Kon Tiki

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Kon Tiki /img/kon-tiki.jpg

like all forms of information, archetypes have a half-life. the memes that reify archetypes also have a half-life. so archetypes can die if no new memes are created which instantiate the archetype, and the existing archetypal memes stop being used in culture (death).

one of the most popular archetypes of our time, and perhaps of all time, is that of the hero’s journey. briefly stated, the hero’s journey is a story where the protagonist heeds the “call to adventure”, and leaves the safety of his comfortable everyday surroundings, and journeys out into unknown. the hero generally encounters great difficulties, has terrible decisions to make, and if successful, discovers something valuable about the world or finds a great treasure, and returns to his point of origin to bring the new knowledge back to benefit the group.

this pattern describes a great deal of classical literature, movies, songs, plays, video games, etc. indeed, this is what qualifies the hero’s journey as an archetype, it keeps coming up across all time and in many cultures. The Odyssey, Beowulf, The Quest for the Holy Grail, are all classic examples. my favorite example is the Stanley Kubrik film 2001: A Space Odyssey. it’s written right into the name. the hero of the film is humanity, which advances to tool use with some supernatural intervention by the monolith, and is put on a course to encounter the monolith in orbit around Jupiter. astronaut Bowman goes on the journey to end all journeys at the end of the film and ends up returning to earth in a different form.

recently I had the pleasure of rediscovering a real life instance of the hero’s journey, the book Kon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl is an account of events that actually happened in 1947. Heyerdahl, a norwegian anthropologist, is interested in the history of polynesian culture. he has the heterodox idea that much of their art, language, and culture in general is similar to those of cultures known to have existed in the past in south america, specifically peru. none of Heyerdahl’s colleagues are interested in this theory. one even points out the seeming impossibility of the idea because the ancient south americans had no boats capable of traversing the pacific ocean for 3,500 miles in order to reach the nearest islands of polynesia, but only large rafts of balsa wood logs that were used in coastal waters. what follows is one of the greatest “hold my beer” moments in history.

the book unfolds as the recounting of a grand, archetypal tale. Heyerdahl sets off to produce an existence proof of the sea-worthiness of the water craft available to the south americans of the distant past: a raft of balsa logs, lashed together with rope. there’s a great buildup as the author visits the Explorers Club in New York, where he obtains the help of the US Armed Forces in exchange for testing out new innovations in survival gear they were working on after WWII. these elements map well to the “supernatural aid” component of the archetype.

the author compiles a team of mostly norwegian countrymen, and sets off to peru to get started. they must obtain balsa logs, but they have arrived at the start of the rainy season, and no one has any logs available. the team doesn’t accept this setback, but instead they cajole their way into the balsa logging regions of the interior of peru, where the adventure keeps going. torrential rains and the threat of head hunters cannot deter the team from their mission. all along the way, the grand vision that Heyerdahl articulates to the people they interact with animates the story. each time a door is closed, other doors are opened by the appreciation of such an audacious goal. people with the means to help are motivated to help those who are credibly working on epic projects. after obtaining freshly sawn balsa logs and lashing them together, the team rides them down the river to the coast.

there were many critics of the plan. some thought the balsa logs would become water logged in as short a time as two weeks and simply sink. some thought the raft would quickly be swamped by the open ocean waves running around the pacific. even those excited by the heroic nature of the project were uniformly pessimistic about the chances of success. had Heyerdahl taken a poll, or changed his approach based on advice of those around him, I would not now be recounting his amazing story. Heyerdahl was driven by the desire to validate his hypothesis. this was his guiding star that shone the way through the shoals of doubt and the allure of easier paths.

the team obtained the blessing of the peruvian government to make use of their naval yards to finish outfitting the raft for the journey. the raft was built with materials that would have been available to the stone age people of peru’s past. only logs, ropes, and bamboo were used. they included modern technology in the form of a radio, lamps, a rubber life raft, medical supplies, and other useful items.

the day before leaving, the team traveled to a nearby mountain, a peak of 12,000 ft.

“Here we simply devoured rocks and mountain peaks and green grass with our eyes and tried to surfeit ourselves with the tranquil mountain mass of the Andes range that lay before us. We tried to convince ourselves that we were thoroughly tired of stone and solid earth and wanted to sail out and get to know the sea.”

when it was time to embark, the raft was christened “Kon-tiki”. A tugboat towed the raft out beyond the range of usual coastal traffic and into the Humboldt current. from there, the six man crew lived on the raft in the open ocean for 101 days. there were some heavy seas in the first few days that tested the team’s resolve, but they never complained. at least, the author’s account includes no mention of wishing to turn back or thoughts of defeat. in fact, the attitude is one of heroic stoicism. the men are deeply motivated by their epic quest, and keep their focus on taking all actions in the present to maximize their chances of success. after the first few days of rough seas, the weather calms down and they settle into the current and the steady easterly trade winds that they had planned on.

