Thor Heyerdahl

updated 12/11/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/11/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

Early on, the devil strangled the night watchman, or tried to. Reeling out of his shack, which overlooked a vast field of ancient Peruvian pyramids, the guard refused to sleep there anymore. So Thor Heyerdahl, head of the new archaeological dig, had to call in a priest, who chanted for 20 minutes and sprinkled the shack with holy water. Eventually the watchman crept back to his post.

Bad enough that the government, battling Maoist terrorists and a huge cocaine trade, has almost no funds for archaeology. This remote patch of northern Peru, known as El Purgatorio, is cursed as well. But that's why it will likely produce a world-class find. Twenty-six pre-Incan pyramids are crowded onto 550 acres here—for sheer size and density, there is nothing to match this site anywhere in the world—and superstitious looters have left them virtually undisturbed. Now, thanks to the star power of Heyerdahl, 75, the secrets of these tombs, perhaps 1,000 to 1,500 years old, are finally being unearthed.

"We expect an infinity of surprises," says the famed Norwegian archaeologist and anthropologist, standing in punishing sun near the watchman's hut. Through haze and dust, mountains of eroded adobe stretch for miles beside the little town of Tucume. "There is archaeology here for 200 years," he adds.

Heyerdahl first seized the world's imagination in 1947, when he and a crew of five rode a raft named for an ancient sun king—Kon-Tiki—4,300 miles across the Pacific. His scientific objective was to prove the possibility of early westward migration from the Americas to the South Sea islands. But did his global audience care about that? They saw a Ulysses, the last of the bold and bearded seafarers. Ever since then, Heyerdahl has shown that same genius for attracting followers and funding; he has transformed a crabbed and insular science into world theater. Impelled by his theory of ancient transoceanic migrations, Heyerdahl crossed the Atlantic from Morocco to Barbados in a vessel made of papyrus in 1970, then in 1977 rode the Indian Ocean for five months in the Tigris—described by one observer as a "gigantic fruit basket" of reeds.

What Heyerdahl calls his common curiosity has also spurred pioneering archaeological work all over the Pacific, particularly on Easter Island. His second book about that volcanic speck in the mid-Pacific, Easter Island: The Mystery Solved, has just been published. In it he expounds his theories of how those hundreds of massive stone heads, so hypnotically odd that writer Erich von Daniken once asserted they were left by aliens, were quarried and moved into place.

Now this ancient mariner has landed in El Purgatorio. Two years ago Heyerdahl was enticed here by a Peruvian archaeologist named Walter Alva, who showed him a treasure-stuffed tomb in nearby Sipan. As government archaeologist for the region, Alva had been trying to convince bureaucrats that there was something far bigger than Sipan here, namely 26 unplundered pyramids. No luck. They called him a dreamer—says Alva, a romantico.

Who better to turn to than Heyerdahl, the greatest romantico in the business and a man with some money behind him? But even for Heyerdahl, El Purgatorio is a novel challenge—primarily because of the religious fear that has clung to the site like a ground fog for 450 years.

These huacas are probably tombs of the Mochica, who dominated the region from roughly A.D. 100 to 700. First-rate farmers and warriors, the Mochica also produced opulent artwork, sometimes microscopically intricate, often made of gold. One of their favorite icons was the "decapitator god," and they enjoyed drinking the blood of their vanquished foes from tall goblets.

Local villagers have long believed that these sacred burial sites were haunted by a giant ray fish that rose out of the central mountain, La Raya. "Then, when the Spanish came in the 16th century," says Heyerdahl, in his fluting Norwegian accent, "they gave this area the name El Purgatorio and claimed it was the entrance to hell. They built bonfires on the mountain, and those villagers who wouldn't become Christians were thrown in. They also built a huge wagon with many horses in front and rode out of El Purgatorio wearing masks and horns and bells to frighten the people, who thought the devils were coming from hell. That tale is still vivid to the villagers here."

Heyerdahl's Kon-Tiki Museum in Oslo has committed $160,000 over the next two years to begin excavating El Purgatorio. He is also doing a lot of fund-raising; recently, he has produced an elaborate video, starring himself riding a horse all over the site, to attract potential backers in New York City. Probably alone among antiquarians, Heyerdahl understands show business.

