Where are those iconoclasts of yesteryear? Think of the stretch between 1950 and the early 1970's. It seems an especially rich period in which individuals of modest to somewhat affluent means repeatedly made a mark on how we understand the nature and history of our world despite establishment inertia, disinterest, and sometimes overt skepticism and resistance.
Anders Franzen - A marine technician who developed a fascination with maritime history and archaeology and in particular an abiding focus on locating the lost flagship of the Swedish fleet of 1628, the Vasa. He spent lonely years researching contemporary accounts in libraries and scouting the waters of Stockholm, using homemade sensing devices, trying to locate the resting place of the Vasa. Having finally located the Vasa in 1956, he was instrumental in the ultimate salvage and on-going restoration of the ship which can now be seen in its own dry-dock museum in Stockholm.
Gerald Durrell - The youngest son in an Anglo-Irish family of five children in the British Raj, who lost their father at an early age. Raised in Greece and the UK, he finished his schooling in his early teens with an abiding passion for animals and there welfare. One of the earliest advocates for ecological and nature conservancy before those terms even had any currency, he argued that the mission of zoos ought not to be solely public entertainment but should serve as arks for the temporary protection and preservation of species endangered in the wild. In particular he argued for protecting those species not natively cuddly and attractive. Through his wonderful writing he brought the special charm and character of the most prickly and unlikely animals to a broader public. As importantly, he established the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust and the Jersey Zoo, supported with the proceeds from his writings, to fulfill that mission of protecting the ignored.
Jacques-Yves Cousteau - Naval officer, early innovator and developer of the aqualung, maritime researcher and underwater film documentarian. For three decades he advanced the technologies necessary to explore the submarine world and communicated about that world to the public through his films and books. Underwater archaeological expeditions, maritime ecology, diving in extreme environments such as the Antarctic - all were grist to his mill. He provided an entrée into the 70% of the globe beyond the horizons of most people.
Helge Ingstad - A Norwegian explorer and writer, he set about finding evidence of Viking habitation in North America which he finally located at L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland in 1960 and which he and his wife, Anne Stine excavated in the 1960's.
Louis and Mary Leakey - The persistent, peripatetic discoverers of some of the earliest ancestors of man in the 1960's despite repeated brushes against established paleontological views. .
What is particularly striking among this group in addition to their resolute, go-it-alone spirit and their refusal to accept boundaries on their intellectual explorations, is that they are all gifted authors in addition to all of their other accomplishments.
The member missing from this roster is the subject of this week's essay, Thor Heyerdahl. He was not an author of children's books per se. But he wrote a number of books that were and are especially appealing to children crossing that bridge between reading children's books and reading adult books.
Thor Heyerdahl was a Norwegian ethnographer and adventurer cut from the same cloth as the earlier Roy Chapman Andrews. Born October 6, 1914 in Larvik, in southern Norway, Heyerdahl was always an outdoors person, with an early and abiding interest in zoology, studying both Zoology and Geography in University. He became fascinated with the history and migratory patterns of the Pacific and embarked on a course of study that led to a proposed expedition to the Pacific to study the dispersion patterns of local animals across the many island chains scattered in the desert of ocean.
He and his new wife, Liv, set sail for the Marquesas Islands in 1936. The Marquesas Islands are among the most remote places on earth and the very picture conjured in the popular imagination of a remote, lush, tropical island paradise. In fact, they are the most remote island group from any continent in the world. Heyerdahl wrote a later account in 1974 of his year abode on the island in Fatu Hiva. Another book dealing with the Marquesas that would appeal to a child interested in the Pacific, History, or Maritime History, would be Robert Graves' little remembered but well written, The Islands of Unwisdom.
From this expedition, Heyerdahl developed a view that, rather than being settled from west to east, the established orthodoxy, that in fact the settlement of the Pacific Islands might have occurred from east to west, from South America. From this view then flowed, over a career, an increasingly strongly held set of views that almost always was most likely wrong in the details and right at the macro-level.
Heyerdahl's most consistent and I think most correct view is that maritime travel in the ancient world was much more pervasive and influential than the modern anthropological and archaeological establishments acknowledge. This is almost certainly true. In the past decade, DNA research has shed ever greater light on the routes of migration of modern man once he emerged from Africa 100,000 years ago. It is pretty clear that all the major routes of migration were initially bounded to the shoreline which makes anthropological and economic sense. Forager groups double their opportunities for sustenance when they can access both land and ocean ecologies.
