Michael Rockefeller Disappeared in 1961. Was He Eaten by Cannibals?

By: Allison Troutner  | 
Michael Rockefeller famously disappeared during an expedition to New Guinea in 1961. He is seen here, far right in the back row, with his brothers, Steven (far left) and Rodman. His father, New York Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller, is seated to the right of his first wife, Mary Todhunter Clark, with daughters, Mary (far left) and Anne (right). Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When author and travel writer Carl Hoffman was thinking about ideas for his next book project, he knew he wanted to explore a story that resonated deeply with readers. What could be more intriguing than — akin to the disappearance of Amelia Earhart — the story of the disappearance in 1961 of Michael Rockefeller, the 23-year-old son of prominent political figure Nelson Rockefeller?

The official cause of Rockefeller's death was drowning. The truth, however, is harder to digest. The Asmat people, whose art and culture were loved and respected by Rockefeller, are the same people who most likely killed and consumed him, according to Hoffman.


I Think I Can Make It

The last known words spoken by Rockefeller were heard by anthropologist René Wassing as Michael jumped from their catamaran, which had overturned in the Betsj River 10 miles (16 kilometers) from the shore of West Papua. He had decided to try to swim to shore for help through crocodile infested waters. His final words to Wassing were "I think I can make it."

For 50 years it was suspected that he didn't make it, but drowned or was eaten by crocodiles in the long swim to shore. But with no body and no evidence, rumors — that he'd gone native, been eaten by sharks, or worse, cannibals — circulated for decades. Drowning was the most logical answer to the tragic question: What happened to Michael Rockefeller? But as Hoffman discovered and writes in his book, "Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller's Tragic Quest," it turns out that Michael's death was neither simple nor accidental.


People Were Finally Willing to Talk

When Hoffman began investigating Rockefeller's disappearance, he realized that after the initial search party failed to find Rockefeller in 1961, no one had really given it a good look. There was never closure for the family or the millions of people who wondered what could have happened to the wealthy son of one of America's most powerful families.

"When you type Michael Rockefeller in Google, you get a billion hits or something. But if you start looking at all those hits, they're all regurgitation of the same basic data, which was a lot of conjecture," says Hoffman. "I realized that nobody had ever done a systematic substantive look at what happened."


In 2012, Hoffman began looking into Rockefeller's story. He hired a Dutch investigator who dug through archives for two years revealing invaluable information. Hoffman interviewed Asmat villagers and former Dutch officers to corroborate the details of Rockefeller's death. He suspected that since 51 years had passed, people might be ready to tell him the truth, and he suspected it wasn't sharks that got Michael.

"In my time as a journalist, I learned that with these things there is sometimes a sweet spot in which people would be willing to talk about it. Maybe even the Rockefellers," he says. After a bit of research and archival digging to find the right people to talk to, Hoffman was right. They were ready to talk. But, to begin with, it's important to know why Rockefeller was in New Guinea in the first place.

Michael Rockefeller was the youngest son of New York Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller.
T. Nielsen/Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images


Why Was Michael in Indonesia?

Michael and his father Nelson had a strong bond over art, and especially tribal art, according to Michael's twin sister, Mary, who eventually published a book, "When Grief Calls Forth the Healing: A Memoir of Losing a Twin," about overcoming the grief of Michael's loss. It was this pursuit of the Asmat people's beautiful artwork, particularly their bis or "bisj" poles, that took him to the villages of the Asmat tribes. (Asmat art collected by Rockefeller is still on display at the Metropoltan Museum of Art in Manhattan.)

His father had just opened the Museum of Primitive Art a few years before and Nelson had put Michael on the board. Michael wanted to make a statement with the family's museum and curate a collection of primitive art from the source — the Asmat warriors — directly.


When Michael eventually met the Asmat people, including at the Otsjanep and Omadasep villages, he realized, as Hoffman did in his own travels, that the Asmat were an acutely intelligent people with an emotionally vivid culture. "They weren't savages, however, but biologically modern men with all the brainpower and manual dexterity necessary to fly a 747 with a language so complex it had 17 tenses," writes Hoffman in his book.

