Carl Hoffman’s book on Michael Rockefeller, Savage Harvest, reviewed.

Was Michael Rockefeller Eaten by Cannibals?

Was Michael Rockefeller Eaten by Cannibals?

Reading between the lines.
April 9 2014 11:32 AM


A new book claims to have solved the mystery of Michael Rockefeller’s 1961 disappearance in the New Guinea jungle.

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My expedition there, driven along by the exigencies of a TV production and insulated from locals by an entourage of translators and boatmen and camera crew, didn’t stand a chance of uncovering much new evidence, though we did add a few important pieces to the dossier. The climax of our program was my attempt to replicate Michael’s swim to shore to try to deduce whether it was possible he’d made it. I swam probably 5 or 6 miles with an incoming tide and made it to shore. Michael’s swim would likely have been longer—8 to 10 miles, perhaps—but my success made it seem doable.

As “evidence” goes, that’s pretty shaky, but as I worked my way toward some conclusion about what might have happened to Michael, I was more troubled by the idea that exoticizing these people was intrinsic to the entire exercise and influenced where my story was going. Hoffman recognizes this tendency in himself. “And maybe I wanted to believe too,” he writes, of the murdered-and-eaten theory. “Maybe that belief was what we all wanted. It confirmed our image of the Asmat as both horrific and exotic and reflected back on us, made us seem bolder, more intrepid, braver—we were cavorting with cannibals!”

Carl Hoffman
Carl Hoffman.

Photo courtesy Liz Lynch

Their reputation, after all, precedes them: Theirs was a warrior culture, centered on reciprocal violence. Knowing all that, it was hard not to feel the tragedy of what they’d lost. They are, in Hoffman’s phrase, “warriors with no war to fight,” and though nobody would condone a return to what’s euphemistically called “the old ways”—killing and eating each other—it’s impossible to look at these people and not want them to have some sense of self rebuilt.


“We are Catholics now,” many men told me when I asked about headhunting, and then they looked away and rolled a cigarette.

“And yet.”

That’s a phrase Hoffman uses late in the book, just before his second trip to Asmat, giving voice to his lingering doubts after spending several pages unspooling the ample evidence he’s accumulated for the killed-and-eaten theory. And his evidence is persuasive, largely because it doesn’t rely on his trips to Asmat. Hoffman’s revolutionary stroke was in realizing that actual evidence would not likely be found in Asmat—too many decades had passed, too many others had preceded him—and in having the maturity and shoe-leather reporting diligence to follow the long paper trail that had remained in various archives all these years, mostly unglimpsed. The reports and communiqués he unearthed, along with interviews with some of their protagonists—the aging Dutch missionaries and colonial officers who had been in Asmat at the time—form the backbone of his argument.

What those documents offer is ample corroboration of Rockefeller’s murder from the only Westerners in Asmat at the time, as well as evidence of efforts by the Dutch government and the Catholic missionary orders to keep this version of events secret for a variety of complicated historical and political reasons. What they don’t offer is a smoking gun: It all fits together and points toward a conclusion, but these are secondhand puzzle pieces. There is no direct confession, no skull or other identifying artifact. So the mystery remains, owing in part to the essential unknowability of the Asmat people.  

Michael Rockefeller paddling an Asmat canoe, 1961.

Photo courtesy of William Morrow

“It’s almost impossible to know the power of an Asmat bisj pole or the meaning of a song or the sacredness of a skull to an Asmat,” Hoffman writes earlier in the book. Visitors—Michael Rockefeller, me, Hoffman—journey “deep in their midst without ever really understanding their world and the unseen dimensions of its reality.”

By now the Asmat know that white people come to their villages, and Otsjanep in particular, for two main reasons: to bring Jesus into their lives or to ask about Michael Rockefeller. Those of us who have come before have polluted the stream. And what little they say about Michael or anything else suffers from a problem of severe narrative unreliability.

“Asmat reveal some things and don’t reveal others,” Hoffman notes. “When pressed by outsiders, they will sometimes concoct stories to satisfy them.” Our experience there bore this out. Villagers would string us along and dissemble, at times seeming to almost pantomime their own culture for us, knowing what we wanted to see—drumming, a canoe flotilla, traditional dress and weapons—and giving it to us, along with a few dubious stories, in exchange for the tobacco and other goods we’d brought. But in the end it would come to nothing.

And beyond the non-answers and possible play-acting, the more problematic consideration is that the entire story of Otsjanep killing Michael may have been invented as a sort of wish fulfillment at a time when incursions by white men were upending the Asmat world. It would have made Otsjanep seem more powerful in the eyes of its enemies. And once the rumor started, it would have propagated through the echo chamber of village gossip, a game of telephone that made its way throughout the region and to the white men—the missionaries and Dutch officials—whose stories Hoffman found in the archives.

In one document quoted in the book, a church higher-up advises his missionaries not to spread what they’ve been hearing of Michael’s demise. It is not for the church to be propagating rumor, he implies. “In time, it will be revealed.”

Is it more likely than not that the rumors are true, that the Asmat killed and ate the young Rockefeller? Yes, certainly.

And yet.


Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller's Tragic Quest for Primitive Art

Tim Sohn is a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn and a Correspondent for Outside.