Was This Rockefeller Heir Eaten by Cannibals?
Rockefeller heir Michael Rockefeller disappeared in 1961. Some believe he drowned. Others say he was eaten by cannibals. The truth may be more complex and mysterious.
On November 19, 1961, after 24 hours clinging to an overturned motor boat, 23-year-old Michael Rockefeller couldn’t take the uncertainty of waiting for rescue anymore. He strapped on two five-gallon gas cans as floaties, said goodbye to the Dutch anthropologist shipwrecked with him, and began swimming, believing he could make it to the Netherlands New Guinea shoreline that was still visible around 10 miles away.
Michael was never seen again. Later that same day, his fellow passenger was spotted in the Arafura Sea and rescued.
The Dutch government, the colonial overlords of the territory, and Michael’s father, who was governor of New York at the time, dedicated planes, boats, and plenty of cash to the search effort. They called on the local Asmat people to walk the coastlines and canoe the swamps, while Dutch and Australian pilots and captains took to the sea and air.
But no trace of Rockefeller was found. Two weeks after the search began, the Dutch called it off, announcing that the young man had most likely drowned.
The story didn’t end there. A son from one of the most prominent American families had mysteriously disappeared in a distant land. While drowning may have been the most rational explanation, rumors began to spread just a few months later. There was talk that he had in fact been seen again—that he had made it to shore, where he was killed by local cannibals.
In the years after the disappearance, these remained the two leading theories as to what happened to the youngest son of Nelson Rockefeller. But the work of several journalists over the past decade, primarily Carl Hoffman, who wrote the book Savage Harvest about his groundbreaking discoveries, have shed new light on the mystery.
These findings suggest that the theory that originally seemed farfetched is actually the most probable: Rockefeller almost certainly made it to shore after a long and arduous swim, and was then eaten by locals in a ceremonial act of revenge and rebalancing of the world.
“A giant wall of water swamped the boat, killing the motor. They were stranded”
Michael Rockefeller was not a natural businessman. When he graduated from Harvard in 1960, it was clear that the artistic young man who, along with his twin sister, was the youngest of Nelson’s five children, was destined for a different path than that of the men who had brought his family into the pantheon of American titans.
In 1957, his father had opened the Museum of Primitive Art in New York City, the first institution in the U.S. dedicated to spotlighting the work of tribes from Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. His intentions were noble, though both the label “primitive” and the practice of white colonial collectors traveling to “exotic” places and acquiring the art of the locals are cringeworthy today. (Recently, the Metropolitan Museum of Art became the latest museum to announce that it would be returning pieces from its collection to Nigeria in a repatriation effort attempting to right the wrongs of colonial looting.)
Thanks to a hefty dose of nepotism, Michael graduated from college with the title of “trustee” of the new museum already on his résumé. He also decided to begin his career with a job that would continue his adventures in both travel and art, and he signed on to the crew of a documentary film scheduled to be shooting in Netherlands New Guinea the following year.
It was on location for that job in 1961 that Michael heard tell of a people known as the Asmat who were considered to be incredible artists. He took a trip during a break from filming to check out their work for himself. He was delighted by what he saw.
After being shown an Asmat spear one day, he wrote, “Somehow I had been led to believe from Bob [Robert Goldberg, director of the Museum of Primitive Art] that I would only be at the end of a long line of collectors that had already ravaged the Asmat. Yet now I wonder whether this is the case. I have seen too many beautiful things even in my short stay to feel discouraged by a conviction that the art has gone.”
He made plans to go on a proper collecting trip for the museum as soon as his work on the documentary film had ended.
This second trip through the territory of the Asmats was initially successful. Less than a year after Michael’s disappearance, the treasures he collected went on view in a special exhibition of the Museum of Primitive Art that was hosted at the MoMA.
The New York Times wrote that “About 200 objects—among them drums, shields, bowls and ancestor figures—will be shown. ‘Spirit’ canoes, spears and great carved crocodiles, never before seen outside New Guinea, were other trophies of the expedition.”
Among these objects were also a collection of bisj poles, which the Times described as “great, dramatic, totemlike structure[s]” that were used for ceremonies. This explanation didn’t come anywhere close to the real significance of these poles to their creators. “They are columns of stacked ancestors and each pole embodies the soul of a man who is recently deceased and each pole is a commitment to revenge, we would say revenge, really to reciprocate,” Hoffman explained in a talk at the Rockefeller Arts Center in 2019.
