Summer 2000 (8.2)
Roots to Azerbaijan
by Thor Heyerdahl
Heyerdahl with Peruvian children who still construct traditional boats
made of reeds, the principle material that enabled early migrations on
trans-oceanic voyages. Courtesy: Thor Heyerdahl.
Archeologist and historian Thor
Heyerdahl, 85, has visited Azerbaijan on several occasions during the past
two decades. Each time, he garners more evidence to prove his tantalizing
theory - that Scandinavian ancestry can be traced to the region now known
Heyerdahl first began forming this hypothesis after
visiting Gobustan, an ancient cave dwelling found 30 miles west of Baku,
which is famous for its rock carvings. The sketches of sickle-shaped boats
carved into these rocks closely resemble rock carvings found in his own
to prove that early man could have crossed the ocean in reed boats, Thor
Heyerdahl sailed a reed boat named Ra 2 for 3,270 sea miles (6,100
kilometers) in 57 days in 1970. Courtesy: Thor Heyerdahl
Years later, the explorer
stumbled upon another correlation between Norway and Azerbaijan. Norwegian
mythology tells that the Scandinavian god Odin moved with his people to
Norway from a land called Aser, in order to avoid Roman occupation. A
13th-century historian's description of Aser's origination matches that of
Azerbaijan: east of the Caucasus mountains and the Black Sea.
this story mythology or history? During his most recent visit to
Azerbaijan in May 1999, Heyerdahl elaborated his point of view at a public
forum. Here is his speech with personal notations added by Heyerdahl
himself just prior to our going to press.
route that he made with a balsa wood raft Kon-Tiki in 1947 to prove that
early transoceanic migrations were possible. Source: "Thor Heyerdahl, the
Explorer", Oslo: J.M. Stenersens Forlag, 1994.
I think as science
advances, it will become more and more evident that we have more in common
with each other than any of us realized a few decades ago. This afternoon
I visited the Gobustan caves. From the first time I saw the carvings out
there [several years ago], I was attracted to the petroglyphs that feature
reed ships. On the way back from Gobustan, I was told that I was supposed
to speak tonight. I was told that I should speak about my relationship
with Azerbaijan and how it began. I had barely half an hour to prepare
myself for this topic, but I hope you will give me half an hour so I can
tell you what I've been thinking.
The first time I came to
Azerbaijan was in 1981 [He also visited in 1994, 1997 and 1999]. There
weren't very many visitors from outside the Iron Curtain who came here
back in those days. My invitation came from Azerbaijan's Academy of
Sciences. I started thinking about why the Academy of Sciences in
Azerbaijan would invite me and it dawned on me that I was in a very unique
situation at the time because I was both a member of the New York Academy
of Sciences and had received an Honorary Doctorate from the Soviet Academy
of Sciences. I didn't believe in barriers between nations. I believed in
people, not political parties.
Above: In the
ancient caves of Gobustan which date back at least 5,000 years, cave
drawings depict two different kinds of boats that were used for early
navigation. Heyerdahl is convinced that people living in the area now
known as Azerbaijan settled in Scandinavia around 100 AD. Gobustan is
located about 30 miles southwest of Baku.
At that time I was fighting with scientists
all over the world - both in the East and the West - because I believed
that there had been peaceful contact between nations much longer than we,
who consider ourselves civilized, ever realized. I believe there was
contact by ships along the rivers and oceans long before civilization
began. Earlier this century, nobody believed that people could navigate
with the kinds of vessels that men were using 5,000 years ago. So I was
fighting with scientists from all over the world - on both sides of the
Iron Curtain - for my theory of ocean migration. I spent most of my time
answering attacks in scientific publications. I had friends in Russia who
sent me translations of these attacks. I answered back and my defense was
published in Russian. Of course, it took quite a bit of time.
inscription at Gobustan indicating that Roman troops were in the region
around 97 AD.
