What Really Happened to Michael Rockefeller
A journey to the heart of New Guinea’s Asmat tribal homeland sheds new light on the mystery of the heir’s disappearance there in 1961
Asmat is, in its way, a perfect place. Everything you could possibly need is here. It’s teeming with shrimp and crabs and fish and clams. In the jungle there are wild pig, the furry, opossumlike cuscus, and the ostrichlike cassowary. And sago palm, whose pith can be pounded into a white starch and which hosts the larvae of the Capricorn beetle, both key sources of nutrition. The rivers are navigable highways. Crocodiles 15 feet long prowl their banks, and jet-black iguanas sun on uprooted trees. There are flocks of brilliant red-and-green parrots. Hornbills with five-inch beaks and blue necks.
And secrets, spirits, laws and customs, born of men and women who have been walled off by ocean, mountains, mud and jungle for longer than anyone knows.
Until 50 years ago, there were no wheels here. No steel or iron, not even any paper. There’s still not a single road or automobile. In its 10,000 square miles, there is but one airstrip, and outside of the main “city” of Agats, there isn’t a single cell tower. Here it’s hard to know where the water begins and the land ends, as the Arafura Sea’s 15-foot tides inundate the coast of southwest New Guinea, an invisible swelling that daily slides into this flat swamp and pushes hard against great outflowing rivers. It is a world of satiny, knee-deep mud and mangrove swamps stretching inland, a great hydroponic terrarium.
We were crossing the mouth of the Betsj River, a turbulent place of incoming tide and outrushing water, when the waves slammed and our 30-foot longboat rolled. I crawled forward, reached under a plastic tarp and fumbled blindly in my duffel for the Ziploc bag holding my satellite phone, and slipped it into my pocket. I hadn’t wanted to bring the phone, but at the last minute I’d thought how stupid it would be to die for want of a call. If Michael Rockefeller had had a radio when his catamaran overturned in this exact spot in 1961, he never would have disappeared.
He was 23 years old, the privileged son of New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, seven months into the adventure of a lifetime that had transformed him from clean-cut student to bearded photographer and art collector. One moment his boat was being tossed by the waves, just as ours was, and the next he and his Dutch companion were clinging to an overturned hull. And then Rockefeller had swum for shore and vanished. No trace of him was ever found, despite a two-week search involving ships, airplanes, helicopters and thousands of locals prowling the coasts and jungle swamps. The fact that such a simple, banal thing had happened to him made what was happening to us feel all the more real. There would be no foreboding music. One bad wave and I’d be clinging to a boat in the middle of nowhere.
The official cause of Michael’s death was drowning, but there had long been a multitude of rumors. He’d been kidnapped and kept prisoner. He’d gone native and was hiding out in the jungle. He’d been consumed by sharks. He’d made it to shore, only to be killed and eaten by the local Asmat headhunters. The story had grown, become mythical. There had been an off-Broadway play about him, a novel, a rock song, even a television show in the 1980s hosted by Leonard Nimoy.
I’d been fascinated with the story ever since I first saw a photo of Michael on his first trip to what was then called Netherlands New Guinea. In it he is kneeling, holding his 35-millimeter camera under the close eyes of natives. He was working on a documentary film in the highlands of the Great Baliem Valley. That film, Dead Birds, was a groundbreaking ethnographic examination of a barely contacted, stone-age culture that engaged in constant ritual warfare. The mountains, the mist, the naked men yelling and screaming and attacking one another with spears and bow and arrow, had fascinated and entranced me, as had the whole idea of contact between people from dramatically different worlds. In my 20s, I’d tried to get there, but it was too expensive for my young budget, so instead I’d ended up, briefly, in Borneo.
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?
I started poking around in Dutch colonial archives and the records of Dutch missionaries, and I found more than I’d ever imagined. After the ships and planes and helicopters had gone home, a series of new investigations took place. There were pages and pages of reports, cables and letters discussing the case, sent by the Dutch government, Asmat-speaking missionaries on the ground and Catholic Church authorities—and most of it had never been made public. Men who had been key participants in those investigations had remained silent for 50 years, but they were still alive and finally willing to talk.
On February 20, 1957, in a city of concrete and steel 6,000 times bigger than the largest hamlet in Asmat, Nelson Rockefeller introduced the world to a new kind of seeing. He was 49 years old, square-jawed and ambitious, the grandson of Standard Oil founder John D. Rockefeller. At the time of Nelson’s birth, which was announced on the front page of the New York Times, John D. was the richest man on earth, with a fortune estimated at $900 million. In two years, Nelson would become the governor of New York. In 1960, he would run for the presidency. In 1974, he would become vice president of the United States.