While Rockefeller would not be killed for his acquisition of these pieces, the spiritual worldview they symbolized would lead to his downfall.
On the morning of November 18, 1961, Michael, a 34-year-old Dutch anthropologist named Rene Wassing who had been assigned as something of his governmental chaperone, and two local boys left one area of the region to travel back to that of the Asmats. They were in a motor boat and decided to take the more dangerous sea route.
What at first seemed like calm waters quickly took a turn as the wind picked up and large waves began crash around them. Things quickly got out of hand, and a giant wall of water swamped the boat, killing the motor. They were stranded.
The two locals soon abandoned ship. They were still close enough to shore that they decided to make a swim for it, worried that the longer they stayed, the further out to sea the boat would drift. But Michael and Wassing didn’t want to leave all of their possessions behind. Soon after the boys left, they would realize their mistake. As the boat drifted further out to seas, it continued to fill with water until a wave finally flipped it over. The two men were now in the water, left clinging to its hull with all of their stuff floating away.
At 8 a.m. the next day, Michael had had enough. According to Hoffman, he took off his pants and told Rene, who refused to join him, “I think I can make it.” He began swimming for shore.
“So in that crazy, eerie, strangeness, Michael had photographed the people who would later kill him”
While what happened next would remain a mystery in the U.S. for nearly six decades, it wasn’t as big of a question mark for the Dutch or the Catholic Church, both of whom knew the likely truth but covered it up. The Dutch were worried if it appeared that they couldn’t control their local charges, that they would be stripped of their colonial rule of Netherlands New Guinea by the international community.
At the time, the Dutch ordered all evidence to be suppressed, but Hoffman found a report from two missionaries working in the area who wrote about what they had heard about Michael’s death.
According to Hoffman, the report contained details like, “who had his head, who had his femur, who had his tibia, who had stabbed him, who had speared him.” Another priest wrote a letter to his parents about the credible rumors that Michael was murdered and eaten. The information from the letter made it to the AP the following March, but when Nelson asked the Dutch government about it, they falsely assured him that it was all just gossip.
In 2012, Hoffman traveled to the area to live with the Asmat people in a village called Omadesep. By this point, he had collected a significant amount of evidence that pointed to the veracity of Michael’s murder—missionary reports, interviews with Dutch officials who had been stationed there, local lore. He was fairly certain that this theory was not only correct, but it was relatives of the men from the village where he was staying who had committed the deed.
While his hosts never told him the full story of what happened, he put enough pieces together to declare “without a doubt” that Michael had been killed and eaten. But what he found complicated the picture even further.
He had a cache of photos that Michael had taken on his trip. After he showed them to residents of Omadesep, he discovered that several of the men Michael had met and photographed during his trip were the same men who the missionary reports named as having taken responsibility for the stabbing, spearing, and possession of the bones.
But living with the people also made Hoffman realize that the murder also wasn’t a random act of violence. Rather, the Asmat saw it as something of a sacred obligation. Several years earlier, war had broken out between two Asmat villages that resulted in many deaths. In retaliation for the violence, a Dutch official had been responsible for the killing of four of the five most prominent men in Omadesep. “So in that crazy, eerie, strangeness, Michael had photographed the people who would later kill him,” Hoffman said.
“The Asmat lived in a world of extreme balance, everything had to be in balance all the time,” Hoffman explained. They believed that the deaths of men who were killed had to be “reciprocated” in order to allow their souls to move on. “And if that didn’t happen, that soul would hang around the village and do lots of bad things, make people sick and make them die.”
Hoffman came to believe that, by killing Michael, the Asmats believed the deaths of the Omadesep men murdered at the hands of the Dutch had been revenged and their souls freed.
No evidence of Michael has ever been found, not his distinct black glasses or any remaining bones. But the people who have investigated the affair the most deeply have all concluded that Michael Rockefeller survived his shipwreck and long swim to safety, only to be killed and eaten by cannibals.
Later in the afternoon of November 19, several hours after Michael swam away, a rescue plane spotted Wassing and dropped him a life raft. The next morning, a boat was sent to pick him up.
“Mike is gone,” he told his rescuers. “He swam away. I tried to persuade him not to, but I couldn’t stop him.”