Those who live comfortable lives in our cities of soaring concrete, steel, and glass, tend to have the sense that we are somehow insulated from the rugged, wild world that lies beyond our civilization. We tend to believe that our technology, money, and sophistication somehow shield us from what lies hidden in the remote jungles of our world. Most of the time, this is no doubt true. However, once we leave our safe blanket of civilization and journey out into these lost, wild lands, we become detached from this safety line. Out in these remote places, the playing field is leveled, and we revert to a state where we are no longer sitting high and mighty in our civilized society. The rules change. In these places we are no longer the hunters, but the hunted, bound by the rules of the wild and the ways of the primitive peoples who populate it. Our arrogance and technology will not protect us here. One man who may have wanted to keep this in mind was a wealthy playboy and member of one of the most influential families in America, who journeyed to the dark, unexplored land of what is now Papua New Guinea, never to be seen again, sparking one of the most baffling and enduring mysteries of the 20th century.
Born in 1938, Michael Clark Rockefeller was the son of New York governor and later Vice President Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller, and was a fourth generation member of the Rockefeller family, one of the richest, most powerful, and influential families in America at the time. Michael had long had a passionate interest in art, especially in primitive and tribal art, and in 1957 helped established the first ever museum solely dedicated to such art, the Museum of Primitive Art, in Manhattan. Rockefeller was also an adventurer at heart, and yearned to travel to faraway lands and meet exotic tribes. It was this profound interest in art and his desire to experience another world that would eventually bring Michael Rockefeller across the world to the remote and little understood, mysterious land of what was then Dutch New Guinea.
After graduating from Harvard University in 1961, the then 23 year-old Rockefeller decided to pursue his dreams of exotic adventure, and he embarked on an expedition for the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, with the aim of studying the Dani tribe of western Dutch New Guinea, as well as to immerse himself in the culture of these primitive people. Rockefeller said of the reasons behind his ambitious plans of far-flung travel and adventure:
It’s the desire to do something adventurous at a time when frontiers, in the real sense of the word, are disappearing.
To be sure, Rockefeller went on this journey with a headstrong attitude and a sense of entitlement. After all, he was a member of one of the richest families in the world, so he had a definite sense of invulnerability; that his family could bail him out of any trouble he should encounter. This sense of entitlement no doubt produced an illusion of safety even in the face of what was certainly a dangerous endeavor. Despite the inherit perils of the expedition, Rockefeller had a keen interest in these little understood, primitive people, and threw himself into the experience. During the Peabody expedition, he would help record the documentary Dead Birds, which was a chronicle of life among the Dani tribe.
After the Peabody expedition was complete, Rockefeller briefly returned to the States, after which the irresistible lure of adventure drew him back to New Guinea, this time to study the Asmat tribe of the southwest coast of New Guinea. On this excursion, he wished to once again live among the people and also collect various pieces of tribal artwork and artifacts for exhibition at his museum back in New York. This expedition would prove to be much different and indeed more dangerous than the previous expedition to study the Dani had been. Rockefeller was essentially on his own this time, and embarked on his adventure accompanied only by the anthropologist René Wassing. Their destination, the Asmat tribe, was also markedly different than the Dani tribe he had studied previously. Whereas the Dani tribe were a mostly peaceful, agricultural people, the Asmat were a tribe of fierce warriors who sported battle scars and practiced cannibalism.
This tribe also had a deeply ingrained culture of reciprocal murder and barbarism. In the Asmat culture, there was a profound sense of balance, and they believed very strongly that one death had to be balanced out by another. In order to fulfill this spiritual obligation to avenge one death with another, they were known to set out on headhunting raids, in which Asmat tribesmen hellbent on revenge for the death of one of their own would descend onto the offending tribe and proceed to mercilessly slaughter every living thing they could find, including women and children. In the aftermath of the carnage, the blood of their victims would be rubbed on special 20-foot long bisj poles and their flesh consumed in the Asmat belief that they could absorb their admirable qualities and gain supernatural powers in this way.
