Did Whites From the Old World Found the Pre-Columbian Civilizations of the Americas?

By Mark Weber

Thor Heyerdahl

Thor Heyerdahl first captured world attention in 1947 when he sailed a hand-built balsa wood craft, the Kon-Tiki, from Peru across thousands of miles of Pacific Ocean to the Polynesian islands. The Norwegian voyager astonished the world again some years later when he successfully piloted Ra II, an Egyptian reed boat, from North Africa across the Atlantic to the Caribbean.

Heyerdahl (1914- 2002) was much more than a world renowned explorer. He was also a well-trained ethnographer, a serious student of zoology and geography, and an author of numerous scholarly articles and reports. His investigation of the origins of the pre-Columbian cultures of the New World therefore merits respectful consideration.

In his book Early Man and the Ocean, first published in 1978, and in other writings, he lays out detailed evidence to support his view that the advanced civilizations found by European explorers in the 1500s in what are now Mexico and Peru had been established by much earlier visitors from the Old World.

When the Spanish conquistadors first reached the New World, they were astonished to encounter highly developed civilizations, or remains of civilizations. How had these advanced societies developed? Years of intensive archaeological work and painstaking excavations have uncovered no trace of gradual evolution from primitive society to complex civilization. Dig after dig revealed that well developed societies appeared suddenly in the Americas, in full bloom, superimposed upon primitive, archaic societies.

Even casual observers have long been struck by similarities between the great pyramids of ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, and those of pre-Columbian America. Other remarkable parallels, cited by Heyerdahl, also suggest trans-oceanic cultural links. The ancient Sumerians, Assyrians, Hittites, Phoenicians and Egyptians were all ardent sun worshippers, just as were the Olmecs, the Mochica and their immediate successors in Mexico and Peru. In the developed cultures of the eastern Mediterranean and Asia Minor, as well as in the New World, there were: Ruling hierarchies claiming descent from the sun, fully developed writing systems, paper manufacture, complex stone-cutting techniques, mummification of great personages, long-distance aqueducts, an understanding of the zero concept, and ocean-going reed boats. The same three animals served as royal symbols: the snake, the bird of prey, and one or another breed of feline. (The eagle of the Old World became the condor in the New. The lion was replaced by the puma.)

This great step pyramid is an achievement of the Maya civilization. Known as “El Castillo,” and as the “Temple of Kukulcan,” it is at the Chichén Itzá site, Yucatán state, Mexico.

The “Pyramid of the Sun” ruin, at Teotihuacán in central Mexico, dominates the background. Smaller pyramid-like structures are in the foreground.

The Egyptian step pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara. The original casing was robbed many centuries ago. This ancient structure resembles the ziggurats built in what is now Iraq.

The reconstructed facade of the massive neo-Sumerian ziggurat or step pyramid of Ur, in modern-day Iraq. Originally built in the 21st century B.C., it had already crumbled by the sixth century, B.C., when it was restored by King Nabonidus.


The well-developed cultures of the Aztecs, Toltecs and Mayas in what is now Mexico and Central America drew heavily from the highly advanced civilization of the Olmecs, an unknown people that suddenly established a well-developed culture on the swampy jungle coast of the Gulf of Mexico. There was no climactic or geographical basis for a sudden blossoming there of a high civilization. But as Heyerdahl points out, just before the Olmec culture suddenly began to flourish around 1200 B.C., organized colonists from the cultural world of the eastern Mediterranean had penetrated to the Atlantic where trade winds and currents could easily have carried them to the Gulf of Mexico. As ancient records show, various groups from the Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations left the Mediterranean at that time in organized voyages to found colonies beyond Gibraltar. “No sooner had Middle East civilization sailed out through the Straits of Gibraltar with large organized fleets of colonizers,” writes Heyerdahl, “than Olmec civilization began to flourish in the Gulf of Mexico at the other end of the Canary Current. Why this remarkable coincidence in time?”

Perhaps the most striking evidence that the New World Indians did not themselves establish complex societies is the testimony of the Indians themselves. Wherever the Spaniards advanced, from Mexico and Central America to Peru, they were received with open arms and hailed as members of a legendary fair-complexioned race that had ruled and civilized their ancestors. The impressive ruins of lost civilizations were invariably explained by the local peoples as vestiges of rule by benevolent, bearded whites. The memory of this past race formed the basis of local history and religion. The arrival and activities of white teachers were described in pre-Columbian hieroglyphics and paper writings, and depicted on stone monuments and ceramic art. (Unfortunately, the extensive collections of books and paper records were destroyed by order of the Spanish priests, who considered everything not written in Latin script as satanic.) The beards of the Spaniards made an especially strong impression on the Indians, who were incapable of growing facial hair. Mayan priests sometimes even wore false beards in imitation of the divine founders of their religion.

The chronicler of Pizarro’s conquest of Peru recorded that some members of the Inca ruling classes were “whiter than Spaniards,” and that some “Indians” were both white-skinned and blond. According to the Incas, these were descendants of their gods, the Viracochas. When the Spaniards first landed on the Peruvian coast, relay messengers quickly spread the world that the Viracochas, or “sea foam” people, had returned. The Incas had no beards, but they had a word for beard, and for the white foreigner (Viracocha), which even today is sometimes applied to Europeans. At the great Inca temple at Cacha, the Spaniards found a huge stone statue of the divine priest-king Con-Tici Viracocha, represented as a long-robed man of regal bearing with a long beard. The Spaniards thought it represented St. Bartholomew. Later, realizing their mistake, they destroyed the statue and the temple that housed it.

