Rumors, Cannibals, and Michael Rockefeller's Mysterious Disappearance

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Michael Rockefeller mysteriously disappeared in New Guinea in 1961. Despite exhaustive searches, no trace of Rockefeller was ever found. Soon after his disappearance, rumors surfaced that he'd been killed and ceremonially eaten by the local Asmat—a violent native tribe of warriors who practiced cannibalism. The Dutch government and the Rockefeller family denied the story, and Michael's death was officially ruled a drowning. Carl Hoffman uncovers startling new evidence that finally tells the full story. In Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller’s Tragic Quest for Primitive Art, Hoffman retraces Rockefeller’s steps in the jungles of New Guinea, getting to know generations of Asmat. Through exhaustive archival research, he uncovered never-before-seen original documents and located witnesses willing to speak publicly after 50 years.

Hoffman explained what drew him to this mysterious story and made him want to investigate it himself. “When things vanish it’s incredibly compelling, and it’s hard to avert your gaze from it.”

In 1961 Michael Rockefeller was on his second trip to the Asmat region of New Guinea collecting primitive art. “He was trying to understand deeply Asmat culture, which was built on a very complex spirit world, and ideas of reciprocal violence, of battling. There’s all this inter-tribal warfare. And their carvings all embody spirits that were promises to avenge their deaths.”

Before Rockefeller arrived in New Guinea, a Dutch official had killed five tribesman, and Hoffman thinks the Asmat killed Rockefeller to avenge that death. Hoffman followed in Rockefeller’s footsteps and met members of one the Asmat tribe Rockefeller had contact with and interviewed Dutch officers. “I couldn’t find anyone who admitted to being present at his murder,” he said.

After Michael disappeared, the Dutch conducted an enormous two-week search for him. Nelson Rockefeller and Michael’s twin sister, Mary, flew to New Guinea and spent several weeks, but “They found nothing,” Hoffman said.  “Everybody believed he had disappeared at sea.”

Hoffman has had a limited correspondence with Mary Rockefeller, but she hasn’t spoken to Hoffman since she read this book. He said, “I think the Rockefeller’s feel like it’s a private matter and they’d rather not talk about it.”


Carl Hoffman

Comments [6]


What a dreadfully sad story of misunderstanding on all sides. I'm afraid that our culture is predatory even when, as in the case of Michael Rockefeller, that was not the conscious intention. The art he brought back is powerful and moving as a testament to both our human commonality and vast difference. But the cost of our possession to the people who made it is beyond measure.

Mar. 19 2014 03:31 PM
Carol from New York City

There was a hit song recorded by folk singer Pete Seeger playing all over the radio when official news broke that Michael Rockefeller's small boat was capsized and he drowned in a river in Africa. That song was "Michael Row the Boat Ashore." And it was yanked off the air immediately. Remembering both with poignancy.

Mar. 19 2014 08:33 AM
tom LI

ericka - asmat "art" was mostly all ceremonial, and held importance that Westerners never grasped and still don't. Primitive art is infused with meaning civilized white people will never grasp in part, much less in full. What we demean by calling trinkets, "they" (diverse native peoples) hold up as very important to their well-being, and that of their entire peoples.

Its always been this way in the West, where ONLY we Westerners are given privilege and sanctioned by the Xtian God to put meaning into the world and the objects all peoples make. Natives peoples have never had any say in the meanings of things, and or life.

Mar. 18 2014 04:32 PM

i remember when he went missing. he lived briefly but got to do what he wanted. collecting "primitive" art is fraught with moral ambiguity. we get to see, enjoy it and learn, but were the artists fairly compensated, and how did they really feel?

Mar. 18 2014 02:04 PM
foodaggro from Brooklyn

Not sure which is worse: running around naked all the time and eating other people, or being brainwashed and converted to Christianity in tattered Old Navy threads.

Mar. 18 2014 12:56 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

I amaze myself by how old I am. I still remember all that, when Rocky's son went missing in New Guinea.

Mar. 18 2014 12:48 PM

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