Easter Island and the Ra and Viracocha Expeditions

Section 1

1: Easter Island

2: Moai 263

Section 2

1: Testing the reed boat hypothesis

2: The Ra Expedition

3: The Ra II Expedition

Section 3

1: Completing Heyerdahl’s Easter Island experiment: Phil Buck

2: The Viracocha Expedition



The vessel carved upon Moai No. 263 on Easter Island (from Heyerdahl, et al., 1961)










































































Sketch upon which Heyerdahl based his construction of the reed ship Ra (after Heyerdahl, 1971)















































A view of the stern of the Ra II, on display at the Kon-Tiki Museet in Oslo, Norway (photo by P.J. Capelotti, 2004).




















Route of Ra and Ra II across the Atlantic (after Johanssen, 1999)



























































































View of the port side of Ra II, Kon-Tiki Museet, Oslo, Norway (photo by P.J. Capelotti, 2004).




































































































































































































































The reed boat Viracocha (photo courtesy of Phil Buck, from the cover of Sea Drift: Rafting Adventures in the Wake on Kon-Tiki, Rutgers University Press, 2001)












Section 1: Easter Island and Moai 263


1:  Easter Island and the 1955-56 Norwegian Archaeological Expedition


Known as Rapa Nui, or Big Rapa, to its inhabitants, Easter Island has fascinated the western imagination since the moment Jakob Roggeveen’s fleet sighted the place on Easter Sunday, 1722.  Its famous moai statuary makes it one of anthropology’s most enduring cultural enigmas.  The easternmost inhabited island of Polynesia, it lies 2,400 nautical miles west of South America and some 1,400 miles east of Pitcairn Island, its nearest inhabited Polynesian neighbor.  In its extreme isolation, it has been populated solely by organisms able to travel thousands of miles by sea or air.

Thor Heyerdahl linked several cultivated plants from America with islands of Polynesia, including Easter Island.  The most important was the South American sweet-potato (Ipomœa batatas) or, in the local name, kumara, a plant name, as one scholar noted, “that has stirred the imagination of scientists working in the Pacific like no other.”  The sweet potato is well-established throughout Polynesia.  As both a cultivated plant and a name, it spread throughout the Pacific islands by human contact.  

That contact is conclusively aboriginal, the cultigen having been observed in New Zealand by Cook on his first voyage and on Easter Island by Roggeveen in 1722, and having been described by traditional history as being located in Hawai’i as early as 1250 C.E. Even proponents of European introduction found it unlikely that the plant could have spread so far in the few decades separating the voyages of Cook and Roggeveen with those of the 1560s of the Spaniards Mendaña and Quirós (Buck 1938, 313).  In any case the kinds of long inter-island voyages necessary for the settlement of the expanse of Polynesia—and the introduction of kumara to the islands—had stopped sometime after the close of the fourteenth century (Hornell 1946, cited in Heyerdahl 1952, 431).

Current linguistic evidence points to the Cuna language spoken in northern Columbia as the origin of the word kumara, which in its various transliterations followed the sweet potato across the Pacific. 

            The combination of balsa rafts, sweet potatoes, and megalithic industries, all found along the coast of Peru and Chile prior to the first human movements into Polynesia, was intriguing.  When a similar combination was found to have existed on Easter Island in the first centuries C.E., interest turned to a search for a method of cultural transmission.  For Heyerdahl, the natural way to introduce kumara to the Marquesas, or Easter Island, was alive, in a pot, on board a balsa log raft.


2:  Moai 263


          After his archaeological research on Easter Island in 1955-56, however, Heyerdahl had been confronted by a dilemma.  Norwegian archaeologist Arne Skjølsvold, one of the five archaeologists on the Easter Island dig, had excavated a unique moai statue, which was known locally as No. 263.  It was special because a strange ship had been carved into its chest.  And even though Skjølsvold came to believe that the carving probably represented a European sailing vessel—one cut into the stone after the statue was erected—one can also interpret it as a prehistoric reed vessel. So the distinct possibility existed that the Kon-Tiki experiment might have been conducted with the wrong type of prehistoric raft.

The carving appears to be propelled like a three-masted, square-rigged European ship, yet the hull has the distinctive upswept bow and stern of a Lake Titicaca reed ship.  There is also a strange line trailing from the bow of the vessel, which some believe might be a turtle caught by one of the many sailors apparently standing on deck, and which others interpret as a kind of stone anchor. 

