So, in case you don’t know, what really happened to Michael Rockefeller has been a matter of scholarly debate and folk legend for decades. Many speculate, that after his catamaran capsized off the coast of New Guinea, he was subsequently captured, killed and eaten by members of the Dani tribe. Particularly Headhunter chief Ajam of the Dani Tribe. Others say he never made it to shore alive but drowned. Or was attacked by sharks. Yet another, and wildly more optimistic theory, is that Michael Rockefeller survived, joined the tribe accused of eating him, and was actually photographed in 1969 by National Geographic, albeit accidentally.
A journey to the heart of New Guinea’s Asmat tribal homeland sheds new light on the mystery of the heir’s disappearance there in 1961
Michael Clark Rockefeller (1938–1961) was the son of a Governor of New York and future Vice President of the United States of America Nelson Rockefeller. Michael was also a grand-grandson of John D. Rockefeller, one of the wealthiest men of all time. He was super-duper-wealthy, very well-educated, and had a bright future in front of him.
However, before young Michael would run for a prestigious political office or expand the family wealth, he wanted to go on an adventure.
So, in spring 1961, Michael traveled to New Guinea and set out to exploring the jungle. He befriended the native Asmat tribes and took lots of photographs. He wanted to publish his photos as a book.
The Asmat people live in southwestern New Guinea. Their entire population is around 70,000 people. They live in small villages along rivers near the seaside.
Headhunting and cannibalism were the key parts of the Asmat culture well into the 1990s.
Asmat is, in its own way, a seemingly perfect place. Everything you could possibly need is here. It’s teeming with shrimp and crabs and fish and clams. In the jungle there are wild pig, the furry, opossum-like cuscus, and the ostrich-like cassowary. And sago palm, whose pith can be pounded into a white starch and which hosts the larvae of the Capricorn beetle, both key sources of nutrition. The rivers are navigable highways. Crocodiles 15 to 20 feet long prowl their banks, and jet-black iguanas sun on uprooted trees. There are flocks of brilliant red-and-green parrots. Hornbills with five-inch beaks and blue necks.
And secrets, spirits, laws and customs, born of men and women who have been walled off by ocean, mountains, mud and jungle for longer than anyone knows.
Until 50 years ago, there were no wheels here. No steel or iron, not even any paper, believe it or not. There’s still not a single road or automobile. In its 10,000 square miles, there is but one airstrip, and outside of the main “city” of Agats, there isn’t a single cell tower. Here it’s hard to know where the water begins and the land ends, as the Arafura Sea’s 15-foot tides inundate the coast of southwest New Guinea, an invisible swelling that daily slides into this flat swamp and pushes hard against great outflowing rivers. It is a world of satiny, knee-deep mud and mangrove swamps stretching inland, a great hydroponic terrarium.
Michael was 23 years old, the privileged son of New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, seven months into the adventure of a lifetime that had transformed him from clean-cut student to bearded photographer and art collector. One moment his boat was being tossed by the waves, and the next he and his Dutch companion were clinging to an overturned hull. And then Rockefeller had swum for shore and vanished. No trace of him was ever found, despite a two-week search involving ships, airplanes, helicopters and thousands of locals prowling the coasts and jungle swamps. The fact that such a simple, banal thing had happened to him made what was happening to us feel all the more real. There would be no foreboding music. One bad wave and I’d be clinging to a boat in the middle of nowhere.
The official cause of Michael’s death was drowning, but there had long been a multitude of rumors. He’d been kidnapped and kept prisoner. He’d gone native and was hiding out in the jungle. He’d been consumed by sharks. He’d made it to shore, only to be killed and eaten by the local Dani headhunters. The story had grown, become mythical. There had been an off-Broadway play about him, a novel, a rock song, even a television show in the 1980s hosted by Leonard Nimoy.
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This bitch (Crazy Gurl) has been fascinated with the story ever since I first saw a photo of Michael on his first trip to what was then called Netherlands New Guinea. In it he is kneeling, holding his 35-millimeter camera under the close eyes of natives. He was working on a documentary film in the highlands of the Great Baliem Valley. That film, Dead Birds, was a groundbreaking ethnographic examination of a barely contacted, stone-age culture that engaged in constant ritual warfare. The mountains, the mist, the naked men yelling and screaming and attacking one another with spears and bow and arrow, had fascinated and entranced me, as had the whole idea of contact between people from dramatically different worlds. eating each other, and NOT in a good way!
