SANTIAGO, Chile -- Explorer-archaeologist Thor Heyerdahl, famous for crossing the Pacific in his Kon-Tiki raft, wants to solve one of the world's great mysteries -- the origin of the hundreds of giant stone heads on Easter Island.
Heyerdahl, 71, who arrived in Chile this week from Norway, was scheduled to fly Wednesday to Easter Island on a six-week expedition to try to solve the mystery of the 30-foot-tall busts forged out of volcanic rock by unknown sculptors as far back as 16 centuries ago.
Heyerdahl first drew world attention to Easter Island in 1947 when he crossed the Pacific in a small wooden raft called Kon-Tiki to prove Polynesia could have been populated by migration from Peru.
Later in 1955 he led an archaeological expedition to the 80-square-mile island about 2,000 miles off South America in search of evidence to back up his theory.
Exactly how the natives managed to move and erect the 20-ton heads, which dot the islands by the hundreds, is a mystery. But Heyerdahl hopes to prove that early inhabitants were capable of handling the sculptures with basic methods of leverage.
The statues, known as Moais in Polynesian, form an open-air museum on Easter Island, a Chilean possession of 1,800 people that is linked to the outside world only by a weekly plane flight from Santiago.
'It's the most interesting and different archaeological site in the world,' Heyerdahl told reporters. 'There is evidence on the island of a very highly developed civilization. The isolation meant there were no wars and its inhabitants could spend all their energy building.'
Joining Heyerdahl will be Czech engineer Pavel Pavel, who has done extensive research on the Moai mystery.
Heyerdahl said the expedition, financed by the Kon-Tiki Museum of Oslo, will prepare the ground for another major expedition next year, when he plans to excavate a buried city in hopes of determining the origin of the first islanders.
Heyerdahl's expedition comes only weeks before U.S. space agency officials begin work to extend the island's runway so it can be used as an emergency landing site for the U.S. space shuttle.
U.S. Embassy officials say the $10 million shuttle project, which has angered environmentalist groups, will not endanger the stone heads.