Beyond the carving on the chest of No. 263, Heyerdahl's expedition also uncovered locally produced volcanic stone carvings that unmistakably represent reed boats.  Taken together, Heyerdahl saw this as evidence that reed ships had arrived on Easter Island at some point in prehistory, perhaps bringing the stone cutters who produced the giant moai or the finely hewn stone platforms on which they rested.  If one accepted that a boat made essentially of grass could traverse large sectors of the Pacific, could one cross other oceans as well? 

Heyerdahl began to research boats constructed of reeds all over the world, travelling from museum to marsh to study watercraft made from totora, papyrus, and other natural fibre materials.  When he saw boats and barges apparently constructed of papyrus depicted in the burial chambers of Egypt, his experimental instincts took over.  If a reed boat had carried the legendary Kon-Tiki across the Pacific 1,500 years ago, could a vessel built of papyrus have carried a crew of Egyptians across the Atlantic 5,000 years ago?  It was not a question Thor Heyerdahl could formulate without attempting to provide an answer.


Section 2: Testing the Reed Boat hypothesis: The Ra Expeditions


1.  Testing the reed boat hypothesis.


Heyerdahl had his doubts that papyrus possessed the same watertight capacity of the totora reed of South America.  Papyrus experts brought in the advise the Egyptian government on Heyerdahl’s request to use a plot of land near the Great Pyramids of Giza for the construction of a papyrus boat were uniformly hostile.  None thought papyrus could remain afloat for much more than two weeks, and that only in still, fresh water.  No one thought such a vessel could survive three thousand miles of a rough transatlantic crossing.  When one of the experts announced that laboratory tests had shown that pieces of papyrus sank after a few days, Heyerdahl thought to himself that this was like throwing a piece of iron into the sea and deciding that any ship built of iron would automatically sink as well.

Egyptian authorities finally gave the go-ahead for a papyrus ship to be built at Giza, and Heyerdahl selected Buduma tribesmen from Chad, who still lived on floating islands of reed, to build his transatlantic ship.  With a sketch by the Swedish scholar Björn Landström of what an ancient Egyptian papyrus vessel should look like, Heyerdahl then required 300,000 papyrus stems to be harvested from Lake Tana in Ethiopia, and transported to Egypt across the Red Sea and through a war raging around the Suez Canal.  He had to assemble a crew and build a vessel no one had built in 5,000 years, then transport both vessel and crew to Morocco and be ready to sail in six months. 

As construction of the replica progressed, Heyerdahl divided his time between the work site at Giza and trips to the tombs to study frescoes showing representations of ancient Egyptian watercraft.  A peculiar cable running from the stern of a reed ship to its afterdeck caused particular consternation, as no one could provide a satisfactory explanation for its presence.  Did it simply hold the shape of the inwardly-curved reed stern, or did it have some more significant maritime function.  Heyerdahl’s boat-builders from Chad eventually did away with the cable once they had curved the papyrus stern into shape, dismissing it as unnecessary.

Heyerdahl had his raft ready to be delivered to the African coast on April 28, 1969, the twenty-second anniversary of the start of the Kon-Tiki expedition.  He named her Ra after the Egyptian sun god.  A month later, the papyrus boat sat absorbing seawater in the Moroccan port of Safi.  For eight days, as the raft underwent last-minute rigging and provisioning, it continually lost precious hours of its brief projected life span.  Finally, on May 25, Heyerdahl ordered the paper boat towed to sea. 



2.  The Ra Expedition, 1969.


Just as on the Kon-Tiki, the crew marveled at how waves washed through rather than swamped the hull.  Navigator Norman Baker found himself incapacitated by influenza and a temperature of 102°.  As the raft fought to make its way offshore on the very first day at sea, Heyerdahl was suddenly called aft to see a disaster in the making.  Not one but both of the steering oars had snapped completely away.  The crew was despondent, feeling that the experiment was over before it had even begun. 

Heyerdahl studied the raft closely.  Without the two oars, the raft suddenly turned on its own and headed out to sea.  Heyerdahl was concerned but not despondent.  For a man who had spent his life trying to demonstrate that ocean currents were conveyors of culture instead of impassable barriers to human migration, Ra had suddenly turned into an even more daring experiment.  It was one of Heyerdahl’s favorite scenarios: ancient mariners on a crippled vessel, its crew in a battle against wind and current, intent on carrying their culture to a foreign shore.  Ra would now imitate the navigation of Incan rafts with their guara leeboards. 

