the first time in the early 1960s, South Pacific had been presented as both a Broadway play (1949) and a movie (1958), taken directly from a James Michener collection of stories.

I may be way off with my theory, but if you read Kon-Tiki, you will understand how spot on Heyerdahl was with his.