Inside a family-owned, four-story townhouse with elegantly curving bay windows at 15 West 54th Street—just around the corner from the Museum of Modern Art, which his mother, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, had helped found—guests began arriving at 8:30 p.m. to a private reception heralding the first exhibit of the Museum of Primitive Art, which would open to the public the following day. The things they were celebrating came from a world away. A carved paddle from Easter Island. The elongated, exaggerated face of a wooden mask from Nigeria. Pre-Columbian Aztec and Mayan stone figures from Mexico. Around these objects were no ethnographic dioramas, no depictions of African huts or canoes and fishing nets. They rested atop stark white cylinders and cubes, illuminated by track lighting against white walls. They were to be viewed as works of art.
Nelson was dressed in the height of New York tribal finery: black tie. As the guests nibbled canapés and sipped wine, he told them that his new museum was “the first...of its kind in the world”—dedicated exclusively to primitive art. “We do not want to establish primitive art as a separate kind of category,” he said, “but rather to integrate it, with all its missing variety, into what is already known to the arts of man. Our aim will always be to select objects of outstanding beauty whose rare quality is the equal of works shown in other museums of art throughout the world, and to exhibit them so that everyone may enjoy them in the fullest measure.”
Michael Rockefeller was just 18 years old that night, and it’s easy to imagine the power the event had for him. His father’s pride over the new museum, the exotic beauty and pull of the objects, the cream of New York’s elite admiring them. Michael was tall and slender, clean-shaven and square-jawed like his father, with thick, black-rimmed glasses. He’d grown up with his two sisters and two brothers in the family townhouse in Manhattan and on the Rockefeller estate in Westchester County. As Abby Rockefeller had done with Nelson, so Nelson did with Michael, schooling him in art the way other boys were schooled in baseball, taking him to art dealers on Saturday afternoons. His twin sister, Mary, remembered how they loved to watch their father rearrange his art.
As he neared the end of his four years at Harvard, Michael was, in the words of a friend, “a quiet, artistic spirit.” And he was torn. His father expected his son to be like him—to pursue a career in one of the family enterprises, banking or finance, and indulge his artistic passions on the side. Michael graduated cum laude from Harvard with a B.A. in history and economics, but he yearned for something else. He’d traveled widely, working on his father’s ranch in Venezuela for a summer, visiting Japan in 1957, and he’d been surrounded not just by art, but by primitive art. And how could he make his “primitive art”-collecting father prouder than by going to its source and plunging in deeper than the forceful governor and presidential candidate had ever dreamed?
At Harvard he met the filmmaker Robert Gardner, who was beginning work on Dead Birds, and signed on as the sound engineer. “Mike was very quiet and very modest,” said Karl Heider, who as a Harvard graduate student in anthropology had shared a tent on the 1961 film expedition with him. In the evenings, Heider was astonished to see the wealthiest member of the team darning his socks.
But Michael was ambitious, too. “Michael’s father had put him on the board of his museum,” Heider told me, “and Michael said he wanted to do something that hadn’t been done before and to bring a major collection to New York.” He had already corresponded with Adrian Gerbrands, deputy director of the Dutch National Museum of Ethnology, who’d recently begun fieldwork in Asmat. The region was home to people who lived as hunter-gatherers and yet produced carvings of astounding beauty. “Asmat,” Heider said, “was the obvious choice.”
Michael made a scouting trip there during a mid-May break in filming. Only in the mid-1950s had a few Dutch missionaries and government officials begun pacifying the Asmat, but even by 1961 many had never seen a Westerner, and inter-village warfare and headhunting remained common. “Now this is wild and somehow more remote country than what I have ever seen before,” Michael wrote. In many ways, the Asmat world at the time was a mirror image of every taboo of the West. In some areas, men had sex with each other. They occasionally shared wives. In bonding rituals, they sometimes drank one another’s urine. They killed their neighbors, and they hunted human heads and ate human flesh.
They weren’t savages, however, but biologically modern men with all the brainpower and manual dexterity necessary to fly a 747, with a language so complex it had 17 tenses, whose isolated universe of trees, ocean, river and swamp constituted their whole experience. They were pure subsistence hunter-gatherers who lived in a world of spirits—spirits in the rattan and in the mangrove and sago trees, in the whirlpools, in their own fingers and noses. Every villager could see them, talk to them. There was their world, and there was the kingdom of the ancestors across the seas, known as Safan, and an in-between world, and all were equally real. No death just happened; even sickness came at the hand of the spirits because the spirits of the dead person were jealous of the living and wanted to linger and cause mischief. The Asmat lived in a dualistic world of extremes, of life and death, where one balanced the other. Only through elaborate sacred feasts and ceremonies and reciprocal violence could sickness and death be kept in check by appeasing and chasing those ancestors back to Safan, back to the land beyond the sea.
Expert woodcarvers in a land without stone, the Asmat crafted ornate shields, paddles, drums, canoes and ancestor poles, called bisj, embodying the spirit of an ancestor. The bisj poles were 20-foot-high masterpieces of stacked men interwoven with crocodiles and praying mantises and other symbols of headhunting. The poles were haunting, expressive, alive, and each carried an ancestor’s name. The carvings were memorial signs to the dead, and to the living, that their deaths had not been forgotten, that the responsibility to avenge them was still alive.
