All the President’s Men  (1976)

“You know the results of the latest Gallup Poll? Half the country never even heard of the word Watergate. […] We’re under a lot of pressure, you know, and you put us there. Nothing’s riding on this except the, uh, first amendment to the Constitution, freedom of the press, and maybe the future of the country. Not that any of that matters, but if you guys fuck up again, I’m going to get mad. Goodnight.” - Ben Bradlee


In 1961, 23-year-old Michael Rockefeller, disappeared during an expedition in the Asmat region of southwestern Netherlands New Guinea. Tragedy struck when his catamaran overturned. The two local guides swam to shore but what happened to Michael is shrouded in controversy and mystery. The main and most terrifying theory is that he swam to shore where he was captured, killed and cannibalised by natives in an act of revenge for the killing of numerous villagers by a Dutch colonial patrol in 1958. This theory is detailed in the 2014 book, Savage Harvest, written by Carl Hoffman, in which he presents the inquest into his disappearance, revealing that elders of the tribe confess to killing and cannibalising him.

The disappearance of Michael Rockefeller in November 1961 was an international incident: Rockeller, the 23-year-old scion of one of the world’s richest families, had gone to New Guinea to collect native art for his father’s newly founded Museum of Primitive Art in New York. And then, he vanished.

His fate was an unsolved mystery – until now. Carl Hoffman has spent years tracking the story, searching documents and living amongst the Asmat, a Stone Age people known for their cannibalism as well as their beautiful carving skills. His new book is Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism and Michael Rockefeller’s Tragic Quest for Primitive Art.

Check out Hoffman’s interview with NPR’s Jacki Lyden.

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. 

Some have dreams of organizing the sport, taming it, seeing it in the Olympics, the isolated nation and its ancient sport claiming a spot on the world stage. Others think that the country’s power brokers are bending buzkashi’s already hazy rules in their favor with money and threats of violence and that the sport is getting all screwed up, just like Afghanistan itself.
—  Carl Hoffman for ESPN The Magazine
on buzkashi, Afghanistan’s national sport 
Watch on

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. 

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. 

Waiting in Agats

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.