Author Interviews
3:00 am
Sat March 15, 2014

A Tragic Disappearance (Mostly) Solved In 'Savage Harvest'

Originally published on Sat March 15, 2014 9:32 am

The disappearance of Michael Rockefeller in November of 1961 was an international incident; Rockeller, just 23, was the scion of one of the world's richest families. He 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 had vanished.

Rockefeller was collecting masks, shields, and poles among the Asmat, a Stone Age people known for their cannibalism as well as their beautiful carving skills — but ultimately, his fate was an unsolved mystery. Until now. Author Carl Hoffman has spent years tracking the story; searching documents, living amongst the Asmat, even learning their language for his new book, Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism and Michael Rockefeller's Tragic Quest for Primitive Art. Hoffman tells NPR's Jacki Lyden that Rockefeller disappeared after his flimsy catamaran capsized off the coast of southwestern New Guinea. "He dove in and swam to shore, and he was never seen again."


Interview Highlights

On violence among the Asmat

The Asmat lived in a world of sacred reciprocal violence. Death had to be balanced by life, and life had to be balanced by death. And actually, two Asmat villages had gone to war with each other, and in response, overzealous Dutch policemen had raided the village of Otsjanep and killed a lot of people, and those deaths had been unreciprocated. The world was out of balance when Michael just happened to appear on the shore.

On the persistence of cannibalism

I think that for the Asmat, the sense of self is built on identifying with the other and ultimately consuming the other, and becoming the other. And in Asmat cosmology, I could take Jacki's head and I would become Jacki, my name would be Jacki, and I would be welcomed into your family as if I were you.

I think if you look at the Asmat world, it's a world where there's no steady food supply, there's no gardens, it's hard to know chicken and egg with something like this, but I think, you know, thousands upon thousands of years ago, the Asmat probably were suffering from nutritional deficiencies, and that's probably where the cannibalism originated. And then it became ritualized into something much larger.

On learning about Rockefeller's death and cannibalization

If you ask them, they don't want to talk about it. They say, yes, we used to be cannibals, but we don't want to talk about it. We're not cannibals anymore. They have been converted to Catholicism, but they also have multiple wives and live in this rich spirit world that is outside of Catholicism, so it's very difficult to get them to talk about actual cannibalism, and Michael Rockefeller in particular. They're frightened to talk about it.

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Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

The disappearance of Michael Rockefeller in November 1961 was an international incident. Rockefeller had gone to New Guinea to collect native art for his father's newly founded Museum of Primitive Art in New York. He was just 23, the scion of one of the richest families in the world. He'd been collecting masks, shields and poles amongst the Asmat, a Stone Age people known for cannibalism. Rockefeller's death was declared a mystery, but it was an unfinished mystery for 50 years, until now. Author Carl Hoffman has spent years tracking this story, searching documents living amongst the Asmat. His new book is called "Savage Harvest." Carl Hoffman, we just might want to say this is not a story for young listeners. Beyond that, welcome to the program.

CARL HOFFMAN: Thanks so much.

LYDEN: So, take us back to the coast of southwest New Guinea. It's 1961. Tell us about Michael Rockefeller and what he's doing there.

HOFFMAN: Michael was 23. He was the son of Nelson, who was the governor of New York at the time. As you said, his father had opened the Museum of Primitive Art, so he was collecting primitive art from the Asmat, who were incredible, beautiful carvers. And he was on a makeshift catamaran in a lot of rough, turbulent water, and they got into trouble. And they ended up drifting...

LYDEN: Like capsized.

HOFFMAN: ...a day. And...

LYDEN: ...capsized on this catamaran. He's there with this guy called Rene Wassing, the Dutch anthropologist, and his last words are: I think I can make it.

HOFFMAN: I think I can make it. And he dove in and swam to shore and was never seen again.

LYDEN: Now, you went to Asmat yourself. You are a writer who's worked in many countries but you say this is 10,000 square miles of maybe one of the wildest places on earth.

HOFFMAN: Yeah. It's the southwest coast of what's now Indonesian Papua, was then Dutch New Guinea and it is a swamp.

LYDEN: Tell us what you learned about his disappearance. He had wandered into this wild place. And his disappearance had something to do with restoring a balance in this world that had gone through a lot of upheaval.

HOFFMAN: The Asmat lived in a world of sacred reciprocal violence. Death had to be balanced by life, and life had to be balanced by death. And actually, two Asmat villages had gone to war with each other, and in response, overzealous Dutch policemen had raided the village of Otsjanep and killed a lot of people, and those deaths had been unreciprocated. The world was out of balance when Michael just happened to appear on the shore.

LYDEN: The astonishing thing you uncovered was that very quickly there is news that he has in fact been cannibalized, and this news reaches a priest living among the Asmat. What happens then?

HOFFMAN: It reaches actually two priests. They both investigated it, wrote long reports, made those reports available both to their superiors and the Catholic Church and to the Dutch government, and those were all suppressed and covered up.

LYDEN: Why were the Dutch so resistant to the idea that the Rockefellers should learn that there was any possibility that something had happened here other than drowning?

HOFFMAN: The weak he disappeared, the minister of foreign affairs was presenting the Netherlands' plan to retain Dutch Papua as a colony, a U.N. protectorate, and they didn't want complications.

LYDEN: Help us understand cannibalism. I mean, why is cannibalism, which is so taboo in the majority of world cultures, why was it practiced for thousands of years amongst the Asmat?

HOFFMAN: I think that for the Asmat, the sense of self is built on identifying with the other and ultimately consuming the other, and becoming the other. And in Asmat cosmology, I could take Jacki's head and I would become Jacki, my name would be Jacki, I'd would be welcomed into your family as if I were you.

LYDEN: That is the most disturbing and striking thought. But I think what you're trying to say here that in their cosmology there are even creation tales that have to do with headhunting and assuming the identity of the other.

HOFFMAN: Yes. And where that all came from, I mean, I think if you look at the Asmat world, it's a world where there's no steady food supply, there's no gardens. It's hard to know chicken and egg with something like this, but I think, you know, thousands upon thousands of years ago, the Asmat probably were suffering from nutritional deficiencies, and that's probably where the cannibalism originated. And then it became...

LYDEN: Ritualized.

HOFFMAN: ...ritualized into something much larger.

LYDEN: What did you find? You lived there for months. You learned a form of Indonesian close to their own Asmat tongue. Were they ashamed about what had happened to Michael Rockefeller?

HOFFMAN: If you ask them, they don't want to talk about it. They say, yes, we used to be cannibals, but we don't want to talk about that. We're not cannibals now. They have been converted to Catholicism, but they also have multiple wives and live in this rich spirit world that is outside of Catholicism. So it's very difficult to get them to talk about actual cannibalism, and Michael Rockefeller in particular. They're frightened to talk about it.

LYDEN: Carl Hoffman is the author of "Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism and Michael Rockefeller's Tragic Quest for Primitive Art." Carl Hoffman, thank you so much.

HOFFMAN: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LYDEN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.