Hearing Heyerdahl yelling, Norman Baker crawled from the wickerwork cabin to learn the good news.  He was stunned to learn that the vessel of which he was navigator was now adrift, without rudders, and almost completely unmanageable.  The raft broached and waves slammed its sides.  At a stroke, the crew had not extacly been transformed from sailors into supercargo, but Heyerdahl’s Atlantic laboratory had subjected his raft experiment to its first variable.

The next challenge for the raft was to pass the lowlands at Cape Juby on the African coast, and begin to arc to the west, across the Atlantic.  To everyone’s surprise, the raft began to list slowly toward the wind, not against it, as on a regular sailboat.  Heyerdahl discovered that waves breaking on the windward side deposited water more heavily into the reeds on that side of the raft, while the lee side remained high and dry.  Much shifting of cargo failed to alleviate the problem, which was yet another lesson relearned after five millennia in obscurity.  On May 31st, Ra passed Cape Juby and put Africa astern.  The reed boat had been afloat two weeks, without showing any signs of the imminent disintegration predicted for it.  But the greatest challenge still lay ahead.

The crew improvised a new steering oar from a spare mast, as the raft moved westwards at approximately sixty miles per day, half again as fast as Tim Severin’s bamboo raft Hsu Fu would snake across the North Pacific nearly a quarter century later.  But where Severin’s wash-through bamboo raft subjected its crew to constant drenching, Heyerdahl’s paper boat, at least for the time being, kept his men high and dry. 

The performance of the special rigging, copied so carefully from Egyptian tomb paintings, now seemed in practice to both Heyerdahl and Baker to have been designed to handle ocean swells and waves.  It seemed clear enough that the papyrus boats of antiquity had done more than float calmly on the Nile.  However, the absence of the strange cable linking the upturned stern with the aft deck—the cable that the boat-builders from Chad had told Heyerdahl was unnecessary—now came back to haunt the raft.  Halfway through June, the stern of the raft was awash, even as the bow continued to sail on as dry as the day the reed boat was launched.

By the first days of July, the Ra had sailed over 2,000 miles, and less than 1,500 remained between the raft and the Caribbean island of Barbados.  Heyerdahl was learning that, unlike the pre-Incan log raft Kon-Tiki, this Egyptian reed ship required true sailing ability.  Anybody could hang onto a raft.  The stern continued to drag further into the sea, the starboard side continued to fill with water.  The oars had been rebuilt only to snap again.

On Ra, Heyerdahl felt as if he was driving a car without a license.  It was the fate of anyone who tried to recreate prehistoric technology.  A simple and many would claim unbridgeable flaw was always present in the experiment.  The replica might be correct; the ocean route might be the right one.  But no scientist could replicate the prehistoric mind, nor venture with certainty into a prehistoric worldview.  As the Caribbean loomed just beyond the horizon, the Ra slipped inexorably into the sea. 

          On July 18th, 1969, with sharks and Portuguese Man-o-war encircling the reed boat, Heyerdahl ordered the crew to abandon ship.  The apparent failure of this greatest of primitive reed ship experiments was wholly overshadowed in the days that followed by the first landing of humans on the surface of the moon.  The juxtaposition of the sinking trajectory of the ancient raft with the successful soft landing of the ultramodern lunar module could not have been more striking.  Between the failure of Ra and the triumph of Apollo 11, it seemed as if modern humans had put the ancient world behind them once and for all.  All modern humans, that is, except Thor Heyerdahl.



3.  The Ra II Expedition, 1970.


          In the spring of 1970, under a thick blanket of secrecy, Thor Heyerdahl was back in Morocco, building another ship of papyrus.  This time, Heyerdahl had gone back to his roots, bringing Aymara Indians from Lake Titicaca to Africa to oversee the construction of perhaps the most beautiful recreation of a prehistoric vessel ever undertaken.  With the many lessons learned from what was now called Ra I, along with another year of research amongst traditional reed boat builders, Heyerdahl left nothing to chance this second time around.  Even so, he was plagued by worries that a second failure would prove disastrous, and be seen as “nothing but a risky repetition” (Heyerdahl 1971, 286). 

