Caroline Howe, Daily Mail (London), March 18, 2014
Floating adrift on an overturned catamaran off the coast of southwest New Guinea on November 21, 1961, Michael C. Rockefeller, the 23-year old son of New York governor Nelson Rockefeller and future Vice President, decided to swim what he estimated to be some five to ten miles to shore in the remotest corner of the world.
His expedition partner René Wessing waited for him on the overturned wooden hull where they had been marooned for twenty-four hours.
‘I really don’t think you should go,’ Wessing told his friend.
‘No, it’ll be okay. I think I can make it,’ Michael replied.
With that he was in the water with the two empty gasoline cans tied to his military-style belt and started kicking slowly in what he estimated to be a ten-hour swim ahead of him.
It would be the last time Michael Rockefeller would be seen alive. An extensive sea, air and land search turned up nothing, and the mystery surrounding his disappearance left the Rockefellers — and the world — perplexed. They assumed he drowned.
They were wrong.
He was tortured, beheaded and eaten in a ritualistic cannibal killing by a notoriously violent New Guinea tribe.
It took decades and extensive research in the Netherlands as well as the remote island in southwest New Guinea and meeting with the Asmat tribesmen for the full story and cover-up to emerge–according to journalist Carl Hoffman in his riveting new book, Savage Harvest, published this week by William Morrow.
After the long swim, Rockefeller saw the shoreline.
He had almost reached safety–but for the flotilla of canoes that were nestled in the trees–and the native men.
There were 50 of them waiting in eight 40’ long canoes at this early 6am hour when the sun had just started to rise.
They reached for their spears thinking it was a crocodile but when Michael rolled over onto his stomach, they saw it was a man–and they recognized him from having been in the village.
His name was Mike.
These natives were muscular and strong, black-skinned with pierced septums the size of dimes.
They wasted no time and paddled quickly out to the swimming man, surrounding him and towing him into shore.
Ajim, the head of one of the five men’s houses that comprised the Asmat village of Otsjanep, turned to Pep, who had killed more people than any of the tribesmen and collected more heads.
He was fearless and Ajim encouraged Pip to act.
‘He howled and arched his back and drove his spear into the white man’s floating ribs. Michael screamed, groaned a deep, inhuman sound,’ writes the author, and they pulled Michael into a canoe.
‘They had done this dozens of times following sacred rules that defined their lives and spirituality, made them men.
‘They were about to take his power, become him, and restore balance to the world.’
The fifty men in canoes rowed south on the Ewta River and turned into the shoreline that was soft mud where they dragged Michael out of the canoe and slapped him on his skull.
‘This is my head!’ screamed one of the tribe.
‘Fin and Pep and Ajim held his chest off the ground and pushed his head forward and with one blow of an ax in the back of his neck, Michael Rockefeller was dead.
‘Ajim turned him over and thrust into his throat with a bamboo knife, then pressed the head back until the vertebrae cracked.’
Rockefeller was now sacred meat.
A deep cut was made from the anus to the neck, down the side of Michael’s trunk to the armpit, across the collarbone to the throat and down the other side.
It was the ancestral ritual on how to butcher a man. But this was a white man so this ritual was performed in secret.
His ribs were broken with an ax, his sternum ripped out, his arms and legs cut off and his entrails pulled out–all the while the men were chanting.
‘It was sacred violence,’ said the author.
Michael’s head was scalped, cooked and cut across the face from the root of the nose to the nape of the neck. A small hole two inches in diameter was cut in his scull.
‘They shook the brains out onto the leaf of a palm, scraped inside the skull with a knife to get every last bite, then mixed the mass with sago, wrapped the leaf up, and roasted it on the fire. This food was special.’
When it was all over, they wrapped what remained of the skull in banana leaves, packed it in one of the canoes and paddled home.
The reason for Michael’s horrific killing was revenge. Before Michael arrived, the Dutch had taken over the archipelago and the man overseeing the colony, Max Lapre, had ordered five elite Asmats to be gunned down.
A recent graduate of Harvard, Michael Rockefeller had been to Dutch New Guinea on a prior trip in October 1961 with René Wassing on an artifact-finding mission for the Museum of Primitive Art that his father had founded in New York in 1957.
He knew this ethnic tribe, Asmats, that has lived cloistered from civilization for more than 40,000 years when they first arrived on the island.
He had visited 13 villages in three weeks on his first trip–bartering steel and tobacco for their hand-created bowls, shields, spears and the most sacred objects–the bisj poles, objects that are dedicated to the dead.
The first trip was a big success but one trip wasn’t enough.
‘He never would have said it out loud, but he carried a sense of destiny. A bigness,’ writes the author.
‘A self-confidence he was barely aware of. Plus he was a Rockefeller.
‘Sometimes it was a burden, sometimes a gift, but it defined him, even when he didn’t want it to. His great grandfather had been the richest man in the world.
‘His father was governor of the state of New York, had just run for president of the United States. In epic survival situations, will is everything, and Michael’s will was as big as a will could be.
‘He wasn’t just swimming for his life. He was swimming for René, who needed to be rescued.
He was swimming for his father Nelson. For his twin sister, Mary. For the Asmat themselves, in a way, because he had collected so much of their beautiful art that he wanted to share with his father, with Robert Goldwater at the Museum of Primitive Art, with his best friend, Sam Putnam, with the world.
An exhaustive search by land, sea and air would, of course, find no trace of his body.
While rumors circulated that he had made it to shore and had been eaten by the local Asmat, the Dutch government denied any such possibility.
The Rockefeller family didn’t know the truth.
The search was called off and Michael was declared dead by drowning in 1964.
That didn’t end years of speculation as to what happened to the body or even a shred of clothing.
The author, Carl Hoffman, who is also a contributing editor at National Geographic Traveler, decided to take on the assignment of unraveling the mystery.
Traveling to the Netherlands, he went through hundreds of pages of original letters, cables, reports and other never-before-seen documents in the Dutch colonial archives, the records of the Dutch missionaries as well as records of the Catholic Churches.
He learned that the Dutch government and the local Church authorities did indeed know what had happened to Michael and remained silent to the public and to Michael’s parents.
Hoffman traveled to Asmat, consisting of 10,000 square miles of swamps and rivers with no road and spent four months there.
He lived with the sons of the men who had been named as Michael’s killers in the reports.
These early tribal men were primitive and practiced every taboo known to the Western world.
Men had sex with each other, they shared wives, they drank each other’s urine, and sucked the penis of the chief of Basim.
They killed their neighbors and hunted human heads and ate human flesh.
This was a ‘complex spiritual world balanced by ceremonies, ritual and reciprocal violence,’ writes Hoffman.
‘No death just happened. Even sickness came at the hands of the spirits.’
The author believes the Rockefellers knew the truth after the AP ran a wire story where a priest recounted Michael being cannibalized and eaten by the Asmats.
The Dutch government denied it was true and the newspaper rescinded the story.
No Rockefeller has returned to Asmat nor publicly accepted any other version than Michael drowning.