Richard Conniff -
One of the first lessons you learn going into the field as an anthropologist, archaeologist or journalist is never to come back empty-handed.
The cost of the expedition, the need to gratify sponsors, the urge to make a name, all turn up the pressure to get the story.
So it’s easy to forget the second great lesson of fieldwork: beware of a story that’s just a little too good.
Thor Heyerdahl, who died in April at the age of 87, spent much of an active and sometimes inspiring life in the thrall of one good story.
He believed that, long before Columbus, early ocean travelers—tall, fair-skinned, redheaded Vikings much like himself—spread human culture to the most remote corners of the earth.
Academics scoffed, particularly at his idea that the islands of the mid-Pacific had been colonized by way of South America, rather than by Polynesians from the western Pacific.
In 1947, Heyerdahl risked his life attempting to prove his point. He built a balsa-log raft, the Kon-Tiki, and in one of the great ocean adventures of the 20th century, he and his small crew made the harrowing 4,300-mile voyage from Peru to French Polynesia. In the process, Heyerdahl established himself as an almost mythic hero.
His best-selling book Kon-Tiki inspired a new generation of scholars—many of whom went on to systematically refute their hero’s great idea.
The trouble with a good story is that it has a way of distorting the facts: we see what we want to see and close our eyes to everything else.
In the 1970s, scholars and filmmakers were so enraptured with the idea of peace-loving, Stone Age hunter-gatherers they failed to notice that the gentle Tasaday were a very modern Filipino hoax.
In the harsher zeitgeist of more recent times, a hotly disputed book, Darkness in El Dorado, charges that anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon believed so firmly in the savagery of Venezuela’s Yanomami that he instigated the very bloodshed he went there to document. (Chagnon steadfastly denies the charge.)