One day I received a very surprising letter from Professor
Keldish, President of the Soviet Academy of Sciences in Moscow. He was
quite famous on both sides of the Iron Curtain as he had sent the first
Sputnik into space. He invited me to come to Moscow and defend my own
theory in front of the Soviet scientists. I accepted the invitation and
went alone to Moscow. It was a great moment for me to address the entire
Academy, in a part of the world that was not very popular in my part of
the world at that time.
President Keldish himself
organized the questions and it was a very fair and honest discussion.
Before I left, I was given an Honorary Doctor's Degree from Lomonosov
University in Moscow. Doctor Keldish asked me: "Why don't you collaborate
with Russia and people from the Soviet part of the world in some of your
expeditions in the future?"
Thor Heyerdahl in 1994 at the Gobustan caves in
Now let me explain my own background as a
scientist, because it wasn't everyone that President Keldish invited to
come to Moscow. The reason was boats like those carved on the cave walls
I had been educated in Oslo University in biology. As
a student, I went on an archeological expedition to an island in the
middle of the Pacific called Fatu-Hiva in Polynesia. I was to study how
life had arrived at this island, which had come straight up from the
bottom of the ocean. Millions of years ago the island had just been
boiling lava. But when the first European explorers came, there were all
sorts of plants and animals and even human beings. Of course, the study of
zoology includes human beings as well. This was back in 1938.
caused me to wonder: how did early people travel across the ocean?
Europeans never discovered a single uninhabited island in any ocean. Every
single island that could have been inhabited already was. All the
thousands of islands in the Pacific and also all those in the Indian Ocean
were populated. The islands in the Atlantic - the Canary Islands and the
Caribbean Islands - were also populated. And so this is how I became
interested in early navigation.
Doubting the Historians
Scientists at that time
insisted that no American Indian could have left America before Columbus,
and no people could have reached America before Columbus except via the
Bering Straits in the Arctic. This is where I learned how important it is
for scientists to collaborate across different branches of science. I had
my university training in biology, geography and physical anthropology. I
had biological proof that someone must have brought certain plants from
South America to Polynesia - for instance, the sweet potato, which only
grew in South America. It could not have drifted alone across the ocean
without the help of man.
Heyerdahl and wife Jacqueline Beers looking at book about antiquities in
Azerbaijan at the Academy of Science during their 1999 visit to
Azerbaijan. Courtesy: Statoil
Historians and anthropologists told me that in South
America they had only rafts before the Europeans came. And so that's how I
decided to construct a raft like I imagined the South American Indians had
done, and sail with friends from Peru to Polynesia. This voyage on the
"Kon Tiki" in 1947 was my first experience with a small vessel on the open
ocean. From then on, I began organizing archeological excavations. My
first was in 1952 to the Galapagos Islands. The next was to Easter Island
in 1955-56. That was the first time I saw carvings of those large
sickle-shaped ships. They were the same type as those in ancient Egypt and
Mesopotamia. I started to suspect that people of early civilizations in
North Africa might have been able to cross the Atlantic long before
We Europeans usually think that we have discovered
everything, but that's not correct. We're realizing that everywhere there
were people who came before us. My anthropological training has made me
understand more and more how much alike people are, regardless of
nationality, race or physical features.
I've also come to the
conclusion that we err if we believe that we are much different from
people who lived 5,000 years ago. I think that we can say with assurance
that we are born with the same genes as people 5,000 years ago were. We
start at zero for each new generation. We accumulate technical knowledge,
but our intelligence or mental characteristics don't change.
this in mind, I came to the conclusion that the Egyptians who built the
pyramids left behind art and technology of an incredibly high level. They
would not have continued to build boats made of reeds if they had
considered such vessels to be primitive and ineffective. So, I decided
that there must be something wrong with our scientific theories. All the
literature that I had read at the university had said that boats made of
balsam wood would absorb water and sink.