The Asmat saw themselves in the trees—just as a man had feet and legs and arms and a head, so did the sago tree, which had roots and branches and a fruit, a seed on top. Just as the fruit of the sago tree nourished new trees, so the fruit of men, their heads, nourished young men. They all knew some version of the story of the first brothers in the world, one of the Asmat creation myths, in which the older brother cajoles the younger into killing him and placing his head against the groin of a young man. The skull nourishes the initiate’s growth, even as he takes the victim’s name and becomes him. It was through that story that men learned how to headhunt and how to butcher a human body and how to use that skull to make new men from boys and to keep life flowing into the world.
The completion of a bisj pole usually unleashed a new round of raids; revenge was taken and balance restored, new heads obtained—new seeds to nourish the growth of boys into men—and the blood of the victims rubbed into the pole. The spirit in the pole was made complete. The villagers then engaged in sex, and the poles were left to rot in the sago fields, fertilizing the sago and completing the cycle.
Anything outside of the tangible immediacy of what the Asmats could see had to come from that spirit world—it was the only comprehensible explanation. An airplane was opndettaji—a passing-over-canoe-of-the-spirits. White men came from the land beyond the sea, the same place the spirits lived, and so must be super beings.
Michael did not plunge into this realm a lone adventurer; he was a Rockefeller, not to mention a trustee of the Museum of Primitive Art. His traveling party included, among others, Gerbrands and René Wassing, a government anthropologist assigned to him from the Dutch New Guinea Department of Native Affairs.
Michael’s field notes from his first trip to Asmat and the letters he wrote reveal a deepening seriousness regarding his collecting. Before his second expedition, he laid out “objectives; themes of investigation; criterion for stylistic variation.” He wanted to produce books and mount the biggest exhibition of Asmat art ever.
Michael returned to Asmat in October 1961. Wassing joined him again and in Agats he badgered a Dutch patrol officer into selling him his homemade catamaran, into which Michael stuffed a wealth of barter goods—steel axes, fishing hooks and line, cloth and tobacco, to which the Asmats had become addicted. He and Wassing, accompanied by two Asmat teenagers, visited 13 villages over three weeks.
Michael collected everywhere he went and in quantity, loading up on drums, bowls, bamboo horns, spears, paddles, shields. He was most impressed by the bisj poles. With no sense of irony, he wrote: “This was one kind of object that seemed to me inviolate for the encroachment of western commercialism upon Asmat art.” In the southern village of Omadesep he’d bought a set of four on his first trip; they now stand in the Michael C. Rockefeller Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which absorbed the collections of the Museum of Primitive Art after it closed in 1976.
In mid-November, Michael and his companions returned to Agats to stock up on supplies for another month. They set out again on November 17, intending to motor down the Arafura Sea coast to southern Asmat, an area that remained wild, unacculturated and known well by a single priest, Cornelius van Kessel, with whom Michael planned to rendezvous. As they began to cross the mouth of the Betsj River, conflicting tides and winds whipped up waves and crosscurrents. Water that had been gentle one minute was heaving the next. A wave drowned their outboard and the catamaran began to drift; then the waves capsized it.
The two teenagers, born on the rivers, jumped in and swam for the nearby shore. Long out of Michael and Wassing’s sight, they made it; after trudging through the mud for hours, they summoned help in Agats that evening.
While the Dutch colonial government scrambled ships, airplanes and helicopters to search for them, Michael and Wassing spent a long night clinging to an overturned hull. After dawn on November 19, Michael told Wassing he was worried they’d drift into the open sea. Around 8 o’clock that morning, he stripped to his undershorts, tied two empty jerrycans to his belt for buoyancy, and set out on a swim he estimated would be three to ten miles to the dim shoreline.
That was the last anyone knew of Michael Rockefeller. Wassing was spotted from the air that afternoon and rescued the next morning.
As the search for Michael spun into high gear, Nelson and Mary Rockefeller chartered a Boeing 707 and filled it with reporters, who grew in number when they landed in Merauke, 150 miles to the southeast of Asmat. But they were far from Asmat itself; they were there but not there, they could do little but wait helplessly and hold newsless press conferences. On November 24, the Dutch minister of the interior told the New York Times,
“There is no longer any hope of finding Michael Rockefeller alive.”
The Rockefellers clung to the idea that he might have made it to shore, and a Dutch official in New Guinea supported that hope: “If Michael reached shore there is a good chance of survival,” he said. “The natives, although uncivilized, are very kind and will always help you.”
On November 28, nine days after Michael had swum away, his father and sister flew home. After two more weeks, the Dutch called off the search.
