“Now this is wild and somehow more remote country than what I have ever seen before.”
In the early 1960s, Michael Rockefeller disappeared off of the coast of Papua New Guinea in an event that shocked the nation. Years later, the true fate of the heir to the Standard Oil fortune has been revealed to be more shocking than ever imagined.
Michael Rockefeller was born in 1938 as the son of Nelson Rockefeller, the governor of New York State. He was the latest in a dynasty of millionaires founded by his great-grandfather, and possibly the richest man to have ever lived, John D. Rockefeller.
Though his father expected him to follow in his footsteps and manage the vast business assets of the family, Michael was a quieter, more artistic spirit. When he graduated from Harvard in 1960, Michael wanted to do something more exciting than sitting around in boardrooms and conducting meetings in offices.
His father, a prolific art collector, had recently opened a Museum of Primitive Art, and the exhibits of this collection, including Nigerian, Pre-Columbian Aztec, and Mayan artistic works, had entranced Michael.
He decided to seek out his own “primitive art,” the condescending term for non-Western art at the time and took a position on the board of his father’s museum.
“Michael’s father had put him on the board of his museum,” Heider, a graduate student of anthropology at Harvard who worked with Michael said, “and Michael said he wanted to do something that hadn’t been done before and to bring a major collection to New York.”
Michael had traveled extensively already, living in Japan and Venezuela for months at a time, but now he wanted to embark on an anthropological expedition.
After talking with representatives from the Dutch National Museum of Ethnology, Michael decided to make a trip what was then known as Dutch New Guinea to collect the art of the Asmat people who resided there.
By the 1960s, the Dutch colonial authorities and missionaries had already been in the area for almost a decade, but still many Asmat people had never seen a white man.
Michael collected a group of researchers and documentarians to accompany him on his trip and decided to make a scouting trip to the region. There he visited Otsjanep, one of the major Asmat communities on the island, where he took pictures and unsuccessfully attempted to purchase bisj poles, intricately carved wooden artifacts, from the locals.
However, he was undeterred. What he found in the Asmat were people who seemed to violate so many of the norms of Western society.
At the time, war between villages was common, and Asmat warriors often took the heads of their enemies and ate their flesh. In certain regions, Asmat men would engage in homosexual sex, and in bizarre bonding rituals, they would sometimes drink each other’s urine.
“Now this is wild and somehow more remote country than what I have ever seen before,” Michael wrote in his diary of the land.
With severely limited contact with the outside world, the Asmat believed the land beyond their island to be inhabited by spirits, and when white people came from across the sea, they saw them as some kind of supernatural beings.
After this initial scouting mission was successful, Michael was energized. He wrote out his plans to create a detailed anthropological study of the Asmat and to display a collection of their art at his father’s museum.
He set out once again for New Guinea in 1961, along with a team of Dutch anthropologists.
As they approached the Otsjanep by sea, traveling along the coast of the island on Nov. 19, 1961, their boat capsized. Though they were 12 miles from the shore, Rockefeller then reportedly told an anthropologist on his expedition “I think I can make it” and jumped into the waters.
He was never seen again.
As the son of a rich and politically connected family, no expense was spared in searching for the young Rockefeller. Ships, airplanes, and helicopters scoured the region, searching for Michael or some sign of his fate.
Nelson Rockefeller and his wife flew to New Guinea to help in the search for their son.
However, despite their efforts, they were unable to find Michael’s body. After nine days, the Dutch interior minister stated, “There is no longer any hope of finding Michael Rockefeller alive.”
Though the Rockefellers held out some hope that they would eventually find their son, they left the island the same day. Two weeks later the Dutch called off the search, and Michael’s official cause of death was put down as drowning.
The death of Michael Rockefeller was a media sensation. Quickly, accusations and rumors spread in the papers that he must have been eaten by cannibals, or by sharks on his way to the island.
Other rumors claimed he was living somewhere in the jungle of New Guinea, escaping from the gilded cage of his wealth.
The Dutch denied all these rumors, saying that they were unable to discover what had happened to him.