So I went on to prove that
these scientific theories were wrong. The Kon Tiki raft kept afloat for
101 days until we arrived in Polynesia. In Egypt it was said at the
Papyrus Institute that papyrus reed would absorb water and sink after two
weeks. Again, I decided to trust the ancient pharaohs more than modern
scientists who have never even seen a papyrus ship. That's how I came to
build my first reed boat. Together, with an international crew of seven
people, we sailed for two months. The reed boat was still
The Buduma fishermen from Lake Chad in Central Africa, who
built this reed ship, were not used to ocean waves. The rope lashings
busted and we started losing reeds. The problem was that half of the reeds
were not floating with the rest of the ship. We were sitting there
watching the reeds float behind us. When we arrived off the coast of the
U.S., I decided that we should not take any risks with human life, but we
should try again. For one month we had been swimming underneath the vessel
and trying to tie it back together with ropes. In the end we had 17 sharks
swimming alongside us, so we had to discontinue our repairs. So I told my
men, "Are you going to come? We'll start again next year."
attempted to make the trip again and crossed the Atlantic from Morocco to
Barbados in 1970, with the papyrus ship Ra II and with all the same crew,
plus a Japanese cameraman.
On both these Atlantic trips, I
experimented not only with the vessel, but also with the crew. I mixed
people - black as black as you can get, with yellow and white - along with
representatives of all the existing main religions, including atheism.
There was one person from North America and one from Soviet Russia, one
Arab and one Jew.
We lived together so well that they all came with
me again when I sailed another reed ship in the Indian Ocean in 1977-78.
That reed ship, the Tigris, was larger, which made room for more
nationalities. We sailed down the river Tigris up to the Persian Gulf, up
to Pakistan, the Indus Valley, then reversed our direction and sailed
across the Indian Ocean and came back to the entrance of the Red Sea,
where we could meet the modern world. The 11 of us were from 11 nations,
from all different political inclinations, all major religions, and we all
lived together in peace for five months in the tight quarters of a reed
We received messages from the United Nations that we
shouldn't push any further because there was a war being waged on both
sides of the Red Sea, where millennia ago peaceful Sumerians and the
people from the Indus Valley had traded with Egyptians. We sent a telegram
to the United Nations and recommended that they halt weapons delivery to
people who had been fighting only with swords until Westerners had come
and were making profit from perpetrating wars more catastrophic than
after those three expeditions on three different oceans, I was invited to
visit Azerbaijan. I came here because I had established good contacts with
scientists in this country, and I had learned that you had something quite
sensational at Gobustan. I came to Azerbaijan as a guest of the Academy of
Sciences in Azerbaijan to see the petroglyphs in Gobustan.
President of the Academy was driving around with me to see this country
and its beautiful nature and to meet local people - scientists as well as
farmers. I learned about his family connections the day before I left - he
was the brother of the President of Azerbaijan. That's how my friendship
with your country started.
Due to this friendship that I have with
Azerbaijan, when Statoil from Norway came here, I was invited to join the
delegation because I knew so many people here. And that's when I became
interested in the fact that you have two types of boat petroglyphs in
On my first visit, I came to study the reed ships that
are similar to the boats of the ancient Mediterranean. But on my second
visit, I learned that the people in Azerbaijan call themselves Azeri. I
remembered from my school days that we have legends in Norway woven into
Norwegian history in such an intricate way that we don't know where
history starts and mythology ends. But the documented history of Norway
dates back more than 800 years. Traditions about the original homeland of
our ancestors were recorded in the 18th century in Ireland and say that we
are descendants of the land of the Aser.
Early Scandinavian History
We learn of the line of royal
families in Denmark, Sweden and Norway. But we didn't take these stories
about our beginnings seriously because they were so ancient. We thought it
was just imagination, just mythology. The actual years for the lineage of
historic kings began around the year 800 AD. So we learned all the kings
in the 1,000 years that followed and did not interest ourselves in earlier
But I remember from my childhood that the mythology started
with the god named Odin. From Odin it took 31 generations to reach the
first historic king. The record of Odin says that he came to Northern
Europe from the land of Aser. I started reading these pages again and saw
that this was not mythology at all, but actual history and geography.
Snorre, who recorded these stories, started by describing Europe,
Asia and Africa, all with their correct names, Gibraltar and the
Mediterranean Sea with their old Norse names, the Black Sea with the names
we use today again, and the river Don with its old Greek name, Tanais. So,
I realized that this has nothing to do with the gods who lived with the
Thunder god Thor among the clouds.