Five of us—Wilem, my boat pilot; Amates, my interpreter; and their assistants and I—had been working our way down the Asmat coast for five days. The region is now nominally Catholic, headhunting is a thing of the past and the villages we visited felt as if they’d been stripped of something, as if some reason for being was gone. In the village of Basim, children played wildly, rambunctiously, loudly, climbing palm trees and covering themselves with mud and jumping into the brown river. But if the adults weren’t out fishing or gathering sago, they sat around, listless. I didn’t see carvings anywhere. Basim’s jeu—its ceremonial men’s house, the seat of Asmat spiritual life and warrior culture, the place where the worlds of the dead and the living came together—was magnificent in the way they all were, long and huge and tied together entirely with rattan, nail-less. But it was empty and crumbling.
Amates arranged for us to stay in the schoolmaster’s house, four bare rooms. That night we were sitting on the floor when a man walked in. He was small, 5 feet 7 and 140 pounds or so, with a prominent jaw, a big nose and deep-set eyes. Veins popped from his neck and his temples. He had a hole in his septum, in which he could wear a shell or pig-bone ornament if he chose. His T-shirt was stained, dotted with small holes. A woven bag adorned with cockatoo feathers and seeds from a Job’s tears plant hung from his neck across his chest. He had quick, darting eyes and spoke fast in a voice that sounded like gravel rolling across glass.
“This is Kokai,” Amates said. “He is my elder brother, my papa, the head man from Pirien,” meaning an ex-chief in a village called Pirien. “He has a new wife in Basim, so he’s here a lot.” Kokai sat down on the floor with us, and Amates brought out tobacco and rolling papers. I hadn’t mentioned anything to Amates about what I was after, but it felt like too good an opportunity: Pirien had broken away from a village called Otsjanep (OCH-an-ep), where the paper trail involving Michael led.
“How old is he?” I asked Amates.
They talked, I waited. “He doesn’t know,” Amates said, “but maybe in his 60s.”
"Does he remember a story about a Dutch raid, men being killed?”
Amates spoke to Kokai with a long-winded indirectness, a simple question taking ten minutes to ask. Kokai looked at me. Rolled a cigarette, a long one, using two pieces of rolling paper. The candlelight flickered. My legs ached from the hard wooden floor. Kokai started talking.
“He remembers,” Amates said. “He was a child, and he saw it.”
On it went, a disjointed swirl of story, Amates pausing to translate. The Asmat, living without TV or film or recording media of any kind, are splendid storytellers. Kokai pantomimed the pulling of a bow. He slapped his thighs, his chest, his forehead, then swept his hands over his head, illustrating the back of his head blowing off. His eyes went big to show fright; he showed running with his arms and shoulders, then slinking, creeping into the jungle. I heard the names Faratsjam, Osom, Akon, Samut and Ipi—names I already knew from typewritten pages in a dusty Dutch archive, and the prologue to Michael’s disappearance came to life.
A few months after Nelson Rockefeller opened the Museum of Primitive Art, Otsjanep and a nearby village, Omadesep (o-MAD-e-sep), engaged in a mutual massacre. They were powerful villages, each more than a thousand strong, on parallel rivers only a few hours paddle apart, and they were enemies—in fact, they had been tricking and killing each other for years. But they were also connected, as even antagonistic Asmat villages usually are, by marriage and death, since the killer and victim became the same person.
In September 1957, the leader of one of Omadesep’s jeus convinced six men from Otsjanep to accompany a flotilla of warriors down the coast in pursuit of dogs’ teeth, objects of symbolic and monetary value to the Asmat. In a tangled story of violence, the men from Omadesep turned on their traveling companions from Otsjanep, killing all but one. The survivor crawled home through miles of jungle to alert his fellow warriors, who then counterattacked. Of the 124 men who had set out, only 11 made it home alive.
A murder here, a murder there could be overlooked, but for Max Lepré, the new Dutch government controller in southern Asmat, such mayhem was too much. A man whose family had been colonists in Indonesia for hundreds of years, who had been imprisoned by the Japanese and then the Indonesians after World War II, Lepré was an old-school colonial administrator determined to teach the Asmat “a lesson.” On January 18, 1958, he led a force of officers to Omadesep, confiscated as many weapons as they could find, and burned canoes and at least one jeu.
Otsjanep wasn’t so pliable. Three Papuan policemen sent with gifts of a Dutch flag and some steel axes returned quickly. The men of Otsjanep wanted nothing to do with the government and were willing “to use violence to make themselves clear,” Lepré would write in his official report. “The Dutch flag was not accepted.”
While Father van Kessel, who traveled by native canoe and decorated himself as the Asmat did, with cockatoo feathers and stripes of ocher and black ash, had always been warmly received in Otsjanep, Lepré feared the Asmat, and his fear was self-fulfilling. He headed for the village with an armed, reinforced police contingent and arrived on February 6 in a pelting rain. The clearing was thick with men, but Lepré noted seeing no women, children or dogs—“always a bad sign.” Word traveled fast in the jungle; the villagers knew what had happened in Omadesep. But they were confused. What to do?
