Living with Michael Rockefeller’s Ghost

Mj 618_348_savage harvest excerpt
Sonny Tumbelaka / AFP / Getty Images

On November 21, 1961, Michael Rockefeller (son of then New York governor Nelson Rockefeller) disappeared off the coast of the Asmat tribal area near New Guinea. What happened to him – despite a weeks-long three-nation search by air and sea – was never determined. The official line from the Dutch and U.S. government: drowning at sea. But rumors persisted that he was killed and eaten by the local, cannibalistic Asmat. In Savage Harvest (out now), Carl Hoffman once-and-for-all solves the mystery of where the search went wrong, who the Asmat people are, and what really happened to Michael Rockefeller. Following is an excerpt from Savage Harvest about Hoffman’s time spent living with the once-cannibalistic Asmat. 

They drummed sitting down, and they drummed standing up, two hundred beats a minute, and they sang, and men danced and children danced, and sweat poured from their bodies, and other men blew eerie, aching-sounding horns, and the floor of the jeu pulsated. They moved to the ground between riverbank and jeu, and more men appeared, and women too, some topless in grass skirts, bouncing and shaking, knees flapping in and out, and they danced with weapons, with bows and arrows and spears, and the sun dipped lower, and smoke curled around the sweating bodies, and in their sameness each was dressed a little differently, and they howled and bellowed and hooted, a wild free-for-all of unadulterated joy and abandon, of culture that stretched back beyond memory.

I welled up in tears. It was powerful and beautiful and unfiltered; it was pure and rich and of the earth and the river and the mud. Huge clouds dangled from the sky, and one young man with ochre stripes across his face and blazing orange gym shorts, clutching a spear, went wilder than everyone else, kicking his legs up high, fluttering his hands, shouting, “Wha! Wha! Woooweee!” The people followed the drummers in rows back and forth in front of the jeu, and just before the sun dipped below the tangled green horizon, giant birds appeared, birds that weren’t birds at all, but bats. Giant fruit bats the size of eagles, hundreds of them, thousands, rising from their resting places near the sea and flying a few hundred feet overhead in a single direction – away from the sun, toward the east. They flew not like bats but like birds, each flying alone, two wing-beats a second, slowly, steadily, and I thought of Hitchcock or the monkeys flying in The Wizard of Oz. They looked purposeful; they didn’t glide or soar, they were just pulsing wings and bulbous bat bodies, two tiny feet trailing behind.

The drumming and singing and dancing continued for the next two weeks, until the big day when government officials were to come and the men would finish the jeu by installing the roof and lighting the family hearths that lined the jeu’s back wall. My Indonesian was growing stronger, and I was beginning to understand more. It helped that Kokai was getting used to speaking slowly and simply with me. The pattern of the days began to unfold. The house and the village woke at dawn. Though there was a primary school, the teacher hadn’t been there for two months. Children played all day, chasing each other, fighting, climbing trees over the river and plunging in. The boys made small bows and arrows, caught snakes and mice; together boys and girls built small forts out of scrub and sent the girls off to collect wood, and then they’d build a fire. The teenagers chased each other, swam, plaited each other’s hair, played vicious games of soccer in a foot of thick mud on the “field” by the schoolhouse. Just after sunrise, women paddled their canoes to the sea, where they fished or shrimped or chopped wood for the kitchen fires all day.

Women did everything. They washed the tattered clothes in the muddy river and made all the food, a never-ending diet of sago pancakes and sago balls, of rice and ramen and small fish and tiny, krill-like shrimp, which they wrapped in palm leaves and baked on the fire. Mostly the food and wood in Kokai’s house came from other family members in other houses. I never saw a green vegetable or fruit, save for coconuts. If the men weren’t drumming or singing or carving, they did nothing, except occasionally helping their wives cut down sago in the jungle. They were warriors with no war to fight. In the old days, if they hadn’t been fighting, they would have been hunting or protecting the women, but that was no longer necessary, and during my time there I never saw anyone hunt – though they must have, for there was a never-ending supply of cassowary bones and feathers and cuscus fur and cockatoo feathers in the village. To bathe they jumped in the river, fully clothed; no one used soap. The river repelled me. It was brown with muddy silt, and at high tide it flooded the villages and their outhouses – and the whole village of Otsjanep lay upriver. But it was that or nothing. One day, just as I was about to jump in, a log of shit floated by.

