Was Michael Rockefeller Eaten by Cannibals?

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

Non-Answers

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

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Illustration by Rem Broo

“I believe I’ve solved it,” says Carl Hoffman in the book trailer for Savage Harvest, his investigation into the mysterious disappearance of 23-year-old heir Michael Rockefeller off the south coast of New Guinea in 1961. It’s a bold claim: The Rockefeller disappearance has become known as one of the 20th century’s most enduring unsolved mysteries, catnip for generations of journalists and adventurers, all looking to answer the same question: Did Rockefeller drown trying to swim to the marshy shore of the Asmat region after his boat capsized (the family’s official story), or did he make land, there to be killed and eaten by the very Asmat people whose art and carvings he had been collecting? His last words before diving in and swimming toward shore, uttered to a companion who stayed with their overturned craft and was rescued the following day: “I think I can make it.”

Did Michael make it? Probably. Has Hoffman solved it? Sort of. In both cases, it’s complicated.

I feel I’m in a good, if not unbiased, position to judge Hoffman’s efforts: I went to Asmat to investigate the mystery for Outside magazine and the Travel Channel in 2008. (And, full disclosure: I offered Hoffman some advice before his first trip to Asmat, supported a Kickstarter campaign that funded his second trip there, and am thanked in the book’s acknowledgements.) I told myself, as Hoffman does, that it was a story that touched on all sorts of fascinating anthropological, cultural, historical, and political questions. And it is. But if we’re being honest, its persistence and salability have more to do with a trio of less high-minded factors: Michael’s last name, the dearth of solid facts, and the grisly specter of cannibalism hovering over it all.

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The search in the immediate aftermath, overseen by Michael’s father, then-New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, turned up no material sign of Michael, and the region’s impenetrable geography and equally impenetrable culture stymied further inquiry. The Asmat took their first steps out of the Stone Age in the mid-20th century, when a smattering of Dutch colonial officers, missionaries, and anthropologists began showing up in the Asmat swamps, like spirits visiting from another world. It remains a place apart, a place where nailing down even basic facts is nearly impossible. “How old are you?” you ask an Asmat man. After much deliberation your translator responds, “He doesn’t know. He thinks maybe 40 or 50.”

Hoffman is not the first, and likely won't be the last, to attempt to fill the informational void. Previous entries in the canon of Rockefellerana include books, plays, articles, documentaries, and television shows, some well-researched, some more sensational, all laced with theories and conclusions based as much on hearsay and conjecture as on fact. “Michael’s disappearance had been so long shrouded in rumor, and took place in a land so distant,” Hoffman writes, “that it had taken on the quality of an impenetrable myth.”

Hoffman believes he’s gotten past the myth, and his conclusion confirms the rumors that have been circulating since the 1960s: that Michael made shore and was quickly killed and eventually eaten by a group of men from the village of Otsjanep, who kept his bones, his skull, his underwear, and his glasses. The web of motives behind the killing is complicated, but involves the massive changes that were roiling the Asmat at the time, as well as payback for the murder, several years earlier, of five men from Otsjanep by a Dutch colonial patrol. Balance is of paramount importance in the Asmat cosmology, the theory goes, and they needed a white man’s skull to set things right.

It sounds fantastical, but it is the same conclusion I and others reached previously. The fraternity of Rockefeller chasers is a small one, and we tend to be distrustful of new members, each of us passionate about and possessive of the story. I was prepared to dislike the book, put off by Hoffman’s arrogance in minimizing the work done by his predecessors, less me than people like Milt Machlin, the editor of Argosy magazine, who published a story about the mystery in 1969 and a book in 1972, after tracking down and interviewing the key Dutch missionary who had been living with the Asmat when Michael disappeared. Nonetheless, I came away impressed. Savage Harvest is a gripping read, and though Hoffman’s conclusion may be familiar, he’s erected a solid foundation of reporting that goes far beyond what the rest of us did and is likely to make this the definitive account.

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To travel to Asmat is to travel a great distance—geographically, yes, but also historically, culturally, and cosmologically. The region is navigable only by boat, a land of rivers and mud, mangrove swamps and tidal flows, and a few dozen thatched-hut villages built on stilts. The standard of living has hardly advanced past the primitive, and white visitors are still a relative rarity. Adding to its strangeness is a belief system in which the spirit world is always tangibly present and ritualistic headhunting and cannibalism are fundamental aspects: The Asmat origin myth, passed down orally through the generations, contains detailed instructions for the butchering of a man and the preparation of his skull.

Michael Rockefeller went there with a serious ambition, to collect carvings for the Museum of Primitive Art in New York, founded by his father. And he set about the task purposefully, rapidly amassing a large collection, now on display in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. But as his journals make clear, he was also a young man living out an adventure. “The only difference between Mark Twain and us is that his characters used poles all the time while we use an outboard engine most of the time,” he wrote in his Asmat journal.

The reference to Twain is telling: There was a bit of Tom Sawyer in Michael, as there has been in all of us who have gone looking for him since. I was 29 when I went to Asmat, older than Michael but younger than Hoffman, still caught in the grip of youthful impetuosity and confidence. I had been intrigued by Michael’s story since first coming across it as an undergraduate, and when the chance arose to go to Asmat, I leapt, mostly without looking. But without a little naïveté, you’d never go to a place like Asmat, so I’m less critical than Hoffman of Michael’s wide-eyed enthusiasm and occasional blind spots.