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This is a book full of surprises. First, that Heyerdahl is alive and well and continues his wander-archaeologico-lust. Second, the Maldives. The Maldives? An archipelago in the Indian Ocean southwest of India; total population 190,000 spread over a thousand and more small coral islands straddling the equator. Third, the presence of temple mounds on scores of islands that bespeak prior high cultures and a strange people called the Redin. Who are the Maldivians? Where did they come from? How far back in time do they go? Those are the mysteries the intrepid Norwegian attempts to fathom. Fourth surprise: Heyerdahl makes no final judgments. The riddle remains, although many new clues have emerged. Essentially it appears that three great religions have left their mark on the islands: Hinduism, Buddhism, and at present, Islam. Complicating attempts to construct the past is the Modern injunction to destroy relics. Heyerdahl was invited by the current president of the Republic of Maldives to conduct excavations, thus relaxing the religious injunction. Accompanied by Norwegian archeologists and assorted cameramen, he began a series of island hops in graceful native boats or specially outfitted ships. Among the first finds were stones incised with sun symbols, heads with long ears (the lobes plugged as in African and pre-Colombian cultures) and structures suggesting stepped pyramids and ceremonial baths. There were also phalloid cylinders which might be miniature Buddhist temples. Eventually sculptures showed up, including a reclining Buddha, a Hindu (?) demon, some lions. All had to be fitted into the warp and woof of cultures past and, if possible dated. The tentative conclusions (which include some carbon 14 dates) are that the Maldives had been inhabited for many centuries before the conversion to Islam (1153 A.D.) The first Maldivians might even have been emigrants from the early Indus Valley culture in northwest India. However, the islands' strategic location might have early established them as a crossroad for canny sailors who learned to navigate by the monsoons and could steer through the deep channels between the reefs, providing a perfect way-station. Heyerdahl says it well near the book's end: ""The Maldive Islands. . .now began to appear like a barrier reef from which octopus tentacles spread to remote corners of the Old World. Into the Red Sea and the Mediterranean as far as Rome. Into the Persian Gulf and beyond as far as Finland and the Arctic coast of Norway. Into the Gulf of Bombay, and around India in the opposite direction past the straits of Indonesia to distant China."" Quite as intriguing as past mysteries are Heyerdahl's notes and comments on the culture today. The islands are friendly tropical Edens inhabited by handsome mixed-race people, who speak their own language. The streets are immaculate thanks to meticulous daily sweepings of the coral sand and stone. Alas, some European tourism has begun within the decade. And with this intriguing and enthusiastic volume, it seems clear that the present-day Maldives will no longer be a mystery.

Pub Date: Sept. 10th, 1986
Publisher: Adler & Adler--dist. by Harper & Row