In the early 1940s, a Norwegian ethnographer called Thor Heyerdahl proposed that the peoples of Polynesia originated in the Americas rather than Asia. In order to test his theory, he decided to attempt to sail to Polynesia from Peru in a traditional Inca pae-pae raft. Heyerdahl and his team constructed the craft – called Kon-Tiki, the ancient name of the Inca sun god Viracocha – from balsa wood and other indigenous materials, basing the design on the descriptions and illustrations produced by the Spanish conquistadors.

Heyerdahl and his five-man crew set out from Callao, Peru, on 28th April 1947. A tugboat towed the raft around fifty miles from shore into the Humboldt Current, from where they sailed westward. In late July the crew sighted land for the first time when they sailed past the atoll of Puka-Puka. A few days later the inhabitants of the island of Angatau rowed out to greet them, but the tides swept the Kon-Tiki onwards.

Finally on 7th August 1947, after a journey of approximately 3,770 nautical miles (nearly 7000 km) lasting 101 days, the KonTiki struck a reef on the windward side of Raroia and sank. The crew made it safely to a nearby islet where they stayed for a week before some inhabitants of Raroia found them and took them back to their village. Heyerdahl’s team managed to locate and salvage the Kon-Tiki, which they towed to Tahiti with the help of the crew of a French schooner.

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