Snorre said that the homeland
of the Asers was east of the Black Sea. He said this was the land that
chief Odin had, a big country. He gave the exact description: it was east
of the Black Sea, south of a large mountain range on the border between
Europe and Asia, and extended southward towards the land of the Turks.
This had nothing to do with mythology, it was on this planet, on Earth.
Then came the most significant point. Snorre says: "At that time
when Odin lived, the Romans were conquering far and wide in the region.
When Odin learned that they were coming towards the land of Asers, he
decided that it was best for him to take his priests, chiefs and some of
his people and move to the Northern part of Europe."
are human beings, they are from this planet, they are not mythical
figures. Then I remember that when I came to Gobustan, I had seen a stone
slab with Roman inscriptions. I contacted the Academy of Sciences of
Azerbaijan. I was taken to the place, and I got the exact wording of the
There's a very logical way of figuring out when this
was written. It had to be written after the year 84 AD and before the year
97 AD. If this inscription matched Snorre's record, it would mean that
Odin left for Scandinavia during the second half of the 1st century AD.
Then I counted the members of the generations of kings, every king up to
the grandfather of the king that united Norway into one kingdom, because
such information is available - around 830 AD.
In anthropology we
reckon 25 years per generation for ruling kings. In modern times, a
generation may extend up to 30 years, but on average the length of a
generation in early reigns is 25 years. When you multiply 31 generations
by 25 years, you come exactly back to the second half of the 1st century
AD. So there is proof that these inscriptions carved by the Romans in
stone coincide with the written history written almost 1,800 years ago in
We all know that the Northern people are called Caucasian.
Here is where history, archeology, geography and physical anthropology
The more I research the topic, the more evidence I
find that this part of the planet has played a much more significant role
than anybody ever suspected. I am working on a book at present together
with a colleague, and we are halfway through it describing our
In the meantime we have contacts with the
Academies of Sciences in 11 nations. We do not want to leave anything out.
The most surprising discovery was when we contacted Communist China. They
had discovered blond-haired mummies in the Karim Desert deep inside China,
so perfectly preserved in the cold climate and salty earth that you could
see the color of the skin and hair. The Chinese archeologists were
surprised because these mummies were not Mongoloids at all; they suspected
instead that they were Vikings.
But it didn't make sense to me that
Vikings should be deep inside the deserts of China. When the Chinese
archeologists conducted radio-carbon dating, they determined that the
mummies were of Nordic type dating from 1,800 to 1,500 years BC. But the
Viking period started around 800 AD. It then became obvious that these
mummies were not Vikings who had come to China. Here was a missing link.
And again the Caucasus enters into the picture as a mutual migratory
But this is not the end of the story. These mummies were
dressed in cloth that had been woven, and the colors and the woven pattern
were of a very specific type. The Chinese themselves studied the mummies
and then invited American experts to study the clothing who determined
that the weave and coloring were typical of the Celts of Ireland. But this
made no sense at all. Then we contacted Ireland to get their sagas, and
their written saga says that their ancestors were Scythians. So, again,
their roots come back here to the Caucasus.
This is only the
beginning, because this is as far as we have obtained documentation from
the Academies of Sciences with which we are in contact. I will not go into
detail further, but I have also found archeological evidence that is so
striking that there can no longer be any doubt.
My conclusion is
that Azerbaijan has been a very important center, sending people in many
directions and attracting people from many directions. You have had metals
that made the Romans want to come here. But you have been very central in
the evolution of civilization, and more than anything, this is proven by
the petroglyphs in Gobustan.
One thing is clear: navigation
occurred before civilization. We used to believe that civilization came
first, and once people had developed a high enough level of civilization,
then they started to build boats. This just isn't true. On the contrary,
it was when people built ocean-going vessels - that enabled them to
contact each other so that they could trade and learn from each other. It
was through contact and peaceful cooperation that civilization
From Azerbaijan International (8.2) Summer 2000.
© Azerbaijan International 2000. All rights
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