After setting sail for Morocco on May 17, 1970, the Ra II proved less stable that her predecessor, but more seaworthy.  The new reed ship was thirty-nine feet long—almost twenty feet shorter than Ra I—sixteen feet wide amidships, and six feet deep.  In fact, the raft proved seaworthy enough to transport a multinational crew of eight completely across the Atlantic.  But the voyage nearly ended less than a month after it started.

Norman Baker had returned as well, as both navigator and second-in-command.  As Baker set a course away from Africa as fast as possible, none save Heyerdahl were very optimistic about their chances for success.  Leaving port, the reed deck of Ra II was only three feet above the surface of the sea.  Within two weeks, the raft had sunk two whole feet.  After three, the decks were awash.  Seeing this, Baker thought they had little choice but to run for the Cape Verde Islands, 1,200 miles from Safi in Morocco.  There the expedition could slink into obscurity, rather than cause a scene by calling for an inevitable rescue in mid-Atlantic.

Desperate, the crew threw over the sides everything they could, even to the point of potentially sacrificing themselves by throwing their papyrus life raft overboard.  As the Cape Verde Islands drew closer, so did the crew’s last apparent hope of abandoning ship before it sank.  They had all decided that they would sail into port and go home.  But as Baker took the raft’s position throughout that day, Heyerdahl kept a steady course westward.  In the morning, the Cape Verdes were a few points off the port bow; by noon, they were directly abeam, about eight miles away; by early evening, the islands were on the port quarter, about sixteen miles away.  The raft had passed the point of no return. 

No one said anything.  The raft had less than a foot of freeboard remaining.  There was no way to turn the reed boat around and return the Cape Verdes.  The crew knew that they were now committed to 2,000 miles of open ocean.  To solidify their dismay, the crew decided to conduct a secret ballot on the only question that mattered: would Ra II make it across the Atlantic Ocean?  As Baker recalled, seven of the crew voted “no”; only one responded “yes.”  “No one ever asked who the cockeyed optimist was,” Baker remembered, although in the end it was the lone dissenter who proved to be correct.  “Though I’ve never asked, in my heart I know who it was—our Captain, Thor Heyerdahl” (Baker 1997). 

On July 12, 1970, the crew sighted land.  They had sailed 3,270 miles from Africa.  As the reeds began to lose their buoyancy once and for all, Ra II sailed hard into the harbor at Bridgetown, Barbados.  Heyerdahl had staked everything on a second reed boat, and it had delivered him to the New World.  Soon after, Ra II was returned to the Old World, and took up a permanent place in a great hall in Oslo, Norway, directly adjacent to that occupied by Kon-Tiki.


Section 3: Completing Heyerdahl’s Easter Island Experiment: Phil Buck and the Viracocha Expedition


1.  Completing Heyerdahl’s experimental voyage to Easter Island


By the spring of 1997, half a century after the original Kon-Tiki expedition, no primitive experimental raft had made the connection between South America and that continent’s closest Polynesian island, Easter Island, although Eric de Bisschop had come close in Tahiti-Nui I in 1957, and Kitin Muñoz had drifted on Uru from Peru to the Marquesas in 1988.  Heyerdahl’s massive ethnological tome American Indians in the Pacific had compiled a much greater case for prehistoric reed boat—as opposed to balsa raft—voyages to Easter Island, yet despite the Ra expeditions no one could say from actual experience whether such an expedition was possible. 

Such an experimental raft expeditions would connect the reed boat builders of the pre-Inca highlands of Peru with the Pacific ports that could have made use of large versions of lake reed boats.  It would connect a potential prehistoric South American port with the most likely Polynesian island to have received cultural impulses from pre-Incan Peru.  It would offer a plausible escape route for the legendary prehistoric figure Viracocha, as he fled from the shores of the great highland lake at Titicaca to his exile somewhere toward the setting sun.  And it would offer some comparative strength to Heyerdahl’s hypothesis that pre-Incan Moche mariners forced to sea during cultural catastophes triggered by El Niño events would be pushed southwest toward Easter Island. 

In 1998, such an experiment was created.  Phil Buck, a highly-accomplished mountaineer, announced that he would circumnavigate the globe in a series of five reed boats.  The reed ships would all be named for the bearded sun-god Viracocha.  The first leg of this enormous undertaking would take the Viracocha I from Arica, a Chilean port near the border with Peru, to Easter Island. 