Last year, Heyerdahl purchased 20 dusty acres on the edge of Tucume for $3,000 and, with the help of native labor, turned it into a princely oasis. Casa Kon-Tiki is a long, handsome rectangle of whitewashed adobe, with dark, heavy doors cut from algarobo, an arthritic little tree that dots the property. Marlow might have relaxed here in the evenings and spun Lord Jim.

The mirador, or watchtower, overlooks Heyerdahl's huge garden, where small snowy egrets stalk among the furrows. You can see the windmill he erected, the well he sank and the stall for El Rayo, his horse.

What's most striking about the place is its look of instant permanence. Fluent in six languages and twice married, with five children scattered about, Heyerdahl has rarely stayed anywhere for long. His nominal home is a medieval village in northern Italy, where he sometimes writes his books (more than a dozen to date) in an ancient Roman tower overlooking the Mediterranean. But fans find him anywhere; a trickle of pilgrims is now turning up at the gate of Casa Kon-Tiki.

Every day he passes through Tucume (pop. 4,000), headed for the dig. For people who have lived for centuries in the shadow of hell, the villagers are amazingly cheerful. Especially the family entrusted with the town's only telephone—it rarely works, but they love to show it off. Mostly these are farmers, gouging a living. Their burros trot through the pitted streets, past huts with no sewer system and only occasional electricity.

Though it's doubtful that they are aware of the Heyerdahl mystique, he is hugely popular here. To pursue his excavation, he had to make a lot of friends. In particular, Heyerdahl says, "I had to be accepted by the Mayor, the priest and the top witch doctor. The Mayor and the priest were easy..."

Because of the reputation of El Purgatorio, this little town, says Heyerdahl, has the highest concentration of witch doctors, or brujos, in South America, two or three hundred. The chief brujo, Santos Vera, is a superman in the community and famous throughout Peru; people come from as far as the United States for his cures. To earn favor, Heyerdahl had to attend an all-night healing ritual, held on the edge of the ruins. Vera sat on a throne, Heyerdahl says. "On the ground in front of him was an arrangement of human skulls and some swords set in the ground. There were figures of saints and crosses. Some Coca-Cola bottles with herbs inside. And a few candles.

"Then he began humming—like a lullaby. He invoked white devils and black devils, the Virgin Mary and Saint Peter." Throughout the night the assembled throng drank and snorted pungent substances from a shell and danced under the moon; many vomited. When it was all over, Vera and Heyerdahl were friends.

Still, to this day, some locals, fearing Heyerdahl will steal their land, hire other brujos to cast spells on him. One day, strolling with friends, Heyerdahl found a dog slaughtered in his driveway. "I didn't take it seriously," says Heyerdahl, "but one of my companions went right away and got advice from another medicine man. He said to make a ring of red peppers around the dog on the ground. We did, and the next day it was gone."

Riding in his Nissan Pathfinder along an ancient canal, past huts overhung with mango and banana trees, Heyerdahl watches a flock of egrets burst into the air, like birds from a magician's hat. "It is so much like Polynesia," he says. "Gauguin lived like this."

Polynesia has fascinated Heyerdahl ever since he was a boy in Norway, poring over his mother's collection of anthropology books. "I was always looking at these pictures of people living underneath the palm trees," he says, "fishing and picking coconuts. As far back as I can remember I was longing to go."

Maybe being Norwegian had something to do with it. "I hated November in Norway," he says, "when autumn came and the wind was whipping rain against the window." (Certainly other quick-frozen Norwegians know the feeling; long ago the University of Oslo, Heyerdahl's alma mater, acquired the world's largest private collection of books about Polynesia.)

After getting his degree in biology and geography, Heyerdahl set off for the South Seas in 1937. His first field research—on plant migration—involved a year with his young bride, Liv Coucheron-Torp, on the isolated island of Fatu Hiva—"renowned," according to a Norwegian encyclopedia, "for cannibalism and fornication."

