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Thursday, 18 April, 2002, 18:40 GMT 19:40 UK
Explorer Thor Heyerdahl dies
Thor Heyerdahl
Thor Heyerdahl: Intrepid Norwegian explorer
The renowned Norwegian explorer and archaeologist Thor Heyerdahl has died of cancer at the age of 87.

He passed away in his family home at Colla Micheri, northern Italy, after a long illness.

Heyerdahl had undergone surgery last year, but it failed to halt his disease. He was admitted to hospital in March when the cancer spread to his brain.

We seem to believe the ocean is endless... we use it like a sewer

Thor Heyerdahl
Heyerdahl will be forever remembered as the Kon-Tiki man. In 1947 he skippered the tiny balsawood raft on a 6,000 kilometre journey from Peru to Polynesia.

It proved, he said, that ancient cultures could have sailed to, and populated, the South Pacific.

Thor Heyerdahl was born in Southern Norway in 1914. After studying zoology and geography at university he married and, in 1936, travelled with his new wife to the Marquesan archipelago in Pacific.

He spent a year in the Marquesas, living off the land and studying the local flora and fauna of this remote island group, the population of which included a man whose father was a cannibal.

However, he soon became more interested in how Polynesia had been originally populated. He realised that the Pacific currents ran from east to west and that many local plants were identical to those of South America.

Thor Heyerdahl serving with the Free Norwegian Forces during the Second World War
He served with the Free Norwegian Forces during the Second World War
During the World War II, he returned home to fight for the Free Norwegian Forces in his occupied homeland: highly dangerous work which saw him decorated for bravery.

The Kon-Tiki expedition caught the imagination of a world enduring post-war austerity. The film of the expedition won Thor Heyerdahl an Oscar for best documentary, the book sold 60 million copies worldwide.

He followed his epic journey with archaeological expeditions in the Pacific aimed at finding artefacts left by ancient South Americans.

In 1953 he travelled to the Galapagos Islands, 100 miles west of Ecuador. Here he found large quantities of ceramic pottery which could be traced to Indian cultures of Ecuador and Peru.

International crewst

In 1955 and 1956, Thor Heyerdahl conducted the first co-ordinated excavations of Easter Island, the abandoned island whose many carved heads stand sentinel on the Pacific. Again, he found indications of early visitors from South America.

The Kon-Tiki crossing the Pacific, 1947
The Kon-Tiki crossing the Pacific, 1947
In 1970 he crossed the Atlantic in a papyrus craft, Ra II after the original Ra had disintegrated shortly after it set out. The journey, which ended in triumph in the West Indies turned the idea that Columbus was the first transatlantic navigator on its head.

Eight years he skippered another ship, the Tigris, on a journey from the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, down the Persian Gulf to Oman, Pakistan and, then, across the Indian Ocean to Djibouti on the Horn of Africa.

The five month journey was meant to show how the ancient Sumerians could have travelled widely.

When, in Djibouti, the Tigris was prevented from entering the Red Sea by local conflicts, Heyerdahl burned it in a poignant protest against war. A committed internationalist, he always travelled with a multinational crew and always flew the flag of the United Nations.

Thor Heyerdahl's expeditions fostered a close understanding of the global environment and he voiced his concern at the increasing problem of pollution which he had encountered even in the middle of the world's oceans .

Tigris burns: Djibouti 1978
Tigris burns: Djibouti 1978
"We seem to believe the ocean is endless," he said, "but we use it like a sewer."

Latterly, he had spent many years in South America, supervising the excavation of the largest complex of pyramids in South America at Tacume in Peru.

Critics claim that Thor Heyerdahl's views were wrong and that his archaeological and research methods left much to be desired. He countered that his many expeditions, backed up by the artefacts which he had found scattered throughout Polynesia, proved his case.

He said the world's oceans should be treated as one vast highway. That was how, he claimed, that ancient civilisations saw them. Modern people, he said, should be more ready to think in ancient terms.

Thor Heyerdahl's controversial beliefs on human migration may have cut across the conventional wisdom of his time, but his pioneering spirit and continuing quest for understanding endeared him to millions.

The BBC's Bob Sinkinson
looks back at the life of Thor Heyerdahl

Thor Heyerdahl
Send us your tributes to the late explorer
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26 May 01 | Europe
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