In the vast Incan empire, the Spaniards came upon huge megalithic sites of pre-Incan origin that had been abandoned centuries before and lay in ruins. Spanish chronicler, Cieza de Leon, wrote in 1553: “When the Indians are asked who built these ancient monuments, they reply that a bearded and white people like ourselves were the builders, who came to these parts many ages before the Yncas began to reign, and formed a settlement here.”

At Tiahuanaco, the hub of the empire, the Spaniards found a vast stone-dressed pyramid, megalithic walls and large statues. Cieza de Leon asked the local people about these structures. He wrote: “I asked the natives ... whether these edifices were built in the time of the Incas, and they laughed at the query, affirming that they were made before the Incas ever reigned ... From this, and from the fact that they also speak of bearded men on the island of Titicaca, and of others who built the edifice of Vinaque, it may, perhaps, be inferred that, before the Incas reigned, there was an intelligent race who came from some unknown part, and who did these things.”

When archaeologist A. F. Bandelier arrived to excavate the ruins of the island of Titicaca 350 years later, he was told that in very ancient times the island was inhabited by gentlemen of unknown origin, but similar to Europeans, who had cohabited with the local native women, and that the resulting children became the Incas who “drove out the gentlemen and held the island thereafter.”

Practically all the native accounts of how culture came to Peru are in agreement that the Incas lived more or less as savages until the arrival of a light-skinned, bearded foreigner. He was described as “a white man of great stature who, by his aspect and presence, called forth great veneration and obedience ... In many places he gave orders to men how they should live, and he spoke lovingly to them and with much gentleness, and that they should be loving and charitable to all.”

The white stranger was acclaimed a god. He and his followers introduced cultivated crops, and taught the Indians how to grow them in irrigated terraces. They showed the natives how to build stone houses, and live in organized communities with law and order. They introduced cotton clothing, sun worship and stone carving. They built steep pyramids and erected monolithic statues.

Among the Tzendals of Mexico, the white culture hero was called Votan. A Tzendal manuscript records:

At some indefinitely remote epoch, Votan came from the far East. He was sent by God to divide out and assign to the different races of men the earth on which they dwell, and to give to each its own language. The land whence he came was called ualum uotan, the land of Votan. His message was especially to the Tzendals. Previous to his arrival, they were ignorant, barbarous, and without fixed habitations. He collected them into villages, taught them how to cultivate the maize and cotton, and invented the hieroglyphic signs, which they learned to carve on the walls of their temples. He instructed civil laws for their government, and imparted to them proper ceremonials of religious worship ... They especially remember him as the inventor of their calendar.

When European scholars began large-scale excavations of Peruvian Inca tombs in the middle of the 19th century, they were startled to find that some of the heads differed markedly from those of the Indians, both in cranial shape and in hair color and texture. Ethnologist Daniel Wilson found some mummies with brown, soft, wavy hair. He was especially struck by the remains of a family of apparently high rank. Wilson described the father's hair as “brown in color and as fine in texture as the most delicate Anglo-Saxon’s hair.”

Easter Island

Easter Island has long intrigued and puzzled the world. It is the site of solid stone statues in human form weighing five to eight tons each, along with a vast amount of other diverse art works. According to Heyerdahl, the monoliths were built by a race of ancient white explorers who had crossed more than two thousand miles of ocean from Peru.

Dutch voyagers, guided by Peruvians, were the first Europeans to visit Easter Island. They arrived in 1722 and found a racially mixed group, including one islander of apparently high rank who “was an entirely white man.” A few years before Captain James Cook visited in 1774, a disastrous war had broken out on the island. The surviving natives told the Europeans that all of the white males had been massacred.

The strange written script of Easter Island has never been deciphered. The dark-skinned islanders cannot understand it. Their forebears killed the light-skinned men who could. Neither can the brown Polynesians understand the original meaning of the monuments built by a race that had vanished long ago.


Heyerdahl makes a good case for his view that Columbus was able to make his first voyage to the New World only because he had carefully studied the accounts of the earlier Viking voyages to North America. Columbus was very close to the Catholic Church, which kept records of the Viking colony at Greenland. He was a thorough researcher, who, Heyerdahl contends, must have been familiar with the Viking discovery of North America. Noting that Columbus’ son once wrote that his father had visited Iceland, Heyerdahl comments:

Only when we give the Norse discoveries of Greenland and North America the credit they deserve does Columbus emerge in proper perspective, not as a reckless navigator who accidentally happened to hit upon America because it blocked his progress to India, but because he had combined creative imagination with keen scholarship and available information to plan a search for a coast which was found where it was supposed to be.

Over the years “diffusionist” and “isolationist” scholars have offered sharply differing explanations of the origins of pre-Columbian civilization in America. The "isolationist” school contends that civilization blossomed in the New World independently from the Old. Before Heyerdahl made his Ra voyages across the Atlantic, “isolationists” contemptuously dismissed “diffusionist” arguments with the seemingly irrefutable, but untrue, observation that an Atlantic crossing by ancient ships was not possible. One of the most influential anthropologists of the twentieth century, the German-born Jew, Franz Boas, declared in 1925: “On the Atlantic side, the broad expanse of water made immigration impossible.”

The findings of Heyerdahl and many other scholars suggest that civilization is not the achievement of “mankind” or the “human spirit.” What produces higher culture, the weight of evidence shows, is a flickering flame of creativity that burns in the souls of only some of those whom we call human beings, and that biology, not geography, is the basis of human progress.

This piece is a July 2016 revision of a text written in 1981.