It was certainly a grim and brutal way of life full of a savage never ending cycle of reciprocal violence and constant tribal warfare, yet this potent danger was precisely part of the allure that drew Rockefeller there in the first place. The potential danger and this violent, perilous way of life were exhilarating to him. He wanted to experience life living among a tribe of real-life headhunters, and no doubt he was probably still buzzing with the false sense of security that his family name endowed him with. Rather than being afraid for his life, Rockefeller approached the whole affair with zeal and a sense of excitement, perhaps a healthy dose of complacency, and viewed the Asmat people as a curious enigma that he wished to study and understand. He once wrote during his journey:
I am having a thoroughly exhausting but most exciting time here…The Asmat is like a huge puzzle with the variations in ceremony and art style forming the pieces. My trips are enabling me to comprehend (if only in a superficial, rudimentary manner) the nature of this puzzle…
Rockefeller would go on to take hundreds of photographs of his life with the Asmat people and collect numerous artifacts, including four of the bisj poles onto which the blood of slain enemies was smeared, many of which are still on display at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art to this day. Throughout this whole time, Rockefeller probably never really felt like he was in in danger, partly due to his arrogant belief that money could get him out of anything, and partly because he felt safe in the knowledge that the Asmat only practiced cannibalism out of ritualistic revenge rather than any need for sustenance. Unfortunately, no amount of money could save him from what happened next.
On November 17, 1961, Rockefeller was out on a shoddy, makeshift catamaran accompanied by Wassing and two local guides on a trip to collect some Asmat woodcarvings. They were traversing the mouth of a turbulent river that faced the Arafura Sea on the southwest coast of New Guinea when large waves flooded the engine and caused it to sputter out. Unable to restart the stalled engine, they drifted until the boat was overturned by more waves. The two guides told them to stay put as they swam to go get help. Over the next 24 hours, the remaining men clung to the flipped boat as it drifted out into the Arafura Sea until it was around 12 miles from shore and getting farther. With no help in sight, Rockefeller courageously strapped on a couple of gasoline tanks to his waist and told Wassing “I think I can make it,” before proceeding to jump into the water and start swimming towards shore, while the anthropologist stayed with the boat. Rockefeller was never seen again.
The next day, the help that the local guides had promised arrived to save Wassing, but Rockefeller was nowhere to be found. The disappearance of such a rich, influential figure in this mysterious, forbidding land was an immediate media sensation, and was splashed across newspapers nationwide. A massive search was launched by the Dutch government that went on for two weeks and exhaustively searched the area for any sign of Rockefeller, but they could find no trace of him. His father, Nelson Rockefeller, and his twin sister, Mary, both flew to New Guinea to help aide in the search, but they too were unable to uncover any sign of him. It was as if Michael Rockefeller had just vanished from the face of the earth.
The Dutch government officially concluded that Rockefeller had died of drowning, even though they had found no evidence to make that assumption, and another, more ominous rumor began to brew; that he had made it to shore safely but had been killed and eaten by cannibals, specifically from an Asmat village by the name of Otsjanep, which was near where the two men had been and well known for practicing cannibalism. This rumor was stoked by further claims from Dutch Catholic missionaries in the vicinity of the disappearance, who detailed the cannibalism of a white man in Otsjanep in a 1962 Associated Press article. This morbid thought naturally unsettled the Rockefeller family, but the Dutch government was quick to claim that cannibalism was an outdated practice that no longer occurred in Dutch New Guinea, even though it most certainly did. It is perhaps not surprising, as the Dutch were in the midst of trying to ready New Guinea for independence, and did not want the negative publicity that cannibal headhunting tribes roving about the jungles would invariably produce. Some people believed that Rockefeller had not been killed by cannibals, but had rather been kept prisoner by them or even abandoned civilization to live amongst them. What was the truth? No one had the slightest idea. Rockefeller was officially declared dead in 1964.
And so began a mystery that would span the subsequent decades to become one of the world’s most baffling disappearances. The case of the missing Rockefeller would provoke much speculation as well as its fair share of conspiracy theories, and numerous investigations have tried to shed light on the case and gain some idea of what became of him.
