"I'm not here to prove anything, but to collect facts," said Thor Heyerdahl, whose lifelong effort to show that ancient civilizations crossed the oceans in primitive crafts has often embroiled him in controversy.

Easter Island is central to the Norwegian's thesis. Heyerdahl is convinced the first settlers here hailed not from Polynesia, as the dominant scientific view holds, but from Peru. Evidence for this theory is sparse but intriguing. It includes a specialized masonry technique found on Easter Island that was typical of ancient Peru, as well as several botanical curiosities -- the presence here, for instance, of the Peruvian sweet potato, the growth of Peruvian reeds in the crater lakes, and traces here of a palm tree thought to be unique to the Chilean mainland.

Islanders affectionately call the celebrated Norwegian adventurer Kon Tiki, the name of the balsa raft Heyerdahl sailed from Peru in 1947 to demonstrate that prehistoric South American mariners could have journeyed to Polynesia.

The people here appreciate what the stately, white-haired foreigner has done to put what Heyerdahl once called "the loneliest inhabited place in the world" on the archeological map and to teach them something about their own past.

But the Polynesians here prefer not to believe Heyerdahl's claim that South Americans were the first inhabitants. "We still tend to be biased and think that everything came from Polynesia," said Gov. Sergio Rapu, posing with Heyerdahl at the base of the dormant volcano Rano Raraku, where the island's eerie giant stone statues were carved.

Rapu, who was 5 when Heyerdahl arrived in 1955 on the first scientific expedition, went on to study archeology himself. He has dug recently at Anakena beach, believed to be the site of the island's first settlement, and found fragments there of a stone torso with ribs and of kneeling, full-bodied statues -- corresponding to ancient South American forms. Also discovered were pieces of coral with obsidian glass, as in old South American carvings.

Rapu and Heyerdahl have organized a joint Chilean-Norwegian expedition, financed by the Kon Tiki Museum in Oslo, to excavate deeper at Anakena. "It's obvious that when you get to the beginning, it'll be easier to determine" where the first settlers came from, said Heyerdahl, dressed in a khaki safari suit and a blue desert hat. "If we find statues right down to the beginning, there won't be much choice but South America, since that's the only place work of this type was going on."