Kokai’s son-in-law often escorted me wherever I went, and I was never sure if it was because he wanted to hang out or if he was being tasked to do so. He was young, handsome, and probably in his twenties. He could read and write – he’d been to primary school. Once I asked him how old he was. He thought for a long time and then said, “Fifteen.”

At any time of day or night, there was always a child screaming and a song wafting over the mud and breeze, intermingling with the omnipresent smoke and smell of shit. Kokai’s daughter and nieces and extended family, always coming and going from one house to another, sang beautifully, sweetly–even Kokai’s sister, a rail-thin, nearly toothless old woman with a gravelly voice who lived next door, sang well. Listening to these human sounds, I realized that back home so much of every conversation or experience takes place over headsets or telephones, over computer screens or televisions, through email or SMS message. Much of our experience is prerecorded, heavily produced, often divorced from the immediate source. The West is a place of all these overlapping and competing realities. But everything in Asmat is immediate, present, touchable, live. If you want music, you have to create it. If you want to talk to someone, you have to find that person. If you want a story, someone has to tell it and you have to be next to the person creating it.

Everything in Asmat is raw, that constant emotional intensity of joy or sadness, of fighting or hugging, and everyone is so close, knows their place, is so connected, to family, neighborhood, jeu, village. I’d been thinking a lot about my obsession with what I’d called the primitive, the thing that had driven me to Asmat and Michael’s story in the first place. Part of it was simple romance – the romance of the jungle and open fires, of drumming and spears and bows and arrows and dogs’ teeth necklaces. But it was also the hope of seeing something, understanding something, about myself, and the recognition of what was lacking in my own life, a yearning for something. My father’s family were Orthodox Jews, a people who always saw themselves as separate from mainstream America. Yet whatever greater connection to that community my grandparents and aunts and uncles might have felt, my father had rebelled, had rejected it all, had declared himself an atheist to my grandmother at the age of seventeen. Then he’d married my mother, a WASP, and she herself was a quiet reader and lover of books, not much of a joiner. Neither liked to watch or play sports; we didn’t go to church; we lived in a predominantly Catholic neighborhood that was filled with enormous families – the Murrays next door had eleven children, the Hagues around the corner twelve, the Hannapels across the street six, the Vieths a few blocks away sixteen. We were nothing like them. My parents had even told my sister and me, from the beginning, that there was no such thing as Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. I’d grown up with no tribe, no belief, no ritual, belonging to nothing, never able to surrender to a larger group.

In Asmat behavior I recognized a truth. I had always longed for more connection, even as I’d fled from it, and in Pirien, despite its strangeness, I never felt lonely. In love I had little balance, either keeping intimacy at bay, people at a distance, or tipping wildly in the other direction, falling crazy in consuming love, wanting everything all the time, wanting to consume the other, to eat them up. I felt like I understood the Asmat’s dualism, their lack of balance, and I recognized that sometimes I was but a step away from it myself, at least metaphorically. What I called primitiveness wasn’t really about living in a house or a hut, or dancing wildly in a nightclub or under the moon in a swamp by an open fire, but about your consciousness, your sense of self. Kokai and his family, all of the Asmat in Pirien, were connected to each other and their village in a way I could barely fathom, and there was a huge part of me that wanted to be like them. Their unfiltered, immediate experience of life appealed to my own primitiveness, even as I couldn’t quite throw off my inhibitions and join them completely. Tobias Schneebaum had felt the same longing, had been driven to Asmat for many of the same reasons. “Throughout my life,” he wrote, “I have been searching for a way to connect with other human beings. Suddenly, I find myself in a forest among the Asmat, living in their world, where I lose my insecurities and am content.”

Excerpted from Savage Harvest by Carl Hoffman. Buy it here. 

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