One of the first attempts to investigate the disappearance was an expedition undertaken by a journalist for the magazine Argosy by the name of Milt Machlin in 1969. Apparently, Machlin had been approached by an Australian man called Donahue, who lured him with the cryptic statement “Suppose I told you that I saw Michael Rockefeller alive only 10 weeks ago?” With his interest piqued, Machlin proceeded to listen to Donahue’s tale of having seen Rockefeller at a place called the Trobriand Islands. It was an odd claim, as the Trobriand Islands were hundreds of miles from where Rockefeller had disappeared, yet Machlin was so intrigued that he journeyed there in an effort to find the truth. It would turn out to be a dead end, but he did manage to speak with some of the Dutch missionaries who had been there living among the Asmat at the time of Rockefeller’s mysterious disappearance and had some tantalizing things to say. Of particular interest to Machlin were the talks he had with two missionaries by the name of Father Van Kessel and Ken Dresser, who strongly implied that Rockefeller had been killed and eaten by the cannibals. In the end, Machlin concluded that the idea that Rockefeller had been killed by cannibals was certainly plausible, and released his findings and observations in his 1974 book, The Search for Michael Rockefeller.
Speculation on cannibalism was cranked up a notch in Paul Toohey’s book Rocky Goes West, in which the author claims that Rockefeller’s mother had hired a private investigator to make the journey to Papua New Guinea in order to try and uncover clues on her son’s disappearance. According to Toohey, the investigator made contact with the Asmat and traded his boat engine for three human skulls, which the tribe said were the skulls of the only white men they had ever killed. Convinced that one of the skulls must be that of Michael Rockefeller, the private investigator allegedly brought all three of them back to New York. The veracity of this story has been the subject of some debate, but the History Channel show Vanishings claimed to have uncovered evidence that Rockefeller’s mother had indeed handed over a $250,000 reward to the investigator, which had been offered for any definitive evidence as to Michael Rockefeller’s ultimate fate. What that evidence truly was remains a mystery.
Perhaps the most in-depth and extensive investigations into the matter of Rockefeller’s disappearance was that of author Carl Hoffman, who spent two and a half years retracing Rockefeller’s journey through the dark wilderness of New Guinea, speaking with Asmat tribesmen and Dutch missionaries, and conducting grueling archival research, which he chronicled in his book Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller’s Tragic Quest for Primitive Art. Hoffman uncovered a wide variety of never before seen documents and evidence that seemed to very strongly point to Rockefeller’s death at the hands of the cannibal Asmat people.
During his extensive investigation, Hoffman would piece together a grim picture of Rockefeller’s final hours. Hoffman was able learn of how not long before Rockefeller’s expedition and subsequent disappearance, a Dutch official named Max Lapré had set out to squash a bloody, all-out cannibal war between two Asmat villages that had spun out of control. A patrol was sent out to investigate and when they arrived at the village of Otsjanep, they were met with Asmat warrior headhunters armed with arrows and spears, who then began a ritual and dance preparing for imminent battle. The panicked Dutch patrol had opened fire upon the warriors and killed five of them before retreating.
Considering the tit-for-tat Asmat culture of ritual revenge killings in response to a killing of their own, Hoffman maintains that the Dutch had left the warriors howling for the blood of a white man in order to fulfill their spiritual duty of vengeance. It just so happened that this incident had occurred not long before Rockefeller was in exact vicinity of Otsjanep, which is claimed to have been one of the most notorious and violent of Amsat villages. It was absolutely not a common thing for the Asmat to see foreigners in their realm, so if Rockefeller had actually made it to shore, he would have stumbled into the midst of a blood crazed village of cannibals seething with a desire to kill a white man in retribution for the killing of their own at the hands of the Dutch patrol. In fact, apparently a group of Asmat from Otsjanep were said to have been on a trading run in the area at precisely the that time that Rockefeller’s boat had capsized, and thus would have been right there if he had made it to shore. Seeing a white man after the bloodshed and death they had been dealt by the Dutch patrol would have likely sent them into a bloodthirsty frenzy. It would not have been personal, but merely fulfilling the tribal obligation for a reciprocal killing. Rockefeller wouldn’t have stood a chance.