But what happened, really?
The fact that he had been kidnapped or had run away didn’t make sense. If he had drowned, well, that was that. Except he’d been attached to flotation aids. As for sharks, they rarely attacked men in these waters and no trace of him had been found. Which meant that if he hadn’t perished during his swim, there had to be more.
There had to have been some collision, some colossal misunderstanding. The Asmat people were warriors drenched in blood, but Dutch colonial authorities and missionaries had already been in the area for almost a decade by the time Michael disappeared, and the Asmat had never killed a white, that they knew of. If he had been murdered, it struck to the heart of a clash between Westerners and Others that had been ongoing ever since Columbus first sailed to the New World. It seems compelling that in this remote corner of the world the Rockefellers and their power and money had been impotent, had come up with nothing. How was that even possible?
Many have poked around in Dutch colonial archives and the records of Dutch missionaries, searching for evidence. After the ships and planes and helicopters had gone home, a series of new investigations took place. There were pages and pages of reports, cables and letters discussing the case, sent by the Dutch government, Asmat-speaking missionaries on the ground and Catholic Church authorities—and most of it had never been made public. Men who had been key participants in those investigations had remained silent for 50 years, but they were still alive and finally willing to talk.
As he neared the end of his four years at Harvard, Michael was, in the words of a friend, “a quiet, artistic spirit.” And he was torn. His father expected his son to be like him—to pursue a career in one of the family enterprises, banking or finance, and indulge his artistic passions on the side. Michael graduated cum laude from Harvard with a B.A. in history and economics, but he yearned for something else. He’d traveled widely, working on his father’s ranch in Venezuela for a summer, visiting Japan in 1957, and he’d been surrounded not just by art, but by primitive art. And how could he make his “primitive art”-collecting father prouder than by going to its source and plunging in deeper than the forceful governor and presidential candidate had ever dreamed?
At Harvard he met the filmmaker Robert Gardner, who was beginning work on Dead Birds, and signed on as the sound engineer. “Mike was very quiet and very modest,” said Karl Heider, who as a Harvard graduate student in anthropology had shared a tent on the 1961 film expedition with him. In the evenings, Heider was astonished to see the wealthiest member of the team darning his socks.
But Michael was ambitious, too. “Michael’s father had put him on the board of his museum,” Heider told me, “and Michael said he wanted to do something that hadn’t been done before and to bring a major collection to New York.” He had already corresponded with Adrian Gerbrands, deputy director of the Dutch National Museum of Ethnology, who’d recently begun fieldwork in Asmat. The region was home to people who lived as hunter-gatherers and yet produced carvings of astounding beauty. “Asmat,” Heider said, “was the obvious choice.”
Michael made a scouting trip there during a mid-May break in filming. Only in the mid-1950s had a few Dutch missionaries and government officials begun pacifying the Asmat, but even by 1961 many had never seen a Westerner, and inter-village warfare and headhunting remained common. “Now this is wild and somehow more remote country than what I have ever seen before,” Michael wrote. In many ways, the Asmat world at the time was a mirror image of every taboo of the West. In some areas, men had sex with each other. They occasionally shared wives. In bonding rituals, they sometimes drank one another’s urine. They killed their neighbors, and they hunted human heads and ate human flesh.
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, whose isolated universe of trees, ocean, river and swamp constituted their whole experience. They were pure subsistence hunter-gatherers who lived in a world of spirits—spirits in the rattan and in the mangrove and sago trees, in the whirlpools, in their own fingers and noses. Every villager could see them, talk to them. There was their world, and there was the kingdom of the ancestors across the seas, known as Safan, and an in-between world, and all were equally real. No death just happened; even sickness came at the hand of the spirits because the spirits of the dead person were jealous of the living and wanted to linger and cause mischief. The Asmat lived in a dualistic world of extremes, of life and death, where one balanced the other. Only through elaborate sacred feasts and ceremonies and reciprocal violence could sickness and death be kept in check by appeasing and chasing those ancestors back to Safan, back to the land beyond the sea.
Expert woodcarvers in a land without stone, the Asmat crafted ornate shields, paddles, drums, canoes and ancestor poles, called bisj, embodying the spirit of an ancestor. The bisj poles were 20-foot-high masterpieces of stacked men interwoven with crocodiles and praying mantises and other symbols of headhunting. The poles were haunting, expressive, alive, and each carried an ancestor’s name. The carvings were memorial signs to the dead, and to the living, that their deaths had not been forgotten, that the responsibility to avenge them was still alive.
