Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: Kon-Tiki from The Macquarie Dictionary

a raft of green balsa wood on which an expedition led by Thor Heyerdahl in 1947 floated from Peru to the Marquesas.

Etymology: named after Kon-Tiki, a member of a Peruvian people who, according to legend, floated from Peru to Polynesia

Summary Article: KON-TIKI
from Encyclopedias of the Natural World: Encyclopedia of Islands

In 1947, the Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl made a drift voyage of 101 days from Peru to Polynesia on the balsa-log raft Kon-Tiki. Heyerdahl's stated purpose was to prove his theory that Polynesia was settled from South America by light-skinned followers of a foreign god.


Heyerdahl named the Kon-Tiki after the god he identified as "Kon-Tiki Viracocha." This god was described as a bearded, white-skinned individual with reddish or blond hair and blue eyes who came to South America from across the Atlantic. Heyerdahl stated that this god remained in Peru for a time, before being driven out into the Pacific, where he was subsequently known to Polynesians as "Tiki" and worshipped as a sun god.

The name "Kon-Tiki" is a distorted rendering of the Quechua title for one of the many aspects of the sun god in Peru: ápu qon téXsi wiraqúcha, where the letter X represents a sound similar to that of k in milk. The word teXsi is therefore not a cognate of the Marquesan word tiki. The Polynesian Tiki was not a god but a Marquesan mythological character who created the first human by copulating with a heap of sand. No sun gods were present in the Polynesian pantheon; all Polynesian gods were deified ancestors.

The legends of Viracocha do not describe a migration from Peru into the Pacific by a white-skinned god and his followers. They describe the solar deity, with shining hair and beard, moving across the sky on his annual cyclical course between solstices. At the winter solstice, the sun, as seen from Peru, drops lower on the northwestern horizon, as though sinking into the Pacific. The supposed Caucasoid features of Viracocha appealed to Heyerdahl, who at one time was a correspondent of Hans Guenther, the author of Nazi racist anthropological texts that emphasized the superiority of the Nordic "race." The "red" beard and blue eyes of Viracocha are nowhere mentioned in Peruvian legends; these attributes were added by Heyerdahl to strengthen the Nordic connection.


The Kon-Tiki raft was constructed from balsa logs. It generally resembled balsa log rafts seen by early European explorers of South America, such as Bartolomé Ruiz in 1526. There was never any serious question about the ability of balsa logs to survive long immersion in sea water: balsa rafts were a standard part of pre-European South American maritime technology. Kon-Tiki had a square-rigged sail, a large steering oar, and keel boards, guaras, to aid in tacking. A deckhouse sheltered Heyerdahl and his five companions, including a cameraman and a radioman.

The main food source was a large quantity of canned U.S. Army rations. Coconuts, bananas, and sweet potatoes were also taken aboard for symbolic value, but they spoiled within approximately three weeks. Primus stoves were used for cooking. The canned food was supplemented by 275 liters of water in cans. This quantity of water would have provided each man with approximately a half-liter per day, an amount insufficient for life under exposed conditions in subequatorial seas. Additional liquid was obtained from raw fish, from rain, or by mixing sea water with canned water, although solar stills supplemented the water supply. The essential modern life support supplies, including canned food and water, stove, lanterns, radio, electric generator, and solar water stills, invalidate the voyage as a test of pre-European Peruvian voyaging capability.


The Kon-Tiki was unable to cross the strong Humboldt Current, which flows northward along the Peruvian coast. The craft was therefore towed out to sea by the Peruvian Coast Guard and was released more than 50 miles from the coast. Once the raft was released from the tow, steering proved impossible. The raft drifted at the whim of winds and currents. Upon reaching the Tuamotu Archipelago, the Kon-Tiki passed near several atolls, finally washing ashore on the atoll of Raroia after 101 days adrift. The crew escaped without injury.


Heyerdahl claimed that the voyage proved his theory according to which Caucasoid Peruvians first settled Polynesia and were later followed by an invasion of Native Americans from the Northwest Coast.

This single drift voyage provided no new facts or insights to challenge the data already available from the disciplines of archeology, ethnology, physical anthropology, and linguistics, all of which pointed to a Central-Western Pacific origin for the Polynesians. Additional archeologi- cal evidence against Heyerdahl's theory appeared in the decade following the Kon-Tiki voyage, and today, after 60 years of further archeological investigations in Polynesia, no evidence of South American contact has ever been discovered anywhere in Polynesia.

Although Peruvians never reached Polynesia, the Polynesians, descendants of an Asian maritime culture that originated on the coast of China and Taiwan approximately 4500 years BCE, are now known to have reached the New World in pre-Columbian times.

The Kon-Tiki raft voyage was a great financial and public relations success. Heyerdahl's book sold millions of copies, in many languages, and the film of the voyage won an Academy Award (Fig. 1). It also successfully proved that a group of physically fit personnel, on a crude balsa raft, with modern survival supplies and equipment, could survive an uncontrolled drift voyage from South America to Polynesia—once they were towed out beyond the Humboldt Current, which otherwise would have carried them up the South American coast to Panama.

A photograph used in advertising the documentary film depicts the Kon-Tiki approaching Raroia, Tuamotu Archipelago. Image courtesy of Janson Media.


Easter Island / Peopling the Pacific / Polynesian Voyaging / Popular Culture, Islands in

  • Bierbach, A., and Cain, H.. 1996. Religion and Language of Easter Island. Baessler-Archiv, Neue Folge. Beiheft 9. Berlin: Dietrich Reimer Verlag.
  • Clark, R. 1990. Austronesian languages, in The world's major languages. Combe, B., ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 899-912.
  • Demarest, A. A. 1981. Viracocha: the nature and antiquity of the Andean high god. Peabody Museum Monographs, No. 6. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University.
  • Finney, B. 1994. Voyage of rediscovery: a cultural odyssey through Polynesia. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Heyerdahl, T. 1950. Kon-Tiki: across the Pacific by raft. New York: Rand McNally and Company.
  • Kirch, P. V. 2000. On the road ofthe winds: an archeological history ofthe Pacific islands before European contact. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Liping, Jiang and Li, Liu. 2005. The discovery of an 8000-year-old dugout canoe at Kuahuqiao in the Lower Yangzi River, China. Antiquity 79 (305).
  • Suggs, R. C. 1960. Island civilizations of Polynesia. New York: New American Library.
  • Storey, A. A., Ramirez, J. M., Quiroz, D., Burley, D. V, Addison, D. J., Walter, R., Anderson, A. J., Hunt, T. L., Athens, J. S., Huynen, L., and Matisoo-Smith, E. A.. 2007. Radiocarbon and DNA evidence for a pre- Columbian introduction of Polynesian chickens to Chile. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences ofthe United States of America 104: 10335-10339.
Boise, Idaho
© 2009 by the Regents of the University of California

Related Articles

Full text Article Kon-Tiki
The Macmillan Encyclopedia

The name given by Thor Heyerdahl to the raft built of nine balsawood logs on which, between 28 April and 7 August, 1947, he and five...

See more from Credo