In 1961, the 23-year-old son of one of America’s wealthiest families disappeared in a remote coastal area off the island of New Guinea in the South Pacific, a region inhabited by the Asmat, a tribe known to engage in headhunting and cannibalism.
In an effort to solve the mystery of what happened to Michael Rockefeller, son of then-New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, writer Carl Hoffman dug into long-forgotten archives and spent time among villagers in the region.
In the interview Hoffman shares what he believes happened to the young man:
“On the day before Michael disappeared, the men of Otsjanep, which was this village that had been assaulted by a Dutch colonial officer and had four of its most important men killed, had in fact set off in canoes — 50 men in nine or so canoes — set off for a government station down the coast. … The next morning, they arrived at the mouth of the [river] … when what they thought was a crocodile swam up, and it wasn’t a crocodile but a man and he was exhausted and vulnerable and weak and they recognized him. They knew his name because he had been to the village before. … They stabbed him with a spear right then and there and took him to a very sacred, hidden spot … where they undertook their ceremonial rites.”
Carl Hoffman’s book is called Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, And Michael Rockefeller’s Tragic Quest For Primitive Art
Carl Hoffman’s new book is Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller’s Tragic Quest for Primitive Art. Here, he shows us all the gear he packs to visit Afghanistan, New Guinea, and more remote and wild locations.
Deep in Papua New Guinea, where tribal lines remain thick and most modern amenities are nowhere to be found, one major source of income for the locals are the tourists who trek into the jungles on guided backpacking tours.
Last September, a skilled guide decided to take a trip down a trail less traveled. The company’s trip was shattered when machete-wielding men attacked the native porters. The motive appeared to be robbery, but something else was at work—ancient tribal patterns of violence that would inevitably be avenged.
By far one of the most interesting, sad, gruesome, exciting reads I’ve ever had for an illustration. The story is complex and the players can get confusing, machete armed tribesmen attack and kill another set of tribesmen. The victims fellow tribesmen then set out with their own machetes to avenge the murders. This is the way of life for these people. Eye for an eye. Sadness, but vengeance. Mourning, but revenge.
These are the complexities I wanted to balance with the art. Set the mood between horrific and mellow, emotional but “armed”. At quick glance the men in the image could be mistaken for the original attackers, but with a closer read and an understanding of the mud masks they wear (traditional death masks of mud and ash) as a symbol of mourning, I hope it is evident these men are in pain.
The story is long, but I really suggest you read it, it’s incredibly fascinating. A very interesting look into cultural tourism, tribalism, violence, morals, and economics… Read here
In 1961, Michael Rockefeller mysteriously disappeared in New Guinea, leaving his powerful, influential family guessing for years. Retracing Rockefeller’s steps, award-winning journalist Carl Hoffman traveled to the jungles of New Guinea to uncover evidence that tells the full, astonishing story.
So much of life in Afghanistan takes place hidden behind walls. Whole streets are nothing but canyons between them. The shrine of Hazrat Ali in the center of Mazar e Sharif is filled with women and children and old people and white doves. And as it grows dark you lose yourself and it feels, just a little, like you’re part of this big mysterious world.
In a real-life detective story, chronicled for his book Savage Harvest, author Carl Hoffman uncovers damning evidence and lives among the Asmat tribespeople to find out if Michael Rockefeller’s mysterious disappearance was the result of cannibalism, a government cover-up, or both.
Author Carl Hoffman uncovers damning evidence and lives among the Asmat tribespeople to find out if Michael Rockefeller’s mysterious disappearance was the result of cannibalism, a government cover-up, or both.
This has been a hard trip. My hardest yet, way more challenging than riding on crummy buses, boats, trains and planes, harder than the Congo or Sudan or Afghanistan. It took me nine days to get to Agats, just the gateway into Asmat. It took me three days to find a boat, a driver, a guide. I have spent days waiting and waiting and waiting – another six in there somewhere as I waited for a new translator to fly in. In a world with little power, no booze, no showers, hot or otherwise, almost no Internet, no streets – nothing but water and mud. I didn’t talk to a native English speaker for 38 days. I learned a lot of Indonesian.
In Asmat itself it was burning hot and wet and I spent hours and hours and hours, days, talking, listening, doling out tobacco and sugar, on bare floors with nary a chair or cushion, the flies thick. The language barrier was huge and wrangling fact and fiction out of 50-year old jungle tales from men who were children when events took place, or heard them from their fathers, in a world where nothing was written down, was untangling a knot in the dark. A 20-minute tale translated in one minute; what didn’t I hear? What wasn’t translated? I went in twice, banged away, pressed for details. Some things they’d seen themselves, some things they’d heard about with incredible detail, as if it was yesterday. Some things they suddenly couldn’t remember, a collective guilt and fear that was palpable. One old man took my hand and wouldn’t let go, looking me hard in the eyes, holding my gaze, telling me everything with out words. Some answers came in the darkness of the night, one at a time, not to me, but through my guys, whispered, and some of those didn’t make sense, and some of them did. I remembered things I meant to ask and never did. I ran out of books to read. Lost weight in the remotest place I’ve ever been. Missed people. Had vivid, strange dreams, remembered sweet memories, daydreamed visions of things turning out good and whole. In reporting, as in life, you push and prod and sniff your way toward some truth, but you’re also powerless. There’s beauty and challenge in that. Anyway, this I can say: A book was growing.