The Asmat saw themselves in the trees—just as a man had feet and legs and arms and a head, so did the sago tree, which had roots and branches and a fruit, a seed on top. Just as the fruit of the sago tree nourished new trees, so the fruit of men, their heads, nourished young men. They all knew some version of the story of the first brothers in the world, one of the Asmat creation myths, in which the older brother cajoles the younger into killing him and placing his head against the groin of a young man. The skull nourishes the initiate’s growth, even as he takes the victim’s name and becomes him. It was through that story that men learned how to headhunt and how to butcher a human body and how to use that skull to make new men from boys and to keep life flowing into the world.
The completion of a bisj pole usually unleashed a new round of raids; revenge was taken and balance restored, new heads obtained—new seeds to nourish the growth of boys into men—and the blood of the victims rubbed into the pole. The spirit in the pole was made complete. The villagers then engaged in sex, and the poles were left to rot in the sago fields, fertilizing the sago and completing the cycle.
Anything outside of the tangible immediacy of what the Asmats could see had to come from that spirit world—it was the only comprehensible explanation. An airplane was opndettaji—a passing-over-canoe-of-the-spirits. White men came from the land beyond the sea, the same place the spirits lived, and so must be super beings.
Michael did not just plunge into this realm a lone adventurer; he was a Rockefeller after all, and not to mention a trustee of the Museum of Primitive Art. His traveling party included, among others, Gerbrands and René Wassing, a government anthropologist assigned to him from the Dutch New Guinea Department of Native Affairs.
Michael’s field notes from his first trip to Asmat and the letters he wrote spoke of a deepening seriousness regarding his collecting. Before his second expedition, he laid out “objectives; themes of investigation; criterion for stylistic variation.” He wanted to produce books and mount the biggest exhibition of Asmat art ever.
Michael returned to Asmat in October 1961. Wassing joined him again and in Agats he badgered a Dutch patrol officer into selling him his homemade catamaran, into which Michael stuffed a wealth of barter goods—steel axes, fishing hooks and line, cloth and tobacco, to which the Asmats had become addicted. He and Wassing, accompanied by two Asmat teenagers, visited 13 villages over three weeks.
Michael collected everywhere he went and in quantity, loading up on drums, bowls, bamboo horns, spears, paddles, shields. He was most impressed by the bisj poles. With no sense of irony, he wrote: “This was one kind of object that seemed to me inviolate for the encroachment of western commercialism upon Asmat art.” In the southern village of Omadesep he’d bought a set of four on his first trip; they now stand in the Michael C. Rockefeller Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which absorbed the collections of the Museum of Primitive Art after it closed in 1976.
In the middle of November, Michael and his companions returned to Agats, and stocked up on supplies for another month. They set out again on November 17, intending to motor down the Arafura Sea coast to southern Asmat, an area that remained wild, unacculturated and known well by a single priest, Cornelius van Kessel, with whom Michael planned to rendezvous. As they began to cross the mouth of the Betsj River, conflicting tides and winds whipped up waves and crosscurrents. Water that had been gentle one minute was heaving the next. A wave drowned their outboard and the catamaran began to drift; then the waves capsized it.
The two native youngsters, born on these very rivers, just hopped in and swam for the nearby shore. Long out of Michael and Wassing’s sight, they made it; after trudging through the mud for hours, they eventually made it to Agats and summoned help that evening.
While the Dutch colonial government scrambled ships, airplanes and helicopters to search for them, Michael and Wassing spent a long night clinging to an overturned hull. After dawn on November 19, Michael told Wassing he was worried they’d drift into the open sea. Around 8 o’clock that morning, he stripped to his undershorts, tied two empty jerrycans to his belt for buoyancy, and set out on a swim he estimated would be three to ten miles to the dim shoreline.
That was the last anyone knew of Michael Rockefeller. Wassing was spotted from the air that afternoon and rescued the next morning.
Though officially drowned, there are other popular theories. Michael was a strong swimmer and the two Asmat guides had made it to shore. Could Michael have been attacked by sharks or crocodiles? Had he made it but been eaten by cannibals? Perhaps he had run off to live with the natives? The official scenario of drowning sounds the most plausible.
