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

The Baliem Valley was a “magnificent vastness” in Rockefeller’s eyes, and its people were “emotionallly expressive.” But Asmat proved to be “more remote country than what I have ever seen.” (President and Fellows of Harvard University; Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology [155700080])
Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

(Continued from page 1)

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?


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus