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 March 18), 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. We talked to Hoffman about his research, experience in this still-desolate region, and his time spent with the once-cannibalistic Asmat.
What started you digging into the story of Michael Rockefeller?
I’ve known about Rockefeller’s disappearance since I was, you know in my early 20’s, just out of college and tooling around the world. The more I traveled, the more places I went – I wondered about Michael and the rumors that he either drowned or he disappeared at sea or he made it to shore and was eaten by cannibals. That drama always stayed with me.
But you’re not entirely sympathetic with Rockefeller.
I think Michael was, by all accounts, a super-earnest, well-meaning guy who clearly had a passion for art and primitive art and was trying to understand the Asmat. He made mistakes. They were first and foremost because of his youth. And second, his affluence and wealth – not because he was an asshole, but because he was not limited in ways you or I would have been. He had a $1,000 engine (in 1961 dollars) flown to him on a whim; he said ‘I want that catamaran’ and he got it; a Dutch anthropologist was just given to him by the Dutch government. He was able to assemble this expedition with his influence and ultimately he got into trouble.
This is such a high-profile case. Why has this mystery been left unsolved?
People had the impetus to go to Asmat and to jump into a boat and go into the swamps and talk to these people and try to retrace Michael’s steps – but that was a sure route to failure. For one, the Asmat’s memories are both incredible but also faulty. I mean, we don’t have any benchmarks. It’s impossible to tell what’s true and what’s not true.
So you need to do research.
You have to go into the archives. The Asmat have talked about Rockefeller swimming and making it to shore but they don’t admit to the killing, spearing, and eating of Michael Rockefeller. They do refer to some Dutch raid – that if there were a killing, it was in revenge from a Dutch raid some years earlier. But nobody ever named that Dutch raid. So if you go to the Asmat and ask about all these other events that weren’t directly related to Michael Rockefeller, you could kind of cross reference things and control the Asmat. Instead of saying “Tell me about your father murdering and eating this guy”, you could say, “You know, do you remember a Dutch, some kind of a Dutch police raid?” And they’ll say, yeah, and then they’ll describe it, and without any leading questions you start to get the whole story.
You visited the Asmat people twice during the book – each time for over a month. What was it like?
Being in Asmat is super, super intense. It’s the hardest place I’ve ever been. It’s incredibly uncomfortable, physically. There are no chairs, no beds, no things – you have to sit on the floor or sleep on the floor. Also, it’s dirty. The Asmat are not super clean. You go into a place like Djakarta, and it’s like an operating room compared to Asmat; it’s just mud and shit everywhere. It’s incredibly hot – like 95 degrees and 90 percent humidity most days. And you can’t go anywhere really because there’s no roads to anywhere, there’s just swamps. You can’t just walk into the jungle because there’s like quick sand. I mean they’d do it but I can’t do it. I don’t know where I’m going.
And the people?
The Asmat are a really difficult, challenging people. I grew to appreciate them, but they’re wacky and super complicated. Imagine going to live in a house with like 50 people and they’re all staring at you and they don’t really ask you any questions. There’s nothing to talk about. Even if you speak their language you can’t ask, “What do you do for work?”
You mentioned being hungry a lot. What was the food like?
Well, there’s sago [made from the pitch of palm stems]. Sago is usually like eating cardboard or sand. When it’s really fresh and just off the fire, it’s kind of gummy a little bit and nutty and it’s not bad. But it’s really hard to eat enough to feel full. They have krill, too, that are tiny and they pack them on the palm leaves and stick them on the fire and taste like kind of ammonia. If you’re lucky you get larvae that live in the sago. These are these big white grubs and they taste like almonds, butter cream, ice cream, bacon, bursting in your mouth. They wrap those in the sago and they make these like logs of sago stuffed with worms. Those aren’t bad. You can see why in Asmat they’re so lean – the leanest people I’ve ever seen.
The idea of primitivism is a running theme of the book. You call the an “unfiltered, immediate experience of life.” Is it an outdated idea?
I think so. I mean, the Asmat are biologically modern human beings – with the dexterity and brainpower to fly a 747. It’s their material world that is very, very different.
Because it once included cannibalism?
At the root of Asmat cannibalism is a very different consciousness, yes, but it’s not that most westerners have a sense of ‘I’ versus the ‘other’; it’s that Westerners tend to have much more areas of gray. They are not defined by the ‘other,’ whereas the Asmat are – through a bifurcated world of extremes. Life and death. Me and you. I eat you and assume your power and identity and become you. It’s not exactly primitive, though you could call it that. They used to kill each other and become each other, literally. I mean, they’re really different.
You almost sound sympathetic to cannibalism.
In Asmat, cannibalism was a byproduct of something else – that is, headhunting and warfare. Asmat must have been a terrible place to live because there was so much warfare. Still, I suspect they were better off. They were a whole people living wholly in their world with no doubts about it. (Just look at the photos Michael took of them – they’re so proud and smiling and there’s something beautiful and wild about them that doesn’t exist anymore.) Their lives are now more peaceful and they probably live longer, but they’re a people without much purpose. They’re not integrated into the cash economy. When I say, ‘what do you do for work; who are you’? they can’t answer the question because, for the most part, they don’t do anything. In the old days, they were warriors.