Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Ra Expeditions

Thor Heyerdahl (1914-2002) was a renowned Norwegian archaeologist, anthropologist and explorer: a social scientist who backed up his theories about the spread of ancient cultures and population migrations across the ocean by testing them on a 1:1 scale.  In 1947 Heyerdahl skippered the Kon Tiki, a balsa wood raft with a crew of 5 other Scandinavians, 6000km from the west coast of South America to Polynesia in a demonstration of his theory of how the South Pacific was originally populated.  Then in 1970 he made two expeditions on boats made of papyrus reeds (Ra I&II) to prove his idea that the ancient, sun-worshipping, pyramid cultures on either side of the Atlantic Ocean in Egypt and Mexico could have been the result of a trans-atlantic voyage on a reed boat rather than just being down to coincidence as many at the time thought.  He stepped right into an ongoing debate between two schools of archaeological and anthropological thought, those who believed that ancient cultures on either side of the Atlantic developed in isolation, and those "diffusionists" who argues that there had been cultural exchanges pre-Columbus.  The central pillar to Heyerdahl's backing of diffusion theories was the existence of reed boats of startling similar designs from as far afield as Ethiopia (at the source of the River Nile) and Easter Island.  In comparison to these two points on the map where reed boats were still in sporadic use, the distance between Morocco and the West Indies didn't seem so far after all.
Ra I encountered difficulties shortly after embarking from Safi and starting to break apart, limping a fair way across the Atlantic before finally being abandoned to the depths.  Ra II built on the design and construction lessons learnt from the failings of Ra I, and arrived in Bridgetown, Barbados with all eight crew members and the ship's mascots (a duck and a monkey) safe and well.

Heyerdahl's expeditions fostered in him a strong sense of humanity and the environment.  He observed the degradation of the marine environment on his voyages over forty years ago and became a global advocate of marine environmental causes.  He also bore witness to the shrinking world, and conducted many of his projects through times of great world conflict - purposefully taking an international crew and flying the flag of the United Nations as an example of international co-operation on a man-to-man scale.  His opinions on humanity, our shared history, relationship with one another and with our planet are fascinating and clearly born of a great deal of time contemplating a vast horizon.

"The earth of our forefathers no longer exists.  The once limitless world can be circled in an hour and forty minutes.  The nations are no longer divided by impassable mountain ranges and infinite ocean gulfs.  The races are no longer independent, isolated;  they are connected and becoming crowded.  While hundreds of thousands of technicians are working on atomic fission and laser rays, our little globe is whirling at supersonic speed into a future where we are all fellow-passengers in the same great technical experiment and where we must all work together if we are not to sink with our common burden."

Thor Heyerdahl, The Ra Expeditions, 1971

One thing is for sure:  To spend 57 days on a boat made from woven reeds, crossing an ocean without any serious sailing experience in order to test a theory, is incredibly brave.  It is a testament to Heyerdahl's research, convictions and pioneering spirit that time and again he was joined by a crew of adventurers who were often prepared to drop everything at short notice to accompany him on his bold and fascinating expeditions.  

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