In the late 1998, Buck journeyed to Huatajata, Bolivia, on the shores of Lake Titicaca.  There, both the Catari and Limarchi families—many of whom had helped Heyerdahl construct the reed ships Ra II and Tigris—collaborated with Buck to build the hull of Viracocha I.  The hull was completed in March of 1999, then stored under a tin roof until it was trucked to the coast in December.  During the storage period Buck had the boat builders haul on the hull’s ropes each month.  Eventually, he considered that this simple step might have been critical to the success of his voyage.  Reeds shrink as they dry, and having a solid reed boat is imperative to lower water absorption and lessen the overall flexing of the boat at sea.

The hull was trucked to Arica, Chile, in December 1999, where it was fitted out with masts and sails, rudder oars, and a bamboo cabin.  Like Heyerdahl, Buck selected a multi-national crew, in this case three Chileans, a Bolivian, a Britisher, a Frenchman, and one other American.  Buck envisioned a six-week expedition to Easter Island, one that would start around January 15 in the new millennium, and reach Easter Island in early March.  There the explorers would tramp the island, look in on the totora reeds of the island’s crater lakes, and seek permissions for the second leg in the global circumnavigation, from Easter Island to Australia.  In the end, Buck’s timetable evolved with almost clock-like precision.



2.  The Viracocha Expedition, 1999


Viracocha I left Arica on February 25, 2000, after having been placed in the water fifteen days earlier.  Norman Baker had suggested to Buck that the raft should be put into the ocean three days prior to departure, to allow the reeds to absorb seawater as ballast, but problems with inspections and computer software delayed the departure.

Three days after leaving the Chilean coast, the reed boat was 150 miles to sea, sailing 150 degrees off the wind and about two knots an hour, on a southwest course toward Easter Island.  Over the course of the next forty-four days, the reed boat continued to average about two knots an hour, or about fifty miles a day.  On only two or three days did the boat’s performance increase or decrease dramatically.  On March 9, contrary winds stalled the boat’s progress to nothing, while on March 23rd and 26th, the boat skimmed along with the wind at speeds of five and six knots. 
            By April 1st, 2000, the Viracocha I had sailed more than 2,000 miles from the coast of Chile, and was only 300 miles from Easter Island. As he neared the island of Sala Y Gomez, an uninhabited island 240 miles from Easter Island, the raft began to experience major wind shifts and velocity drops.  The winds began to move in a counter-clockwise direction and at time would completely drop off.  It was in stark contract to what Buck had experienced during the first month at sea, when he had steady trade winds from the South and South-East.  The raft drifted on calm seas six miles from Sala y Gomez.  Buck was now within a long stone’s throw of an island Heyerdahl landed on in 1956.  He was well aware of the significance of his achievement:


“I thought that passing near Sala Y Gomez was important to Thor Heyerdahl’s theories because passing an uninhabited, rocky bird island was one of things that the Spanish Chronicler Sarmiento had heard that Inca and Pre-Incan voyages would pass one week before reaching the island Thor Heyerdahl believes to be Easter Island” (ibid.).


Buck hoped to zero in on the harbor at Anakena, the port on the northeast corner of Easter Island where legends place the arrival of Hotu Matua, the prehistoric maritime explorer and founder of Easter Island culture.  As the island emerged out of the Pacific a week later, Buck steered the reed boat around the southern side of the island, to a landing at Hango Piko. 

For perhaps the first time ever—or possibly the first time in over a thousand years, depending on your view of the evidence—a reed boat sailed through the gap separating the ancient ceremonial center of Orongo, and the small offshore island of Moto Nui.  It was across this gap that the famous annual birdman competition was held, where young men on small reed floats swam and climbed to reach the first sooty tern egg of each spring. 

            At 3:00 in the afternoon of Sunday, April 9th, 2000, Viracocha I anchored at Hanga Piko, where the arrival of a reed boat from Chile was greeted with decidedly mixed feelings.  The memory of nineteenth century raids by Peruvian slavers is still warm on this Polynesian island, and any reminders of ancient ties with the mainland stir complex emotions.  Buck himself wanted to preserve Viracocha I, which had survived the voyage in almost perfect condition.  Local merchants likewise saw an interesting tourist attraction.  But when others recalled the biting mosquitos they felt had arrived with the reeds of Kitin Muñoz’ Mata Rangi I, Buck had no choice but to agree to burn the ship.  Less than two weeks later, stripped of all useable equipment, Viracocha I went up in flames at Hanga Roa, an event which in itself may reflect the fate of earlier voyagers to this strangest of all the world’s islands.