“we were swallowed up in the endless, unbroken darkness under the stars”

Heyerdahl doesn’t spend a lot of time reflecting on what it feels like to be in the middle of the ocean on a raft with 5 other men, thousands of miles from land. being a man of action, Heyerdahl describes the events of their days, which allows us to understand what it was like to be with these men on the ocean during their journey. the team divided the day up into twelve two hour shifts and rotates through them twice daily. in the mornings they collect the 10-20 flying fish that have stranded themselves on the raft. these are fried in oil for a breakfast.

the Kon-Tiki, being made of balsa which is lighter than cork, sat on top of the water at all times. in high seas Heyerdahl describes the view as changing momentarily from one of being deep in a valley with walls of water on either side with just a bit of sky above, to being on a mountain top at the peak of the wave. this was not what conventional wisdom had suggested. the idea was that larger and larger ships are required to survive larger and larger waves on the open ocean. it turns out that in the case of a raft that can’t be filled with water and sunk, the smaller the better. this nimble craft was able to simply float on the waves and keep above water like a cork floating in the ocean.

“The sea contains many surprises for him who has his floor on a level with the surface and drifts along slowly and noiselessly.”

the men plot their progress across the ocean by their observations of the sun and stars, marking their location regularly in the log. after more than 90 days, they encounter land and are excited to leave the confines of the raft, to feel dry earth again. the Kon-tiki approaches the beautiful island atoll only discover it guarded by a mostly invisible opponent, a coral reef. the reef rises up to the surface to form a jagged wall of honeycombed limestone shelters, built by billions of tiny animals, the corals. the waves would smash the raft against this submerged wall if it slipped too close. so the mean sailed around the island looking for a break to allow them in. just as they were about to prepare to move on, an outrigger canoe was spotted heading out from the shore to meet them, traversing a small section of the reef. the crew welcomed the native polynesians with warm greetings and cigarettes. the islanders returned to land to find more help. they returned with a total of four canoes, which were all tied to the raft to help pull it ashore, with the men rowing from the deck of the raft. with dusk setting in, after hours of effort from all involved, no forward progress was evident. one of the men went ashore with a group of islanders to secure more help, but as a result of a miscommunication, he was not able to return to the raft before the canoes gave up and let go. they were headed back out to sea, and a man short.

on board the Kon-tiki, the men could see the bon fire burning in the dark on shore getting further and further, smaller and smaller. each time they dropped into the trough of a wave, the fire disappeared from view. they confronted the real possibility that they might not see their companion again, and made ready to head back out to sea, as they were powerless against the relentless trade winds driving them always to the west. after a few hours of drifting away from the island, the crew heard shouting in the darkness. the islanders had braved the open ocean in canoes in absolute moonless darkness to bring this stranger back to his companions.

the men quickly recover from this encounter and proceed to approach the next closest islands to the west. this time their charts make them aware of a formidable reef that cannot be avoided. they were being pushed directly into it. the crew acted with stoic self-control to prepare for their encounter. everything was tied down, packed away, and made ready for a potentially violent end. each man understood exactly what was expected of him by the expedition as the raft encountered the reef, so that none would get in each other’s way. there was no emotional panic, just preparation. the raft is ultimately grounded on the reef, but the men escape, mostly uninjured, and bring all of their useful supplies ashore on the small island they’d found.

Heyerdahl describes the island as a heaven, especially after being confined to the raft for 101 days. they had abundant green coconut pods to cut down and drink fresh water from. the lagoon was full of delicious fish and hermit crabs. so the men patiently worked to get the wreck of the Kon-tiki off the reef and back in their possession. a few days after their arrival, a group of native islanders arrived and happily greeted them. the islanders insisted that the crew come with them at once and join them at their village. this would have been an inviting offer to take, as it would mean relaxing their responsibilities a bit, allowing the islanders to take care of them. but the men did no such thing. they sent a delegate along to avoid appearing rude and to understand their situation, but the crew remained and continued working to free their craft. the next day the islanders returned in force, and helped the men free the raft from the reef and tie it up. the men then joined the islanders in a celebration. they explained that the name of their raft was Kon-tiki, named after a mytho-historical figure who lead people out of south america and populated polynesia. the islanders were impressed by this feat and confirmed that they also had stories from old times, suggesting that their fathers had come out of the east. the men healed a young boy who had a large abscess by treating him with penicillin they had brought for their journey. after this, the islanders decided to induct the entire crew into their community by giving them native names.

after several days a schooner arrived to move the men and their raft to Tahiti, where they waited for several weeks before being picked up by a norwegian freighter. Heyerdahl’s theory that polynesia was peopled by south americans is not likely to be true, given but the amazing accomplishment of sailing an unpowered raft from peru to french polynesia is one that is worthy of the danger encountered. Heyerdahl and his crew all exercised stoic self-control to accomplish their mission and do something larger than any one of them individually could do. something that nearly everyone in the world thought would not be possible before they demonstrated it was.