Thor Heyerdahl: The RA Expeditions (1969-70)
Ancient Egyptians used reed boats for river navigation, but could sub-Saharan Africans have constructed similar types of vessels to explore the Atlantic Ocean and find their way to the New World, specifically (for our focus), to Central America? The carved heads from the Olmec civilization, which thrived along the Eastern coast of Mexico from 1500 BCE through 100 BCE, may indicate an affirmative answer reinforced by the late 1960s expeditions of Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl.
The facial features of the large Olmec heads appear to be African, though some experts say they are Asian. The greater debate, however, is whether African societies of that era would have been capable of sailing such a distance, in the first place.
Enter Heyerdahl and his theories on cultural diffusion. He had previously constructed boats made of balsawood consistent with the South American Pre-Columbian Indians, theorizing that South Americans could have sailed to and settled Polynesia. In 1947, his ground-breaking 4,300-mile journey navigating the raft Kon-Tiki took him successfully from Callao, Peru to the Polynesian Island of Raroia – existing theory was that Polynesia had been populated from Indonesia.
In 1969, he set out on the first of two voyages to prove that ancient Egyptians could have sailed to the Americas, well before Columbus, and transferred the technology for building pyramid structures, such as those constructed by the Mayans in Central Mexico. Heyerdahl constructed vessels using papyrus reed, a material previously thought to be encapable of holding up in the ocean and becoming waterlogged. However, Heyerdahl sailed from Safi, Morocco, in the Ra headed for the Caribbean Island of Barbados. However, after 56 days and 2,700 nautical miles, the craft sank one week short of its destination. Undeterred, Heyerdahl built another reed boat, the RaII. Smaller than its predecessor, the RaII reached Barbados in 57 days, covering 3,270 nautical miles.
So, could African mariners have completed such a journey, extending into the Gulf of Mexico and reaching Central America? Consider this from Donald P. Ryan, Ph.D., an archaeologist from Pacific Lutheran University: “What did the Ra Expeditions prove? Did it actually prove that the Egyptians or some other group of travelers with reed boats reached the Americas in ancient times? Of course not. What it did though, was to demonstrate that boats of this sort, with a wide ancient international distribution, were certainly capable and seaworthy, thus putting a damper on the notion that ancient people did not have the means to cross the oceans. One could argue that in terms of survivability, the reed boat is equal, if not better, to most any boat used by Europeans during the early centuries of exploration.
The expedition's success also diminished the notion of the oceans as great barriers. The oceans are, in fact, often quite friendly to even the simplest of craft, as has been demonstrated over and over again. Accidentally or intentionally, the winds and currents can carry a vessel readily across. In short, although the Ra Expeditions in several ways reflected Egyptian themes, the project was not specifically Egyptological in nature, but relied on a great deal of ancient Egyptian inspiration to construct and explore the parameters of a model of a kind of ship which sailed the seas in the past. As such, the Ra Expeditions, like the Kon-Tiki before it, served as classic examples of experimental archaeology.”