KON-TIKI SAILOR HEYERDAHL DIES

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By Doug Mellgren Associated Press Writer

OSLO, Norway (April 18, 2002 – Honolulu Advertiser/AP)---Thor Heyerdahl, the Norwegian adventurer who crossed the Pacific on a balsa log raft and detailed his harrowing 101-day voyage in the book "Kon-Tiki," died Thursday night. He was 87.

Heyerdahl stopped taking food, water or medication in early April after being diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor.

"Norway has lost an original and spectacular researcher, explorer and adventurer," Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik said.

Experts scoffed at Heyerdahl when he set off to cross the Pacific aboard a balsa raft in 1947, saying it would get water logged and sink within days.

After 101 days and 4,900 miles, he proved them wrong by reaching Polynesia from Peru in a bid to prove his theories of human migration.

His later expeditions included voyages aboard the reed rafts Ra, Ra II and Tigris. His wide-ranging archaeological studies were often controversial and challenged accepted views.

Until his illness, Heyerdahl had maintained a daunting pace of research, lectures and public debate over his unconventional theories on human migration. His third wife, Jacqueline, said he made 70 airline trips last year.

Relatives said he died in his sleep at a hospital near at Colla Michari, Italy, where he was spending the Easter holiday when he became ill and hospitalized in late March. Thor Heyerdahl, Jr., told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from his home in Norway that his father died at 7:10 p.m.

He spent his final days surrounded by family at Colla Michari, a Roman-era Italian village he bought and restored in the 1950s. His permanent home since 1990 was on the Spanish island Tenerife in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Morocco.

Though he lived and worked abroad for decades, Heyerdahl was a national hero in his homeland, where one newspaper crowned him Norwegian of the Century in a millennium reader poll. He is survived by his third wife, four of his five children, eight grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

After Heyerdahl's 1947 voyage, conventional anthropologists dismissed the college dropout's theories, saying they were only the work of a gifted amateur. But the adventurer gained worldwide fame with the voyage. His book about that trip sold tens of millions of copies and his 1951 movie about the Kon-Tiki voyage won an Academy Award for best documentary.

He followed that trip with expeditions on reed rafts seeking to show that ancient people could have sailed from the Old World to the New.

His later studies focused on ancient step pyramids — including those in Peru and on the island of Tenerife off Africa — which he believed could be evidence of maritime links between ancient civilizations.

Before Heyerdahl made his voyage on the Kon-Tiki, he had to overcome a major obstacle: He was deathly afraid of water. He had nearly drowned twice as a child in Larvik, Norway, and overcame his fear only at age 22, when he fell into a raging river in Tahiti and swam to safety.

"If you had asked me as a 17-year-old whether I would go to sea on a raft, I would have absolutely denied the possibility. At that time, I suffered from fear of the water," Heyerdahl once said.

His Kon-Tiki trip was intended to support his theory that the South Sea Islands were settled by explorers from pre-Inca South America. The prevailing theory is that Polynesia was settled from Southeast Asia.

Heyerdahl conceived his theory during a year spent on the Pacific island of Fatu Hiva in the Marquesas group. He noticed that stone figures of the Polynesian chief-god Tiki in the jungle were "remarkably like the monoliths left by extinct civilizations in South America."

His colorfully written book about the voyage and his theories was published in more than 60 countries and sold more than 25 million copies.

In the 1950s, he took more conventional expeditions to the Galapagos and to Easter Island. The latter trip produced "Aku-Aku," a 1957 book about the origins of the remote island's enormous stone heads.

In 1969, he attempted to sail from Morocco to Barbados aboard the Ra, a boat made of papyrus reeds like those in ancient Egyptian wall drawings. But he hadn't followed the drawings closely and the boat broke up.

A year later he tried again, aboard the Ra II, which was held together by ropes as shown in the wall drawings. This time he succeeded, making the 3,200-mile crossing in 55 days.

In 1977, he launched another reed boat, the Tigris, in an attempt to sail from the Persian Gulf to see how far the people of ancient Mesopotamia might have been able to sail and spread their ancient culture.

The Tigris sailed 4,200 miles in 144 days, only to be blocked on its way to the Red Sea by warfare in the Horn of Africa. He and his 10-member crew set the Tigris on fire "to protest what was happening in this war-torn region."

Heyerdahl also worried about humanity's future because of the pollution of the ocean and atmosphere, urging stronger international control through the United Nations.

At Oslo's Kon-Tiki Museum in 1998, a visiting schoolchild asked Heyerdahl if he ever got scared in his expeditions.

"Oh, yes. On every single expedition," the explorer replied. "Everything was planned to the last detail. I haven't survived by good luck, but rather by the absence of bad luck."

Heyerdahl continued to challenge assumptions, often bringing outrage. In 1995, he claimed to have found evidence that Christopher Columbus reached America in 1477, rather than 1492, as a teen-age crewman on a Danish-Portuguese expedition.

In 1999, he claimed that Norseman Leif Eriksson sailed to North America a millennium earlier as a Christian missionary rather than as a Viking explorer as is generally believed.

Heyerdahl was born Oct. 6, 1914, the son of a widely traveled banker and a mother with a scientific bent. He remembered her giving him anthropology books instead of children's books to read when he was sick in bed.

He entered the University of Oslo to study zoology but quit before getting a degree because he was impatient to start fieldwork. He switched to anthropology while doing fieldwork in the Marquesas in 1937.

Despite the challenges, he gained growing respect as a visionary about the possibility — if not the details — of ancient mariners navigating the globe. He was awarded 11 honorary doctorates from various universities.

In all of his adventures, he said, his most memorable moment was hitting land after 101 days on Kon-Tiki.

"After the huge waves that were higher than the mast, we could look around and count that all six of us were still alive. That we could dig our toes into warm dry sand, on a foundation that didn't roll in all directions,'' he said.

He also voiced one regret: "I might have had a lot more fun as a boy if I had learned to swim.''

Kon-Tiki Museum: http://www.kontiki.no 

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