But even in paradise, there are no Jews without Nazis. In 1947, sixty years after Alexander Salmon arrived in the Tuamotu archipelago, a quarter century before the French mushroom clouds would appear on its horizon, a balsa raft named Kon-tiki washed up on Raroia. It had covered over 5000 miles in 101 days, and its navigator-adventurer would capture the imagination of every kid of the next generation, including mine. Thor Heyerdahl grew up with a collection of snakes in his house, as did I. He set off to prove it was possible to travel long distances with the most primitive of resources, as did I. He had three wives, but this didn’t necessarily make me an underachiever.
Heyerdahl saw the stonework and totara reed islands in the lakes on Rapa Nui and had come to the conclusion that Easter Island had been settled by pre-Incan South Americans. It wasn’t that hard to make a connection. I had stood beside the 14-cornered stone in Cusco, which would resonate wildly in my head, with my first glimpse of the seamless basalt constructions on the island. You can’t slip a piece of paper between the stones.
“One thing is for certain.” He said. “This was not the work of a canoe load of Polynesian wood carvers.”
He considered the moai were ‘characteristic of the pre-Inca period of northwestern South America,’ similar to monolithic structures in Tiahuanaco, and he rocked their replicas back and forth like refrigerators, in an attempt to prove how simple it had been to move them. Heyerdahl asserted that the stone architecture was hardly found elsewhere in Polynesia, and that the picks used to carve the volcanic rock, the huts built like reed boats, the reed boats themselves, the bottle gourds, the sweet potatoes, and the practice of elongating ear lobes with heavy earrings, could all be traced to pre-Inca South America indigenes. His theories coincided with native myths. Ancient Rapanui folklore told of the island being initially settled by a divine king, Machaa, who ‘steered in the direction of the setting sun,’ to find the island. These Hanua Eepe “Corpulent People’ (later mistranslated as the ‘Long Ears’) began to sculpt the moai, presumably to honour their first deceased ancestor. The myth continues with the arrival of the Hanau Momoko ‘Thin People’ (later mistranslated as the ‘Short Ears’), overwhelming the Long Ears at the Battle of Poike Ditch, and then toppling their statues.
Heyerdahl was charismatic. He had lived and made his own romantic sagas, and a series of best-selling books of his exploits and deductions. In 1989, with the publication of Easter Island: The Mystery Solved, he was surfing tides that would carry him way beyond where they had taken his raft.
But, even as I was eating up the novel excitement that his voyage generated, I felt that there was something too facile and shallow and patronizingly comic book about Thor’s theorem. He seemed to be looking down the noses of the moai, at his own analytical superiority. In 1968 a Chilean-American cooperative effort, the Rapa Nui Archeological Survey, began to unravel Heyerdahl’s hack detective version of Easter Island settlement, mapping and measuring 19,000 items, including 3224 house foundations, 2536 earth ovens, 886 moai, and 240 ahu. These were more similar to stone altars in the rest of Polynesia, than to the ruins of Tiahuanaco. In 1976, anthropologist Ben Finney, sailed a traditional Polynesian double hulled canoe from Hawaii to Tahiti and back. By contrast, the South American Indians had no history of long distance sea voyages. Heyerdahl had postulated that the pre-Incans had brought the reeds with them, but pollen analysis showed that the reeds on Easter Island had been growing there for 28,000 years. DNA had sunk the Kon Tiki.
Heyerdahl’s thinking was hyperdiffusionistic. Instead of searching for evidence that diffusion had taken place, he spent his life ‘testing’ whether the requisite sea travel could have taken place in antiquity. He had no conception of convergent cultural evolution, of the possibility of independent invention. He may have been a Norwegian national icon, and a ‘hero for the atomic age,’ but he was also a man with a great many honorary doctorates, but no university degree. Sailing had come before the science.
In 1938 Heyerdahl had sent a Marquesan skull to Professor Hans Günther, one of the leading ‘racial scientist’ ideologues in Nazi Germany, with a note, effusive about the ‘character-solid German race.’ In a letter to his mother, he had praised ‘the firmness of the German character after having had so much to do with France... shifty, uninformed, selfish, immoral and rude in all senses except phrases and words.’ Myth is neither a lie nor a confession: it is an inflexion.