From the start, any woman married to Heyerdahl had to endure an unconventional life. After Fatu Hiva, Thor and Liv returned to Norway and had two sons—Thor, now 51 and a teacher, and Björn, 49, a businessman. But they divorced in 1948. Heyerdahl's second wife, Yvonne Dedekam-Simonsen, bore him three daughters—Anette, Marian and Bettina—and survived her share of scrapes. In a 1958 article for a newspaper supplement titled "I'm Married to Adventure," Yvonne described her husband leaping from their canoe in the Brazilian jungle to bury an ax in a crocodile's head as piranhas circled. (Amicably divorced from Yvonne in 1969 after 20 years of marriage, Heyerdahl has for years been involved with Liliana Spigarelli, who manages his home in Italy.)

It was in Fatu Hiva, while nibbling fruits and watching the westerly trade winds on the waves, that Heyerdahl was first struck with the idea that has dominated his scientific life: that Polynesia might have been largely settled, not by travelers sailing eastward from Asia, as was generally believed, but by voyagers from the Americas.

Ridiculed by other anthropologists, Heyerdahl organized his Kon-Tiki expedition to prove his theory was plausible. In April 1947, he and five other Scandinavians floated away from Callao, Peru, on their 45-foot balsa raft; 101 days later, they ran aground on a coral reef not far from Tahiti. Heyerdahl's chronicle of the voyage, Kon-Tiki, was translated into 66 languages. The movie he made, The Kon-Tiki, won the Academy Award for best feature documentary. "That film won the Oscar because it was so badly shot they knew it couldn't have been faked," says Heyerdahl. "It was done after 20 minutes instruction from a Bell & Howell dealer, and I filmed at the wrong speed. Every second frame had to be reshot later to match the sound."

He has been a world figure ever since, an anthropologist-swashbuckler—though he balks at the description. "Many people think I am a daredevil," he says. "Absolutely not. I'm a great admirer of Columbus because he was a terrific organizer and planner. Any expedition should be 80 per-cent done by the time it is started."

Yet despite his renown, and many academic awards, Heyerdahl has never overcome hearty opposition in the scientific community to his theory that voyagers from the Americas, not Asia, peopled Polynesia. He cites weaponry and artwork; opponents cite linguistic patterns. Both cite skulls.

Easter Island is a particular battleground for the theorists. Heyerdahl, who headed the first major excavations there in 1955, believes he has found strong evidence of settlement from South America. Many others disagree. But all concede that Heyerdahl has been a catalyst—not just an archaeologist himself, but the cause of archaeology in others. Says John Lynch, producer of a recent BBC documentary on Easter Island that challenges Heyerdahl's views: "In the early days, he did a lot of good excavating there. He exposed the thing to public glare. And, principally because so many people thought he was wrong, he has motivated an enormous amount of work all over Polynesia."

In a swirl of dust, Heyerdahl's four-wheel-drive vehicle pulls up to the first of 26 huacasto be excavated. It will take at least a year for workers to penetrate this towering sludge pile. Meanwhile a vast terrace is coming to light all around it; there are mysterious walls and chambers and children's bones. Diggers have just discovered a woman's shallow grave, perhaps 1,000 years old; eagerly Heyerdahl strides over to see. Excavators are dusting the skeleton with paint brushes, blowing on it with squeeze bulbs and photographing it exhaustively. A possible human sacrifice, she was buried with shells and fish bones. Signs of the sea! Heyerdahl is delighted.

Perhaps his fascination with the ocean, and with trade among early cultures, stems from his vision of world brotherhood. His great voyages were undertaken with multinational crews under the United Nations flag, and he is content to have the future riches of Tucume remain in Peru, which has already built a tourist trade around the Incan ruins at Machu Picchu, 700 miles to the south. But his fellow-feeling extends to ancient peoples as well, including this bleached skeleton at his feet. "We have the egoistic idea that we in the 20th century are the civilized ones," he says. "That people living 1,000 years ago, not to mention 5,000 years ago, were greatly inferior to us. I am opposed to that. The people back then were physically and mentally our equal—if not in many ways better, since we are really degenerate. We couldn't survive using our brains, as ancient people did. But they would certainly have been capable of watching a television."

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