Yesterday I fled, which Michael Rockefeller never had the chance to do. I grabbed three planes in rapid succession, buying tickets on the fly, flew across the archipelago to Bali and just like that I am sitting on the balcony of a friend’s apartment after a night of tuna steaks and cold Bintang beer, fast Wifi and a gushing hot shower that feels almost surreal. How strange: we’re going to a party tonight at the W Hotel.
And then this morning my phone rings, they’re calling from Agats. I’d left instructions, money; there’s more I want and they are eager to get it and can do it better than I. They are Asmat and they’re known, and in a few days I’ll either be coming home or heading back.
I judged myself against other mothers. It seemed everyone cared for their babies better than did I. They had secret ways to jiggle a baby asleep and entire repertories of nursery songs at the ready. I cared for my son, but something was off. Where was my…
The son of one of America’s wealthiest families disappeared off the island of New Guinea in 1961. Writer Carl Hoffman explains how he thinks Rockefeller died and why the truth was kept hidden.
If you missed it this morning, Fresh Air’s Dave Davies talks to Carl Hoffman about his investigation into the disappearance of Michael Rockefeller.
Highlight from the interview:
“I found … this huge paper trail that showed that within, really, two weeks almost of Michael’s disappearance, two priests on the ground and Asmat-speaking people — men who had been in the area for years and knew the villages and the men who lived in them well — heard rumors that Michael had swum ashore, encountered men from [the village of] Otsjanep (who are CANNIBALS) and he had been killed by them. And those priests looked into it further and wrote, actually, fairly long, detailed reports in which they named names — who had Michael’s head, who had … other parts of his skeleton. They filed those reports both to their superiors in the church and to the Dutch government. And they’re all sort of saying: What are we going to do? Let’s not tell the Rockefellers. …”
Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller's Tragic Quest for Primitive Art
The mysterious disappearance of Michael Rockefeller in New Guinea in 1961 has kept the world and his powerful, influential family guessing for years. Now, Carl Hoffman uncovers startling new evidence that finally tells the full, astonishing story.
Despite exhaustive searches, no trace of Rockefeller was ever found. Soon after his disappearance, rumors surfaced that he’d been killed and ceremonially eaten by the local Asmat—a native tribe of warriors whose complex culture was built around sacred, reciprocal violence, head hunting, and ritual cannibalism. The Dutch government and the Rockefeller family denied the story, and Michael’s death was officially ruled a drowning. Yet doubts lingered. Sensational rumors and stories circulated, fueling speculation and intrigue for decades. The real story has long waited to be told—until now.
The Mystery Writers of America have announced the finalists for the 2015 Edgars, the complete list is here. As a true crime reader, I am mainly interested in the books in the category “Fact Crime”. Yes I know I said I wasn’t buying any new TC books, but whats a book lover to do? Let all these new books feel unloved? Here’s the list and my thoughts on them.
I was hoping this would be something like Martin Caidin’s Ragwings and Heavy Iron. Or, failing that, like Shadow Divers except about planes rather than a submarine. Unfortunately, it was not about how cool it is to fly old planes. It ended up being mostly about how they cost lots of money to acquire. Niche appeal only.
Give a man water and you give him a highway. For months I’ve been immersed in Asmat, reading wide and deep, but it wasn’t until I climbed in speedboat at the village and airstrip of Ewer and hammered toward the ‘city’ of Agats that I understood. Asmat is swamp and thick sago and mangrove jungle, all oppressive heat and humidity, but it lies along the Arafura Sea and is cut with thousands of rivers. They are a mile wide and the width of an alley. They swirl and bend; they’re silver and brown, and what seems the worst kind of place is also the best.
Where there is water there is wind and light and escape, and we bounced and jolted under a huge sky thick with heavy clouds toward the ocean. The river grew wider and the water rougher; where big rivers or bays pour into the sea there is always turbulence, and easily 20 knots were blowing in against the outpouring river. There were standing waves and three-foot rollers and longboats coming in toward us waved at us in warning.
Water and spray poured in, the boat slammed and shimmied, and at that moment I saw Michael Rockefeller, crossing the mouth of a similar river just to the south, worse off, for he was in an overloaded catamaran. A flat craft and in waters like this he’d have a single course, running with the wind and waves behind him, otherwise he’d be flipped and swamped, which he was. It must have been hairy and wet.
Agats is 2,000 people, Asmats and Javanese and Torajans and Indonesians from throughout the archipelago, a city of rotting, moss covered boardwalks and wooden houses on flimsy looking stilts over black mud. When the tide is out, it’s a feted carpet of plastic water bottles and garbage; when the tide is in, it’s rushing dark water. Rain comes suddenly, huge monsoon gushes of it so hard a mist infiltrates my windowless room and oil drums fill up in an hour. Lightning and thunder and wind. Narrow alleyways of blue plastic sheeting and roosters underfoot and barefoot children racing across the boards.
That’s all the good news. The bad is that the fixer/translator who was supposed to be here isn’t, and I’m scrambling to find someone to travel with and help organize things. For my task I need a fluent English speaker, and so far I’ve met only one, a teacher named Rudy, who may be able to go out for a week. Otherwise I’m going to have to fly someone in. But it’ll come.
The boring secret of what I do is wait, and I think it’s the secret of narrative non-fiction writing. I wait and wait and wait. I wait in bars and I wait in airports and I wait in hotel rooms, and it takes as long as it takes. None of that comes out in the narrative, which is as it should be.
And I can also see that there will be no Internet or cell service when I head out.