Also in the past two or three decades, we have come to understand that much of the archaeological record is missing and perhaps unrecoverable. Shorelines have moved back and forth many miles over the past hundred millennia depending on Ice Ages and other factors. Much of what would have once been the shoreline is now miles out to sea along with any settlements or artifacts shedding light on the extent of man's engagement with the ocean world.
Finally, with our ever greater anthropological, linguistic and genetic research, we are becoming more and more aware of what would seem to be extremely improbable scenarios. For example, it is now clear that the island of Madagascar (fourth largest in the world) off the coast of Africa was not settled by humans until early in the first millennium AD. What is surprising is that it was not initially settled by people from Africa, only a few hundred miles away, but rather, was settled by people from the islands of southeast Asia in Malaysia and Indonesia, several thousands of miles away. This is to me a fascinating mystery, not yet explained.
So at the macro-level, I think Heyerdahl's message has been spot on. The sea plays a greater role in human history than we acknowledge and it has been a highway for quite surprising and very long-distance migrations.
At the tactical level though, Heyerdahl advanced the proposition that South Americans travelled to and populated the South Pacific Islands. That Egyptians might have travelled from West Africa to South America. That ancient Mesopotamians might have sailed from the Persian Gulf to the Indian sub-continent. That the Maldive Islands might have been colonized by a sea-faring peoples from Sir Lanka. To say that these theories of sea-borne cultural diffusion have met resistance within academia is an understatement. Unkind and in fact quite dismissive things have been said.
None the less, Heyerdahl went from theory to theory. His modus operandi was to establish a position, flesh out the position with some exploration and archaeological research and then test that position by real life trials. Then he would write a marvelously gripping account, many of which became worldwide best-sellers.
With the South Pacific, he made the claim that occupation might have occurred from South America, tested it by constructing a sea-going balsa raft, the Kon-Tiki, which he sailed from Peru to the Tuamotu Islands, arriving after a 101 day voyage on August 7, 1947. In 1955 he organized an archaeological expedition to East Island where sites were excavated, islanders querried, folklore explored, and experiments conducted in carving, moving and raising replicas of the famous Easter Island statues, known as moai. From these ventures emerged his best-selling book Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific in a Raft and his fascinating Aku-Aku: The Secret of Easter Island.
He repeated this pattern with his Ra I (1969) and Ra II (1970) expeditions during which he constructed massive ocean going reed boats that he sailed from West Africa to the Caribbean (Ra I sank in rough weather after seven weeks and just short landfall, when a crucial structural cable was cut). The next year, Ra II had been built, launched and in 57 days made the journey from Morocco to Barbados. All this was related in his The Ra Expeditions.
The final major maritime technology reenactment occurred in 1978 when Heyerdahl built another reed vessel, the Tigris to be sailed from Iraq to Pakistan in order to demonstrate the feasibility of contact between the ancient Mesopotamian and Indus Valley civilizations. With an eleven member crew, they sailed from Iraq, through the Persian Gulf, past Oman and then all the way to Pakistan. At that point, they reversed course and sailed through the open Indian Ocean from Pakistan back to the Horn of Africa, for a five month voyage of 4,200 miles. The voyage ended dramatically with a Viking-like burning of the Tigris. Heyerdahl had intended to land at the port of Massawa in what is now Eritrea. Instead, by the time Tigris approached the Red Sea, Ethiopia and Eritrea were at war with one another and on the opposite shore, a civil war was in progress in Yemen. Heyerdahl landed in Djibouti and torched the Tigris to bring attention to and protest the wars being fought. The book covering these ventures was The Tigris Expedition: In Search of Our Beginnings.
Thor Heyerdahl lived a long and productive life with many further controversies, investigations and books.
Apart from the simple fact that he wrote well and compellingly, I think part of the attraction of Heyerdahl for young adults is that he was such an effective and dynamic polymath. A mariner, archaeologist, amateur linguist, historian, man of action, ecologist, man of peace. He challenged orthodoxy, was not afraid to ruffle feathers and did dramatic things.