On the left a group approached—in capitulation, Lepré believed. But on the right stood a group armed with bows and arrows and spears and shields. Lepré looked left, he looked right, equally unsure what to do. Behind the houses a third group of men broke into what he described as “warrior dances.” Lepré and a force of police scrambled onto the left bank, and another force took the right.
“Come out,” Lepré yelled, through interpreters, “and put down your weapons!”
A man came out of a house bearing something in his hand, and he ran toward Lepré. Then, pandemonium: Shots rang out from all directions. Faratsjam was hit in the head, and the rear of his skull blew off. Four bullets ripped into Osom—his biceps, both armpits and his hip. Akon took shots to the midsection, Samut to the chest. Ipi’s jaw vanished in a bloody instant. The villagers would remember every detail of the bullet damage, so shocking it was to them, the violence so fast and ferocious and magical to people used to hand-to-hand combat and wounding with spear or arrow. The Asmat panicked and bolted into the jungle.
“The course of affairs is certainly regrettable,” Lepré wrote. “But on the other hand it has become clear to them that headhunting and cannibalism is not much appreciated by a government institution all but unknown to them, with which they had only incidental contact. It is highly likely that the people now understand that they would do better not to resist authorities.”
In fact, it was highly unlikely that they had reached any such understanding. For the Asmat, Max Lepré’s raid was a shocking, inexplicable thing, the cosmos gone awry. They built their entire lives around appeasing and deceiving and driving away spirits, and yet now this white man who might even be a spirit himself had come to kill them for doing what they had always done. The Dutch government? It was a meaningless concept to them.
And what of the spirits of the five men Lepré’s officers had killed? They were out there, wandering around, causing mischief, haunting the village, making people sick, as real in death as they were in life. The world was out of balance. How to explain it? How to right it?
The entrance to the river leading to Otsjanep was so narrow I never would have noticed it from offshore. Wilem motored slowly, and I imagined Max Lepré here, his heart beating against his chest, armed and ready, and I imagined the Asmat watching him come, these strange men with their metal boat and their guns.
A stream of canoes slipped past us, heading to the sea, some with women and children, some with men standing, their paddles dipping and stroking in perfect time with one another. We stopped first in Pirien, a quarter-mile downriver from Otsjanep; it had originally been one of five jeus in Otsjanep, but had broken away sometime after Michael disappeared. We were barely inside a two-room wooden house when men started appearing. One. Two. Five. Soon I counted 40 squeezed into the sweltering, furniture-less room, crowds of boys peering in through the windows. We sat on the floor, a sea of faces and sweating bodies and flies, staring, waiting.
Amates, my Asmat guide and interpreter, brought out the tobacco and passed pouches of it and rolling papers to the elders, who passed mounds of the brown weed around the room. Soon we were enveloped in smoke. Amates talked, the men nodded. Some introduced themselves. I was uncertain why they were here. They didn’t ask me anything, but they seemed to want to see me, and they wanted the tobacco I’d brought, but I was never quite sure I understood everything Amates was saying.
When I asked about Lepré’s raid they grew quiet. More than 50 years had passed, but the memory of that morning was still too vivid to recall for a stranger. Amates suggested we take a break and head upriver to Otsjanep itself. The river twisted and wound, and then the trees cleared. On the left bank, there was nothing but thatch huts and mud, smoke and a few banana trees and coconut palms. Crowds of people sat on porches, watching us. We pulled up to the bank, climbed over canoes and over branches and log walkways, Amates talking to the crowd. Children gathered, pressing close.
The vibe was strange. No one moved. If I’d been a cat, my fur would have been standing up. I looked at people and they looked back, but there was no recognition, no welcome. No one shook my hand. No one invited us in. I asked Amates to ask if anyone knew about Lepré and his raid, or even had been a witness to it.
Faces were blank, emotionless. A few people said a few words. “They don’t remember anything,” Amates said. “They don’t know anything about this.”
We climbed back into the boat and returned to the wooden house in Pirien. It was late afternoon. Dogs yelped and fought. Children played on the boardwalks, but I couldn’t see any adults anywhere. I couldn’t keep the flies off my face, my eyes, my nostrils. They were starting to make me feel crazy.
“They are very afraid,” Amates said, apropos of nothing.
“Afraid?” I said. “Of what?”
“There was a tourist who died here,” he said. “An American tourist named—” and the name he said was garbled. I couldn’t understand it. This was news to me. In all I’d read, I’d never heard of an American tourist dying in Asmat.
“When?” I said. “What was his name?”
Amates’ English was slow, the words hard to comprehend no matter what he said. He said the name again, and then again, more slowly, and it was a hard name for an Asmat to pronounce, but this time it was unmistakable: “Michael Rockefeller.”
I had never told Amates that I was investigating Michael’s disappearance, only that I was a journalist writing about Asmat and its history. I had never so much as mentioned his name.
“Michael Rockefeller?” I asked, feigning ignorance.
“Yes, Michael Rockefeller,” Amates said. “He was an American. He was here in Otsjanep. They are very, very afraid. They do not want to talk about this.”
