Heyerdahl, scorned by many scientists, digs for vindication in Peru's pyramids

July 07, 1991|By Chicago Tribune

TUCUME, PERU B — TUCUME, Peru -- A giant sting ray haunts the sacred mountain, and witch doctors high on hallucinogens reign.

Spirits move as shadows in the night. A curse is cast; a dead

rooster is hung from a pole, and a dog is slaughtered.

Buzzards circle overhead. The heat is punishing. The place is called El Purgatorio, and it's just outside this impoverished village of dirt streets and adobe shacks.

Thor Heyerdahl has come to unlock its secrets. Tanned, fit, white hair neatly combed and blue eyes clear and direct, the Norwegian explorer, 76,, who was made famous by his Kon-Tiki voyage 44 years ago, has calmed the spirits and befriended the witch doctors in an effort to excavate the largest complex of pyramids in the Americas.

Mr. Heyerdahl is not here for fun, though he is enjoying himself. He is on a mission -- the same one that earlier pushed him to travel by raft thousands of miles across treacherous oceans: to prove that all civilizations have a common heritage, to show that the pyramids he is now excavating are linked to the pyramids of Egypt and other great cultures.

Most archaeologists think Mr. Heyerdahl is nuts, or, worse, that he manipulates facts to support his theory. Civilizations from Egypt to Mesopotamia to America's pre-Inca cultures arose independently, they say, and developed similar characteristics -- such as pyramid-building -- because of man's common predilections. There were no ancient mariners rafting across oceans spreading knowledge as Mr. Heyerdahl claims.

Mr. Heyerdahl has fame and fortune. Now he wants respect -- an affirmation that his life's work means something. This may be his last chance, here in Tucume, near the sacred mountain that residents believe is haunted by the giant sting ray.

"I don't listen to the 'know-hows,' the people who sit behind desks and think they know everything. It is utterly illogical to think cultures developed independently without direct contact after man developed seagoing vessels about 5,000 years ago," said Mr. Heyerdahl, relaxing in his comfortable two-story home that faces the ruins.

But Richard Burger, an Andean expert and professor of anthropology at Yale University, said Mr. Heyerdahl's theory was "idle speculation."

"He tries to explain the complicated civilization of the Andes by saying it was developed by outside influences. It's a theory few professionals lend any credence to."

Mr. Heyerdahl's interest in faraway places began as a child on the spectacular fiords near Oslo, Norway's capital. His father, a brewing company executive, traveled often; his mother, a homemaker, was a fierce Darwinist who read her son books about the Galapagos Islands, Africa and South America.

"Ever since I was young, I always wanted to be an explorer. As early as I can remember, I was interested in plants and animals and being in nature," he recalled.

Mr. Heyerdahl graduated from the University of Oslo with a degree in zoology, and in 1937 moved with his wife to the Polynesian island of Fatu Hiva, where he researched plant migration. It was there that Mr. Heyerdahl noticed the westerly trade winds pounding the surf and discovered plants on the island native to South America. Was it possible that Fatu Hiva and other Pacific islands were settled by a white mariners who sailed from South America rather than by Asians migrating from the east, as most researchers believed?

Mr. Heyerdahl set out to prove his theory, or at least to prove it was possible. In April 1947, he and five other Scandinavians left Peru on a 45-foot balsa-log raft called the Kon-Tiki and 101 days later landed on an island near Tahiti.

The 4,300-mile voyage earned Mr. Heyerdahl international fame. He met Harry Truman at the White House, wrote a best-selling book, "Kon-Tiki," which chronicled the journey, and won an Academy Award for best feature film documentary. But the experts snickered. Mr. Heyerdahl could sail, they said, but he didn't know anything about ancient cultures. He was a stunt man posing as a scientist.

The criticism stung.

"They couldn't understand how a guy from Norway who was not an academic could do something they said couldn't be done," said Mr. Heyerdahl, his voice rising slightly in anger. "Before Kon-Tiki, nobody thought ancient Peruvians navigated the oceans. Recent excavations have proven there was a highly developed maritime culture."

Well, maybe. Archaeologists say ancient Peruvians sailed along the South American coast, but doubt they had ocean-going vessels. And they insist that Polynesians of Asian descent -- not South Americans as Heyerdahl asserts -- settled Easter Island, a wedge-shaped volcanic rock 2,000 miles off the Chilean coast.

It was there that Mr. Heyerdahl refined his controversial theory after heading the first of several excavations in 1955.

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