How Michael Rockefeller Allegedly Died

The how of why Rockefeller died, according to Hoffman, is straightforward. He washed ashore, exhausted and weak from swimming for miles after the boat he and Wassing were in overturned. On shore, he saw familiar faces — those of the Otsjanep warriors. Instead of the rescue Rockefeller hoped for, he was stabbed in the ribs by one of the men, fatally killed in the precise actions of ritualistic headhunting and consumed by the warriors.

According to Hoffman, the Otsjanep had never killed a white man before and they knew Rockefeller to be a kind, respectful young man who paid well for their art. So why did they allegedly kill him?


There are two parts to this question. First, why did they kill Rockefeller? Second, why did they eat him?

Ritualistic cannibalism, also called anthropophagy (cannibalism specific to humans), has been performed by various native cultures for thousands of years, particularly those in ecosystems with scarce food and resources. For the Asmat, cannibalism was not their sole purpose. Rather, it was only part of the sacred ritual of headhunting that brought meaning to their culture.

To understand why the Asmat killed him in the first place is to know that Michael's death is the result of hundreds of years of colonialism and a native people's struggle for the power to hold on to the deepest seeds of their culture. "What happened with Michael," says Hoffman, "... was a moment of the Otsjanep, in particular, trying to retake and maintain their power in a world in which they were being stripped of it; the power of their own cultural view, power over their own destiny."

A native of New Guinea holds a piece of primitive art, the type being sought by Michael Rockefeller for the New York Museum of Primitive Art. The museum officially closed in 1974, and the collection was eventually transferred to The Met, becoming what is today The Michael C. Rockefeller Wing.
Bettmann/Getty Images


The Forces That Led to Rockefeller's Death

In the years before Rockefeller stepped foot in an Asmat village, Dutch colonialists occupied West Papua. The villages' ritualistic headhunting and warfare were savage and of the highest level of cruelty to those on the outside.

Hoffman's book explains the historical context in great detail, but, in short, Dutch official Max Lapré took a troop of officers to the Otsjanep and Omadesep villages Feb. 6, 1958, and burned homes, places of spiritual significance and canoes, and took the villagers' weapons to try to curb violence and stop the Asmat tribes from killing each other.


Lapré arrived at the shore of an Otsjanep village and told them to lay their weapons down. "A man came out of a house," Hoffman writes, "bearing something in his hand and he ran toward Lapré ... shots rang out from all directions." Ultimately, five of the most prominent men of the village were killed. Their spirits would haunt the villagers until their deaths were revenged.

A Question of Vengeance

Enter Michael Rockefeller in 1961. The villagers remembered every detail of that day of violence in 1958. When a white man swam exhausted to shore in nothing but his boxer briefs, some of the men felt this was their opportunity to avenge the spirits of their brothers. "I think those men who killed Michael were feeling this loss of power. To them, at that moment, Michael had always been with other people and whites were powerful. Literally, they had guns and big boats ... they represented power and wealth the Asmat couldn't even imagine and so they didn't attack them," says Hoffman. "But when Michael swam up at that moment, he had no power. He was alone. Exhausted. To me, the moment they speared him was a moment — I'm not saying it was calculated; I'm not saying they articulated this — of retaking their own power and self-esteem and identity."

News of Rockefeller's death by the Ostjanep warriors traveled until a local priest, Cornelius van Kessel, caught wind. Upon inquiring about the death, a message was sent to Dutch officials. However, because Dutch officials feared the impact the news would have on the reputation of Dutch New Guinea, the message never made it out of Indonesia. That is, until Hoffman's Dutch investigator pulled it from the archives five decades later and spoke with a former Dutch patrol officer, Wim van de Waal, who had helped recover Rockefeller's remains. "I never talked about it publicly," van de Waal told Hoffman for his book, "I guess no one's going to be hurt by it now."


Despite Hoffman's attempts to discuss his findings with the Rockefeller family, they've chosen not to comment and to leave Michael at rest, wherever he may be.

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