50 years ago, explorer Thor Heyerdahl’s Atlantic crossing hit a snag

Excerpt from the May 16, 1970 issue of Science News

a photo of a papyrus boat

An Atlantic crossing in a papyrus boat failed 50 years ago, but led to a successful attempt in this vessel, the Ra II. Although ancient Egyptians didn’t navigate to the Americas as project leader Thor Heyerdahl suspected, his work heralded later evidence on long-distance sea trade.

Peter Ptschelinzew/Alamy Stock Photo

cover of May 16, 1970 issue of Science News

Once again for Ra, Science News, May 16, 1970 –

Last year … a seven-man international crew was abandoning a disabled boat made of papyrus that in two months had taken them 2,700 miles westward in the Atlantic toward Mexico…. Nevertheless explorer-anthropologist Thor Heyerdahl, designer and pilot of the Ra, refused to admit defeat…. Late this week, Heyerdahl and his crew were awaiting suitable weather to set off on a second attempt at an Atlantic crossing.


On July 12, 1970, Heyerdahl’s crew crossed the Atlantic in a second papyrus vessel called Ra II. Heyerdahl wanted to show that ancient Egyptians could have reached the Americas centuries before Europeans did. No evidence of ancient New World Egyptians has been found. But the idea that early civilizations traveled long distances by sea was right. Egyptian and Mesopotamian glass beads reached southern Scandinavia via sea trade by around 3,400 years ago. And seagoing traders connected Viking Age Scandinavians with Muslims in West Asia and the Mediterranean more than 1,000 years ago.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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