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])
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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.


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