“How did his name come up?” I asked.
“They told me,” he said. “Today, when we were talking, they are afraid you are here to ask about Michael Rockefeller. And they are afraid.”
“Otsjanep killed him. Everyone knows it.”
In December 1961, a month after Michael disappeared, a Dutch Catholic priest named Hubertus von Peij traveled to Omadesep, which lay at the southern end of his parish. Von Peij had spent years in Asmat, and he knew the people and language well. He told me about his journey when I met him one cold winter’s night in Tilburg, the Netherlands, in 2012. He was alive and well at age 84, living in a small apartment decorated with a few Asmat carvings.
As he sat in a missionary’s house in Omadesep, four men walked in. Two were from Otsjanep, two from Omadesep. They had something they wanted to tell the priest.
Bit by bit, it spilled out. The day Michael had set off from the catamaran, 50 men from Otsjanep had brought palm building supplies to the government post in Pirimapun, about 20 miles south of Otsjanep. They’d traveled at night, spent the day in the village, and then left for the night-long voyage home; at dawn on November 20, they’d paused at the mouth of the Ewta River, three miles downriver from Otsjanep, waiting for the tide to turn. It was a good time to have a smoke and a bite of sago. Something moved in the water. They saw a crocodile—an ew, in the Asmat language. No. It wasn’t a crocodile, but a tuan, a white man. He was swimming on his back. He turned and waved. One of the Asmat said: “People of Otsjanep, you’re always talking about headhunting tuans. Well, here’s your chance.” An argument ensued. Dombai, the leader of the Pirien jeu, didn’t think he should be killed. Ajim and Fin thought otherwise. While they tried to lift the tuan into a canoe, Pep speared him in the ribs. It wasn’t fatal. They rowed him to a hidden creek, the Jawor River, where they killed him and made a big fire.
“Was he wearing glasses?” von Peij asked. “What kind of clothes was he wearing?”
Their answer burned in his memory: The white man was wearing shorts, but shorts they’d never seen before and that you couldn’t buy in Asmat—shorts that ended high up on his legs and had no pockets. Underpants.
Von Peij nodded. “Where is his head?”
“Fin-tsjem aotepetsj ara,” they said. “It hangs in the house of Fin. And it looked so small, like the head of a child.”
“What about his thigh bones?” said von Peij, who knew they were used as daggers. “And his tibia?” He knew they were used as the points of fishing spears.
Pep had one thigh bone, Ajim the other. A man named Jane had one tibia, Wasan the other. On the list went: who had his upper arms, forearms, ribs, shorts, glasses, a total of 15 men.
“Why did they kill him?” he said. Because of the killings in Otsjanep almost four years earlier, they said—the Lepré raid.
Von Peij felt overwhelmed. The details, especially the description of Michael’s underwear, were too concrete not to credit.
A few days later, he wrote a note to his superior in Agats: “Without having the intention of doing so, I stumbled across information and I feel compelled to report this. Michael Rockefeller has been picked up and killed by Otsjanep. [The villages of] Jow, Biwar and Omadesep are all clearly aware of it.” He also notified the regional government controller.
Cornelius van Kessel, the priest Michael had been traveling to meet, had also been hearing things. He met with von Peij, sent his Asmat assistant to the village to quiz the warriors there, brought a handful to Basim to interrogate them himself, and on December 15, wrote a long report to the controller. “After my conversation with Father von Peij, the one percent of doubt I had has been taken by the very detailed data which matched with my data and inspections. “IT IS CERTAIN THAT MICHAEL ROCKEFELLER WAS MURDERED AND EATEN BY OTSJANEP,” he wrote in all caps. “This was revenge for the shooting four years ago.” Van Kessel spelled it all out. Names. Who had which body parts.
Less than a month after Michael disappeared—and within two weeks after they called off the search for him—Dutch authorities had von Peij’s and van Kessel’s reports.
On December 21, the governor of Dutch New Guinea cabled the Dutch minister of the interior. The cable is marked “secret” and “destroy,” but part of it remains in the Dutch government archives in the Hague. It outlines what the two priests reported and says:
In my opinion some reservations need to be made. No evidence has been found yet and therefore there is no certainty yet. In this connection it doesn’t seem germane to me to give information to the press or Rockefeller senior at this time.
Both priests had lived in Asmat for years. Both spoke the local language. And both were sure the story they’d heard was accurate. Van Kessel wanted to alert Michael’s family, even travel to the United States to speak with them. But in a series of letters church authorities warned von Peij and van Kessel that the issue was “like a cabinet of glass” and to keep silent, so “the mission will not fall from grace with the population,” and soon shipped van Kessel back to Holland. The Dutch government, engaged in a struggle with Indonesia and the United States to retain its last colony in the east, a policy predicated on presenting Papua as a civilized, smoothly functioning semi-independent entity, said nothing. When the Associated Press reported in March 1962 that Michael had been killed and eaten, based on a letter a third Dutch priest in Asmat had written to his parents, Nelson Rockefeller contacted the Dutch Embassy in the U.S., which contacted the Hague. Joseph Luns, the minister of foreign affairs himself, responded. The rumors had been thoroughly investigated, he said, and there was nothing to them.
