One of the most daring adventurers of modern times, this controversial ethnologist from Norway boldly challenged the status quo and never looked back.
Thor Heyerdahl first leapt onto the world stage when, after citing parallels in design, cultivated crops and oral histories between Polynesian and Pre-Columbian cultures and the direction of ocean currents and trade winds, he hypothesized that Polynesia may have been settled in part via South America. When academics unanimously dismissed this notion outright, he famously launched an expedition to prove his theory.
Putting his reputation and his life on the line, Heyerdahl’s epic journey of nearly 5,000 miles (8,050 km) across the open Pacific Ocean on a handmade balsa wood raft – known as Kon-Tiki – succeeded and stunned the world.
Nevertheless, the critics were not convinced. His theories of ancient trans-oceanic migration (across both the Pacific and the Atlantic) were contrary to the established consensus, and despite proving his hypotheses plausible by reenacting numerous epic and perilous journeys, members of the scientific community, uncomfortable by his unorthodox ideas, condemned Heyerdahl as nothing more than a pseudo-scientific upstart.
Conventional wisdom is never easy to oppose and to this day words like rejected, discredited and unaccepted are still associated with any reference to Heyerdahl. After all, were there to be any truth to his brash notions world history would have to be reconsidered, which is an uncomfortable thought to most.
So, while this famous Nordic underdog is universally admired for his indefatigable spirit and “putting his money where his mouth is” like no other researcher before him, he’s been largely marginalized and simply acknowledged as an audacious adventurer.
Interestingly, however, recent DNA testing has proven that Heyerdahl may not be entirely wrong, leaving the door open to further speculation.
But despite this posthumous quasi-vindication, the appeal of Thor Heyerdahl is not his theories but his character in the face of lifelong opposition.
Resolute, daring and unfazed by the critics, his zeal ignited public imagination and influenced millions of doers, and he remains today one of the ultimate examples of optimistic determination.
The Men of Character features are strictly editorial. In no way does this article imply association with or endorsement from the Estate of Thor Heyerdahl.