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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Thor Heyerdahl’s darker final years

The third volume in a biographical trilogy on the life of Norway’s legendary explorer Thor Heyerdahl shows that even heroes run into hard times. In Heyerdahl’s case, according to the new book on his final years, his family broke up, he faced financial problems and constant conflicts with other researchers.

The final volume in a trilogy on the life of Thor Heyerdahl was launched last week. PHOTO: Gyldendal Forlag
The final volume in a trilogy on the life of Thor Heyerdahl was launched last week. PHOTO: Gyldendal Forlag

Thirty years after his triumphant Kon-Tiki expedition, Heyerdahl lost contact with his daughter after he’d left his second wife to move in with his physiotherapist. That relationship didn’t last either, and he married for a fourth time at the age of 82.

Norwegian author and biographer Ragnar Kvam Jr details Heyerdahl’s final years in his new book Thor Heyerdahl – Mannen og mytene (The man and the myths). Kvam has said that he didn’t dwell on Heyerdahl’s turbulent family life to sensationalize his private affairs. Rather, Kvam felt it was important because it showed how his manner of conducting his private life carried into his professional life as well. The women in his life, like many of his colleagues, were a critical part of his success even though Heyerdahl didn’t always give them the credit they deserved.

Kvam’s trilogy began with his first biography of Heyerdahl’s early years, Mannen og havet (The man and the sea), which came out in 2005. It chronicled Heyerdahl’s childhood, his first marriage to fellow anthropologist Liv Coucheron Torp, the birth of their two sons Thor Jr and Bamse, and the war years leading up to the Kon-Tiki expedition in 1947. Kvam’s second volume in the biographical trilogy, Mannen og verden (The man and the world), traces Heyerdahl’s international fame from the Kon-Tiki and Ra expeditions, his second marriage to Yvonne Dedekam-Simonsen, the births of their three daughters Anette, Marian and Bettina, his troubled relationship with his sons and the growing criticism of his theories by other researchers. It came out in 2008.

Now Kvam and publisher Gyldendal have launched the third volume that zeroes in on the myths around Heyerdahl and his life from the late 1970s until his death in 2002. As his popularity grew, his relations to academic colleagues and those closest to him were strained at best. And in addition to losing contact with his daughters, especially Anette, his Tigris expedition literally went up in flames when Heyerdahl opted to set fire to the raft to protest the war at the time in East Africa. He didn’t get the publicity he’d expected for his aborted expedition and his political protest, and then his book on Tigris sold poorly. Heyerdahl faced financial difficulties and no longer had the funds to plan new expeditions.

Chorus of critics
Meanwhile a chorus of critics got louder, questioning Heyerdahl’s research, his methods and theories, also in Norway. Archaeologist Øystein Kock Johansen claimed that it wasn’t new or necessarily original, for example, for Heyerdahl to draw ties between the civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt. Newspaper Dagsavisen reported last week how Heyerdahl also dismissed evidence found on Easter Island that raised doubts over his theory that the island was populated by people sailing from Peru.

Kvam also detailed how Heyerdahl had wanted to use the Tigris expedition to prove that it was possible for people to sail from the ancient civilizations in Mesopotamia around Africa and all the way to Mexico, explaining similarities between the cultures of the old world and the new. Heyerdahl never admitted that his Tigris project failed.

Heyerdahl never gave in or gave up, though, continuing to write books, launch new projects, befriend both Fidel Castro and Mikhail Gorbachev and even claim that Christopher Columbus knew about Leiv Eriksson’s voyage to New Foundland. He remained in conflict in many areas but did reconcile with daughter Anette before she died of cancer in 1990.

Kvam notes how Heyerdahl was visionary and ahead of his time in many ways, not least in warning about pollution and a looming climate crisis. He built bridges among nations during the Cold War. He remains arguably the most famous Norwegian ever. Berglund



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