Hoffman uncovered further information when he spoke to a Dutch missionary by the name of Father Hubertus von Peij, who claimed that he had been told by an Asmat tribesman that Rockefeller had indeed been killed by them, that his skull had been “small, like a child’s,” and that it was hanging in one of the village huts. It was also claimed that Rockefeller’s bones had been passed out among the village warriors in order to be sharpened into weapons, and his flesh had been roasted and consumed with relish. Von Peij also claimed that the Dutch government was well aware of what had actually become of Rockefeller, but had orchestrated a cover-up and had buried documents pertaining to the case so that no one would ever now the gruesome truth. Hoffman would say of the matter:
We’re not talking about my opinion; the documents show there was a cover up. The docs say, ‘Don’t tell Nelson Rockefeller about this. Say nothing. Mark it secret.’
There have been other investigations that have served to only deepen the mystery behind Michael Rockefeller’s mysterious disappearance. Perhaps one of the most intriguing and indeed weirdest pieces of evidence in relation to the vanishing to pop up in recent years was uncovered in 2008 by documentary filmmaker Fraser Heston, son of actor Charlton Heston, for his documentary The Search for Michael Rockefeller. During his research for the documentary, Heston was able to dig up startling, never seen before footage that seems to lend weight to yet another theory on Rockefeller’s disappearance; that he was not killed, but rather lived out his remaining days among the cannibal headhunters.
Inspired by Milt Machlin’s book of the same name, The Search for Michael Rockefeller, Heston was able to track down some curious footage that had been shot by Machlin during his expedition and somehow been forgotten and sold to a stock footage company by his widow, Margaret Machlin. Milt Machlin had hired a cinematographer and proceeded on his journey with some 10,000 feet of 16mm film, eager to document as much of his journey on film as was possible. Heston was able to track down the footage to a warehouse in England and was shocked by what he found. Among the 10 hours of unedited footage that had been taken with no sound, Heston came across an amazing piece of footage that seemed to show a white man in the background amongst the cannibals. In the 1969 clip, the shaky camerawork pans across some 17 cannibal war canoes making their way towards shore. Within one of the canoes is a remarkably light skinned man with a full beard and partial war paint emblazoned across his face. This would be odd at the best of times, but considering that the footage was shot a mere 8 years after Rockefeller’s disappearance, it is particularly baffling.
It was fairly obvious that the mystery man was not a full-blooded Asmat, and Heston and his crew were intrigued, nicknaming the enigmatic figure “Big Michael.” Unfortunately, the footage is very small and grainy, with no way of doing a full facial analysis of the mysterious white man in the canoe. It is impossible to tell if it is indeed Michael Rockefeller, but it puts forth the strange possibility that perhaps Rockefeller had become so enamored with this tribe he found so fascinating that he had turned his back on society to live amongst them. Heston would later say of the footage and the whole mystery in general:
When we found “Big Michael,” I said, wait a second. I’m certainly not saying it is Michael. It’s very grainy, it’s very small, and there’s really no way to do facial analysis or anything like that. But it does look, at least superficially, like him. So I thought if that’s not Michael—and it would have been eight years after he disappeared—who is it? As far-fetched as it sounds that he might have been there, eight years later, paddling a canoe, that’s kind of the uncertain world we’re dealing with here. And that’s part of the attraction of the story.
Did Rockefeller indeed make it to shore on that fateful day and, rather than be mercilessly slaughtered by cannibals, was welcomed amongst them? Is it too implausible to think that this wealthy, high profile celebrity might want to eschew the privileged society he had been brought up in and choose a simple life among the very people who had attracted him and drawn him to this far flung land?
No matter what really happened to Michael Rockefeller, there’s no denying that Papua New Guinea still has its fair share of cannibalism being practiced amongst its primitive tribes. Far from an ancient practice regulated to horror films and dark history, cannibalism is still very much alive here to this day. It is so bad that in 2013, a group of alleged cannibals threatened to disrupt parliamentary elections in one of Papua New Guineas’s provinces, sparking a mass panic in which people were afraid to leave their own houses on election day, lest they be hunted down and eaten. Cannibalism had been so prevalent that in 1971 an act allowing it as “mitigating circumstance” was passed.