He didn't always get the details right but he set in motion and modeled action for others to follow. His very first thesis to study the movement and dispersion of animals in the Pacific continues to be pursued today with new genetic tools that continue to refine our understanding of human migration. The excavations on Easter Island that he launched continue to this day. The attention he brought to mid-oceanic pollution that he discovered on his Ra expeditions has blossomed into a whole specialized field of ecology.
In hindsight it seems that Heyerdahl's most important message was not about the particulars such as whether Egyptians did cross the Atlantic but rather that we should not let out minds be enslaved and closed by orthodoxy; we should always be alive to the possibility that things could have happened differently than we think. Time and again he proved to a skeptical world that that which was said to be impossible was in fact quite possible. To a young teenager, there is something very attractive about a peaceful firebrand that manages to disconcert the establishment, occasionally is proven right and in the end manages to change the status quo in a material way.
Heyerdahl was a big thinker, always looking at what might be possible, and I think his independence and initiative are wonderful models to our children.
This book list has only one section:
(1) Young Adults
Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific by Raft by Thor Heyerdahl and translated by F. H. Lyon Highly Recommended
Thor Heyerdahl Bibliography
Pa Jakt efter Paradiset by Thor Heyerdahl Gyldendal 1938
Kon-Tiki Ekspedisjonen by Thor Heyerdahl Gyldendal 1948
Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific by Raft by Thor Heyerdahl Rand McNally 1950
American Indians in the Pacific: The Theory behind the Kon-Tiki Expedition by Thor Heyerdahl Allen & Unwin 1952
Great Norwegian Expeditions by Thor Heyerdahl and Soren Richler Dreyers Forlag 1956
Archaeological Evidence of Pre- Spanish Visits to the Galapagos Islands by Thor Heyerdahl and Arne Skjolsvold Society for American Archaeology 1956
Aku-Aku: Paaskeoeyas Hemmelighet by Thor Heyerdahl Gyldendal 1957
Aku-Aku: The Secret of Easter Island by Thor Heyerdahl Rand McNally 1958
Kon-Tiki for Young People by Thor Heyerdahl Rand McNally 1960
Norwegian Archaeological Expedition to Easter Island, Volume 1: Archaeology of Easter Island and the East Pacific Reports by Thor Heyerdahl and Edwin N. Ferdon Rand McNally 1961
Vanished Civilizations by Thor Heyerdahl Thames & Hudson 1963
Norwegian Archaeological Expedition to Easter Island, Volume 2: Miscellaneous Subjects by Thor Heyerdahl and Edwin N. Ferdon Rand McNally 1965
Indianer and Altasiaten im Pazifik by Thor Heyerdahl Wollzeilen Verlag 1966
Sea Routes to Polynesia by Thor Heyerdahl Rand McNally 1968
Ra by Thor Heyerdahl Gyldendal 1970
The Ra Expeditions by Thor Heyerdahl and Patricia Crampton Doubleday 1970
Fatu-Hiva: Back to Nature by Thor Heyerdahl Allen & Unwin 1974
The Art of Easter Island by Thor Heyerdahl Doubleday 1975
Early Man and the Ocean by Thor Heyerdahl Allen & Unwin 1978
The Tigris Expedition: In Search of Our Beginnings by Thor Heyerdahl Allen & Unwin 1980
Kon-Tiki, A True Adventure of Survival at Sea by Thor Heyerdahl and Lisa Norby and illustrated by Ronald Himer Random House 1984
The Maldive Mystery by Thor Heyerdahl Adler & Adler 1986
Easter Island: The Mystery Solved by Thor Heyerdahl Random House 1989
Pyramids of Tucume: The Quest for Peru's Forgotten City by Thor Heyerdahl and Daniel H. Sandweiss Thames & Hudson 1995
Green Was the Earth on the Seventh Day: Memories and Journeys of a Lifetime by Thor Heyerdahl Random House 1996
I Adams fotspor: en erindringsreise by Thor Heyerdahl Stenersen 1998
Ingen Grenser by Thor Heyerdahl and Per Lilliestroem Stenersen 1999
Let the Conquered Speak: The Many Discoveries of America by Thor Heyerdahl Random House 1999
In the Footsteps of Adam: A Memoir by Thor Heyerdahl Warwick House Publishing 2002