However, in 2014, Carl Hoffman, a reporter for National Geographic, revealed in his book Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism and Michael Rockefeller’s Tragic Quest for Primitive Art that many of the Netherland’s inquiries into the matter resulted in evidence that the Asmat killed Michael.
Two Dutch missionaries on the island, both of whom had lived among the Asmat for years and spoke their language, told local authorities that they had heard from the Asmat that some of them had killed Michael Rockefeller.
The police officer sent to investigate the crime the following year, Wim van de Waal, came to the same conclusion and even produced a skull that the Asmat claimed was Rockefeller’s.
All of these reports were summarily buried in classified file cabinets, and not further investigated. The Rockefellers were told that there was nothing to the rumors that he had been killed by natives.
By 1962, the Dutch had already lost half of their claim to Papua New Guinea to the new state of Indonesia and were fearful that if it were believed they could not control the native population, they would be quickly ousted.
Hoffman decided to investigate these 50-year-old claims, and started by traveling to Otsjanep. There he posed as a journalist merely documenting the culture of the Asmat people, when he overheard, through his interpreter, a man saying not to discuss the American tourist who had died there.
When Hoffman, feigning ignorance, asked who the man was, he was told it was Michael Rockefeller. He learned that it was common knowledge on the island that the Asmat people of Otsjanep killed a white man, and that it should not be mentioned for fear of reprisals.
He also learned that the killing of Rockefeller was a reprisal in its own right.
In 1957, just three years before Rockefeller first visited the island, there had been an event that would forever scar the people of Otsjanep. At that point, the Dutch colonial government had recently taken control of the island and had limited control of the remote Asmat people.
That year, a massacre occurred between two Asmat tribes, when Otsjanep and Omadesep killed dozens of each other’s men.
The Dutch colonial government attempted to take control of the situation. They went to disarm the Otsjanep tribe, but a series of cultural misunderstandings resulted in the Dutch opening fire on the Otsjanep.
In their first encounter with firearms, the Otsjanep witnessed four of the jeus, war leaders, shot down instantly before their eyes.
It was in this context, that the Otsjanep stumbled upon Michael Rockefeller as he backstroked towards the shore bordering their lands.
According to the Dutch missionary who first heard the story, the tribesmen initially thought Michael was a crocodile, before accurately identifying him as a tuan, a white man.
Unfortunately for Michael, the men he encountered were jeus themselves, and the sons of those killed by the Dutch.
One of them reportedly said, “People of Otsjanep, you’re always talking about headhunting tuans. Well, here’s your chance.”
Though they were hesitent, mostly out of fear, they eventually speared and killed him.
Then they cut off his head, and cut into his skull to eat his brain. They then cooked and ate the rest of his flesh. His thigh bones were turned into daggers, and his tibias were turned into points for fishing spears.
His blood was drained, and the tribesmen drenched themselves in it while they performed ritual dances and sex acts.
In their theology, they believed they were restoring balance to the world. The tribe of the white man had killed four of theres, and now they had taken the retribution that was their right and had absorbed the energy and power that had been taken from them.
However, they quickly regretted their decision. The search that followed the murder of Michael was terrifying to the Asmat people, most of whom had never seen a plane or helicopter before.
Directly following this event, the region was also plagued by a horrible cholera epidemic that many saw as revenge for the killing of Michael.
Though many Asmat people related this story to Hoffman, no one related to the men who killed him or who were alive at the time would completely admit to the act, merely staying it was a story they heard.
Then, one day when Hoffman was in the village, shortly before he returned to the U.S., he saw a man acting out the killing of another who was on the ground. Hearing words relating to the murder, Hoffman quickly began to film him, but he had already finished his story.
He was, though, able to catch the epilogue to the story on film, where the man explained:
“Don’t you tell this story to any other man or any other village, because this story is only for us. Don’t speak. Don’t speak and tell the story. I hope you remember it and you must keep this for us. I hope, I hope, this is for you and you only. Don’t talk to anyone, forever, to other people or another village. If people question you, don’t answer. Don’t talk to them, because this story is only for you. If you tell it to them, you’ll die. I am afraid you will die. You’ll be dead, your people will be dead, if you tell this story. You keep this story in your house, to yourself, I hope, forever. Forever….”