Not long after his disappearance, Rockefeller’s mother and the Dutch government sent investigators to New Guinea. They found skulls that bore marks of headhunting, a grisly practice of the Asmat. These skulls had supposedly been in the possession of the tribesmen. However, they were never tested for authenticity, and the Rockefeller family never affirmed that they had found Michael’s remains.
ome people believed that Michael had given up his family’s lavish lifestyle to live among the Asmat. He greatly admired them and their way of life. However, the Asmat were not welcoming and often viewed white people as evil spirits. It is unlikely they would have taken him in.
Captured on a small cine-camera as it plays across the ranks of 17 approaching cannibal war canoes, the image is fleeting but unmistakable.
Among the massed ranks of dark-skinned headhunter tribesmen heading around the bend of a New Guinea river is a naked and bearded white-skinned man, his face partly covered in war paint as he paddles furiously.
The appearance of a white face among a throng of Papuan cannibals would be astonishing at the best of times. But in the circumstances in which this footage was shot, it is potentially mind-boggling.
For the impressive scene was filmed in 1969 close to the spot where, eight years earlier, a scion of the Rockefeller dynasty — the richest, most powerful family in U.S. history — had gone missing, sparking the biggest hunt ever launched in the South Pacific.
In 2015, a documentary made by Fraser Heston, son of actor Charlton Heston, had tried to throw the focus on this extraordinary story once more. And, tantalizingly, newly unearthed film footage of the mysterious white canoeist suggests an astonishing possibility. Instead of being killed and eaten, did the Harvard-educated American reject his civilized past and join a tribe of cannibals?
Now, in 1968, New York magazine editor Milt Machlin flew out to Papua and launched a months-long search. He discovered a retired Dutch missionary, Cornelius van Kessel, who had been living in the Asmat area when Rockefeller disappeared.
The priest told Machlin an extraordinary story: a week after the last searchers gave up, he started hearing tribal rumors that the American had been caught and killed.
The reason, he claimed, was that three years before Rockefeller disappeared, a Dutch police patrol had come to a village called Otsjanep to sort out a tribal headhunting war. Fearing they were about to be attacked, the police opened fire, killing five village leaders.
By their sacred code, the tribe had to have revenge and take a head — a white man’s head like that of the patrol’s Dutch leader.
That was easier said than done. Then, one day, a group of some 50 Otsjanep men were returning home from a trading trip when they finally got their chance: a white man, exhausted and unarmed, swam towards their canoes just offshore.
One of the tribesmen was said to have stabbed him fatally with a 10ft fishing spear, before they hauled him into a boat and took him to shore, where they chopped him up, cooked him and ate him.
The priest said the tribesmen admitted they had killed him as revenge for the police raid.
Dutch officials disputed the story, saying that missionaries were unreliable. Besides, sneered one sceptic, an even more bizarre story had leaked out, that Rockefeller was still alive, and ‘kept as a white idol by a tribe near the coast’.
So what was the truth?
In 2014, American journalist Carl Hoffman embarked on a journey to Otsjanep to find answers. He too was told of the 1958 massacre. Hoffman spoke to locals, showing photographs of Michael. He heard stories suggesting that Michael reached shore, only to be brutally killed by several tribesmen in retribution for that 1958 massacre.
Hoffman became close with a villager named Amates who recounted the story of a white tourist who was killed around that time. Despite the subject being slightly taboo in the village, the villagers looked at the photos Hoffman provided and pointed out some men who carried human bones. These were the same men Father Cornelius Van Kessel had met previously. However, it is important to note that no one from the village officially confessed to the murder.
Furthermore, not long after Rockefeller’s demise, a deadly cholera outbreak killed 70 people in the village. Hoffman suggests that some villagers believe that it was punishment for murder. The compelling evidence does not stop there. Hoffman recalls seeing a man reenact the murder of a white man, while cryptically telling the journalist to never speak of the event again.
Hoffman returned to the U.S. and published his book, Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism and Michael Rockefeller’s Tragic Quest for Primitive Art. Hoffman’s insight is considered the most in-depth analysis of Rockefeller’s disappearance. Still, he did not come to a firm conclusion. Another book, Vanished! by Evan Balkan, also tells the tale, along with those of other missing explorers.
Today, no one knows where the bone fragments are, and the skulls found in the 1960s were never tested for Rockefeller’s DNA. The Rockefeller family doesn’t seem interested in reopening the case.
Michael Rockefeller’s legacy lives on in New York. There are 200 artifacts currently on display in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, in a wing named after him.
What do YOU think happened to Michael Rockefeller? Like many, we can only speculate if this, maybe the guy in this picture knows –