There have also been tales of gruesome cannibal cults that are still operating within the country. In 2012, police in Papua New Guinea’ Madang province arrested 29 members of a suspected cannibal cult, who were then accused of massacring and devouring seven alleged witch doctors who had been active within the country’s interior. The cult members had accused the seven victims of being sorcerers of black magic who engaged in extortion in exchange for their dark services, and had carried out the killings for the dual purpose of revenge and to absorb their mystical powers through consuming their flesh, or to even become impervious to bullets. The cult members apparently concocted stews out of their victims brains and penises, and even ate much of these body parts raw. Although all of the 29 guilt members of the group responsible were arrested, they did not think they had done anything wrong. To them this was a perfectly normal way of life. It is estimated that there are between 700 and 1,000 members of this particular cult scattered throughout the country.
In another gruesome cannibal cult incident in the same year, a man known as Steven “Black Jesus” Tari, the leader of another sinister cult dedicated to cannibalism, sacrificial killings, and rape, escaped from prison and returned to his wicked ways. Tori returned to his cult of an estimated 6,000 members and proceeded to kill and consume a teenage girl, after which villagers in the area decided they had had enough. A gang of vigilantes reportedly captured him, castrated and butchered him, and then threw his bloody corpse into a shallow pit.
In fact, such crimes related to sorcery, witchcraft, and vigilantism are still fairly common in certain areas of Papua New Guinea. They are so common that in 1971 Papua New Guinea enacted a Sorcery Act, which criminalizes evil sorcery, called sanguma. The death penalty was also reinstated for anyone convicted of hunting down and killing witches or sorcerers, much to the chagrin of the United Nations and human rights groups such as Amnesty International.
Papua New Guinea is clearly a place where ancient beliefs in dark magic, sorcery, and witchcraft still permeate society in some of the island’s more remote corners. The practice of ritual killings and cannibalism, while typically looked upon with disgust by modern society, still remain entrenched here as a deeply engrained way of life. It is not too hard to believe that cannibalism was indeed being practiced with great frequency during the time when Michael Rockefeller was conducting his exploration of this enigmatic land in 1961, despite the Dutch government’s firm insistence at the time that it was a relic of the past. If he had made it to shore on that faithful day, isn’t there the chance that he was indeed murdered by headhunters? Isn’t it possible that the Dutch would then launch a cover-up to gloss over the fact that a highly influential member of American society had met his fate at the hands of primitive, spear wielding cannibal warriors in the jungle?
It is a mystery that is likely to endure for some time. People seem to be drawn to such enigmas, of foreigners traveling to lost lands and disappearing without a trace, and the void created by a lack of concrete answers only serves to create more of an urgent allure. In an interview pertaining to his documentary on the mystery, Fraser Heston gave his thoughts on why the mystery of Michael Rockefeller has so gripped the imagination of so many, saying:
It seems that whenever somebody comes out with something, whether it’s Milt’s book or Hoffman’s book or our film or your film, it gets a lot of interest. People are not bored by it, and it does have that kind of almost mythical quality to it: The son of a famous, incredibly wealthy American politician disappears in the jungles of New Guinea and may have been eaten by cannibals. I mean, really, it’s almost too good a story to be true. But whether or not we definitively know what happened, he did disappear there, and at the very least, I think there’s an extremely strong chance that he made it ashore.
What happened to Michael Rockefeller in the jungles of Dutch New Guinea? Was he captured and killed by a primitive cannibal tribe? Did he shuck off the civilized world and his comfortable life of wealth and prestige to live out the rest of his days among them? Or did he, as the government claimed, merely drown; his body carried away by the current and into the annals of great historical mysteries? There is perhaps no way we will ever have the definitive answers we seek. The disappearance remains as impenetrable as it was back in 1961.
The dark, far flung wildernesses of the world call to us. We want to penetrate their secrets and shed light on the ways of their secluded people, who seem to live in another time. There seems to be a strong urge within humankind to delve into these lost worlds and understand both the wonders and horrors of what may lurk there, to probe at the edges of our understanding of the natural world and glimpse these isolated societies that remain inscrutably alien to us. However, what we must understand is that our modern world cannot protect us out there. Out there, we are subject to the laws of nature and the laws of whatever lost tribe we find ourselves amongst. Out there, we are at the mercy of the unknown. No matter what really happened to Michael Rockefeller, in the end he most certainly finally came to an understanding of this cold truth.