Kon-Tiki Sails Again

A new film recreates the epic voyage—and revives the controversy over its legendary leader, Thor Heyerdahl

A crew member dives overboard in the film. (Recorded Picture Company / The Kobal Collection)
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As it turns out, reality was a bit more complex. “There was no letter,” reports Thor Jr. His mom, he says, never quite forgave his dad for squelching her possible dreams on their honeymoon in the Marquesas. Liv wanted to be seen as half of a research team, but Thor insisted on taking all the credit. “My father couldn’t cope with her being such a strong, independent woman,” says 74-year-old Thor Jr., who was estranged from his old man for much of his youth. “His idea of the perfect female was a Japanese geisha, and my mother was no geisha.”

A month after the Kon-Tiki made landfall, the Heyerdahls arranged to reunite at an airport in New York. He would fly from Tahiti; she, from Oslo. He was waiting on the tarmac when her plane landed. “She was eager to embrace him,” Thor Jr. says. But she could barely pierce the phalanx of photographers that encircled him.

Liv was furious. “She had been set up,” Thor Jr. says. “An intimate private meeting had become a public performance. She gave my father a very cold hug.” Thor Sr. felt humiliated. He and Liv divorced a year later.

Heyerdahl’s migration ideas haven’t fared much better than his first marriage. Though he enlarged our notions of the early mobility of humans, his Kon-Tiki theory has been widely discredited on linguistic and cultural grounds. He was partly vindicated in 2011 when Norwegian geneticist Erik Thorsby tested the genetic makeup of Polynesians whose ancestors had not interbred with Europeans and other outsiders. Thorsby determined that their genes include DNA that could have only come from Native Americans. On the other hand, he was emphatic that the island’s first settlers came from Asia.

“Heyerdahl was wrong,” he said, “but not completely.”

About Franz Lidz

A longtime Senior Writer at Sports Illustrated and the author of several memoirs, Franz Lidz has written for the New York Times since 1983, on travel, TV, film and theater. He is a frequent contributor to Smithsonian.

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