In fact, the Dutch government investigation was just beginning. Officials dispatched a young Dutch patrol officer named Wim van de Waal—the very man who had sold Michael Rockefeller his catamaran. In 1962, van de Waal moved to Otsjanep to begin a long, slow process that would take three months.
“The Asmat in Otsjanep didn’t understand why I was there,” he told me in 2012, around the dining table in his home on the Spanish island of Tenerife, where he’s lived since 1968. He, too, was well, at age 73. “It was a complicated village, and they feel like talking about these things brings them bad luck.” Bit by bit he quizzed them about battles and raids and finally it spilled out—a story that differed little from the one von Peij had heard.
Van de Waal asked for proof, knowing the Dutch government would take no action without it. Some men took him into the jungle, dug in the muck and produced a skull and bones, the skull bearing no lower jaw and a hole in the right temple—the hallmarks of remains that had been headhunted and opened to consume the brains.
He handed the remains over to Dutch authorities, but it was now June 1962 and global politics intervened. “The political situation was becoming awkward,” van de Waal said; the Dutch were about to lose their half of New Guinea to newly independent Indonesia. Van de Waal’s superiors recalled him from the village. “I was never asked to make a report of my time in Otsjanep,” he said, and in meetings with higher officials “we never, ever, touched upon my investigation.” No records in the Dutch government archives mention it, though van de Waal’s story is corroborated in the memoirs of van Kessel’s replacement, a priest named Anton van de Wouw.
Home after two months in Asmat, I was still riddled with questions. The stories I’d heard were all secondhand; everyone in Asmat “knew” the men in Otsjanep had killed Michael, but none of them there or in Pirien had admitted the killing to me. Only one man, the nephew of Pep, the man who’d allegedly speared Michael, had told me a detailed version of the story, and he’d been raised in another village. Furthermore, there was a question of reliability: The Asmat depended on deception to gain advantage over their enemies, to elude and placate the spirits; accounts of their saying whatever whites wanted to hear were abundant. Maybe the priests and the patrol officer wanted to believe the Asmat had killed and eaten Michael. It certainly strengthened their case for evangelizing and modernizing them. And despite so many weeks in Asmat, I’d only visited Pirien and Otsjanep twice, once for 24 hours and once for four days, and always with a retinue of translators and hangers-on. Michael’s notes on his travels had left me with the impression that he had embraced the Asmat without understanding them, and I wondered if I’d been guilty of the same thing, trying to obtain their deepest secrets without taking the time to know them.
I decided I had to go back, and to go deeper. Back in the United States, I studied Bahasa Indonesian, which has been rapidly supplanting the Asmats’ native language. Seven months later, I returned to Asmat. I wanted a much better understanding of Asmat culture and in particular Otsjanep’s village structure: who the men Lepré had killed were, and how they were related to the men named in van Kessel’s and von Peij’s reports.
Back in Agats I ran into Kokai, who was there visiting his son. For the first time we could speak directly to each other, and I felt a veil had been lifted. He invited me back to Pirien to live with him for a month.
His house was three rooms without furniture, its bare walls gray with years of dirt, soot, grime, its floors covered with traditional handwoven palm mats, in a village without power, plumbing, even a single store. In a corner stood spears, a bow and set of arrows, and six-foot-high shields, all carved by Kokai. This time, everything was different. I spoke their language and alone, without Amates or Wilem, I had surrendered myself to Kokai’s care and the village took me in, embraced me, opened up to me.
I asked nothing relating to Michael for almost two weeks. The men were building a new jeu and I spent hours, days waiting as they drummed and sang and danced, the men draped in dogs’ teeth necklaces, boar tusks around their arms and on their heads cuscus fur headbands sprouting the feathers of sulphur-crested cockatoos. Sometimes they drummed and sang all day and all night, songs of headhunting and war, a bridge between the ancestors and the here and now.
Kokai and I would talk in the mornings over cigarettes and sago, and Kokai knew everything—hundreds of songs and stories, his family and the village lineage back generations. As the second week melted into the third, it was time to start asking questions.
One morning I took out a stack of 50 or so photocopies of black-and-white photographs Michael Rockefeller had taken in Otsjanep in the summer of 1961. The men in them were naked, proud, smiling, their hair in long ringlets, and the shells of triton hung on the abdomens of some—the sign of a great headhunter. Other photos showed elaborate bisj poles, some of which, I knew, Michael had unsuccessfully tried to buy.
Kokai and other villagers, including some in Otsjanep, identified in the photos six of the 15 men that van Kessel and von Peij named as having parts of Michael’s skeleton, which proved Michael had met those identified as having killed him—an important detail, because the Asmat preferred to take the head of someone whose name they knew. When I asked why the bisj poles were still in the jeu and not laid into the sago fields, they said it was because the bisj ceremony was still unfinished. Who had the poles been named for? They kept saying they didn’t know. It was possible, but—for a people who could remember family lineages going back generations—unlikely.
