What happened to Michael Rockefeller?

1 minute read

Smithsonian magazine has a long feature article by Carl Hoffman, about the 1961 disappearance of Michael Rockefeller: “What Really Happened to Michael Rockefeller”. The article is an excerpt of the book Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller’s Tragic Quest for Primitive Art.

The book details Hoffman’s attempts to discover the true fate of Rockefeller:

I spent hours looking at that photo, wondering what Michael had seen and felt, wondering what had really happened to him, wondering if I might be able to solve the mystery. That he had been kidnapped or had run away didn’t make sense. If he had drowned, well, that was that. Except he’d been attached to flotation aids. As for sharks, they rarely attacked men in these waters and no trace of him had been found. Which meant that if he hadn’t perished during his swim, there had to be more.
There had to have been some collision, some colossal misunderstanding. The Asmat people were warriors drenched in blood, but Dutch colonial authorities and missionaries had already been in the area for almost a decade by the time Michael disappeared, and the Asmat had never killed a white. If he had been murdered, it struck to the heart of a clash between Westerners and Others that had been ongoing ever since Columbus first sailed to the New World. I found it compelling that in this remote corner of the world the Rockefellers and their power and money had been impotent, had come up with nothing. How was that even possible?

As he goes to interview people in New Guinea, ultimately living in the key area briefly, Hoffman discovers documentary evidence and stories that indicate Rockefeller was killed. Still, the whole thing is a bit of a teaser for the book, so all the answers are not here.

The article is a treat for those interested in the history of anthropology, including a reference to the famous film, Dead Birds, which Rockefeller had a small part in filming.