One night at Kokai’s I asked about the men killed in the Lepré raid. I wanted to know what their positions in the village had been. Faratsjam had been the kepala perang, or war leader, of a jeu. Osom, Akon and Samut had been, too. Of the five dead in the Lepré raid, four had been the most important men in Otsjanep, the heads of four of the five jeus. The strongest, most able warriors of one of the strongest villages in all of Asmat, killed in an instant. By Max Lepré, a Western outsider.
And the men who had taken their places? Fin, who had allegedly taken Michael’s skull. Ajim and Pep, who were each alleged to have speared him. And Jane, who was named as having one of Michael’s tibia? He was married to Samut’s sister, and Samut had been married to Jane’s sister. The slain and their successors: Each of these men would have had a sacred obligation to avenge the deaths of the men killed by Lepré. Otsjanep’s motive for murder felt increasingly solid. The only jeu that hadn’t lost its war leader was Pirien—the only jeu from which Lepré had killed no one, and which van Kessel and von Peij had reported had been against Michael’s killing. The jeu that would later break away.
Another night I was sitting with Kokai and another man, smoking and talking, when they started speaking so quickly to each other I couldn’t keep up. I heard the words “tourist” and “Pep” and “Dombai” and mati—dead. And then “Rockefeller.”
I froze. I was sure Kokai was telling the story of Michael Rockefeller. Finally! I didn’t want to interject, to tell him to slow down, I was afraid he might clam up. Kokai pantomimed shooting an arrow, and I heard polisi, and he was talking about helicopters coming in and people running into the jungle to hide. Not for the first time I imagined how frightening those throbbing machines in the sky must have seemed.
Without missing a beat, he segued into another story, about an event that I knew about but had never connected to Michael. From the helicopters and hiding in the jungle, Kokai talked about a cholera epidemic that had swept through Asmat. “Dead, dead,” he said, repeatedly placing one hand over the other, demonstrating the bodies piling up. “So many dead. Bensin,” the Indonesian word for gasoline.
Within a year after Michael disappeared, I knew, more than 70 men, women and children were dead in Otsjanep, their corpses rotting on platforms, as was customary in Asmat. “Now and then you could see dogs walking around with parts of a foot or hand which—after sufficient rotting—fell off the platforms,” wrote Anton van de Wouw, the priest who had replaced van Kessel. It was so bad the villagers agreed, at van de Wouw’s insistence, to violate tradition and burn the dead.
Kokai had moved from one story to the next as if they were part of the same event, and it hit me: What if the epidemic had been seen as the spirits’ punishment for killing Michael Rockefeller? Even more significant, Australian army helicopters had been dispatched to aid in the cholera fight, which meant that the only two times the Asmat had ever seen helicopters were within days of Michael’s death and as more death, faster than they’d ever experienced, swept through their village.
A month had passed and it was time to go. Everything pointed to Michael’s killing—even van de Wouw had written in 1968, after years closely connected with the village, “It is clear that [he] came to the shore alive.” Yet the sons of the men accused of killing him would admit nothing, directly. Even Kokai would say only, “We have heard this story, but we don’t know anything about that.” Fifty years had passed, Kokai called me his younger brother; after all this time, would they really just look me in the eye and lie? Were they really that scared? What was holding them back?
One day shortly before I left Pirien, a man named Marco was acting out a story, walking and stalking and mimicking the stabbing of someone with a spear, the shooting of arrows, the cutting off of a head. I heard the words “Dombai” and “Otsjanep” and turned my video camera on, but the theatrics seemed to be over and he just talked and talked, and after eight minutes, I hit the stop button.
Although I didn’t know it yet, it was perhaps my most important moment in Asmat. Back in Agats, I showed the video to Amates, who translated. What I filmed after Marco had told the story was a stern warning to the men gathered around him:
Don’t you tell this story to any other man or any other village, because this story is only for us. Don’t speak. Don’t speak and tell the story. I hope you remember it and you must keep this for us. I hope, I hope, this is for you and you only. Don’t talk to anyone, forever, to other people or another village. If people question you, don’t answer. Don’t talk to them, because this story is only for you. If you tell it to them, you’ll die. I am afraid you will die. You’ll be dead, your people will be dead, if you tell this story. You keep this story in your house, to yourself, I hope, forever. Forever....
From the book Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism and Michael Rockefeller's Tragic Quest for Primitive Art, by Carl Hoffman. Copyright (c) 2014 by Carl Hoffman. To be published on March 18, 2014, by William Morrow, an imprint of Harper-Collins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.This is an excerpt from Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism and Michael Rockefeller's Tragic Quest for Primitive Art, by Carl Hoffman. Copyright (c) 2014 by Carl Hoffman. To be published on March 18, 2014, by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.