On November 19, 1961, Michael Rockefeller vanished. The 23-year old Harvard graduate and son of New York governor Nelson Rockefeller was in Netherlands New Guinea collecting the haunting wooden carvings of the Asmat people for his father's recently opened Museum of Primitive Art. On that November day, his boat capsized, and he swam toward shore. He was never heard from again.

The story of Rockefeller's disappearance captivated the media in the US and around the world. The New York Times ran near-daily updates on the search, which was conducted by helicopters, airplanes, ships, and thousands of locals. After no trace of him was found, the official pronouncement was that he'd drowned. But rumors about the scion's fate have fueled songs, TV shows, novels, countless articles, and even an off-Broadway play. In early February, a documentary called The Search for Michael Rockefeller, a sensationalized, incomplete account based on research done in the early 1970s, will air on Netflix.

Despite insistent denials by the Rockefeller family and the Dutch government over the years, the evidence is abundant and clear, as I discovered while researching my book Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibalism, Colonialism and Michael Rockefeller's Tragic Quest for Primitive Art. Rockefeller made it to shore and was killed and ceremonially eaten by the Asmat. Not only that, the Dutch government and the Catholic Church knew and kept it a secret.

Here are the nine reasons I believe cannibals ate Michael Rockefeller:
1) For the Asmat, headhunting and cannibalism were essential sacred practices at the core of their identity

The art Rockefeller was seeking was a sacred byproduct of a complex culture of hunter-gatherers whose sustained contact with the outside world began just a few years before his arrival. Asmat culture was defined by constant warfare with neighboring villages, the taking of heads for initiation ceremonies, and the ritual consumption of the slain. Through cannibalism the Asmat believed they formed an intimate bond with a victim, taking his power, his name, and becoming him.

In their world, no death happened naturally; all death was at the hands of spirits. There was the world of the here and now and the world of Safan, the land beyond the sea. To push the spirits of the dead to Safan, where they could do no harm to the living, required elaborate ceremonies and the carving of beautiful mangrove poles of stacked ancestors up to 20 feet tall called bisj. The poles embodied the spirit of the dead. They carried his name, and were a promise to right the imbalance in the community caused by his death. Only when the poles were complete and a death reciprocated was the ceremony completed, allowing the spirits to move on to Safan and new life flow in the village. And for the Asmat, the proper reciprocation could be achieved by any death, even a woman or child. They were opportunists preferring victims alone, unprotected, and vulnerable. They might wait years for the right moment.

A photo of the Rockefeller family. Michael is in the back row on the right. (Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

2) The village of Otsjanep existed in a state of profound agitation

At the time of Rockefeller's journey to collect bisj poles and other carvings, Asmat's culture of headhunting and cannibalism was flourishing, even as Dutch officials and Catholic priests were constantly interfering in an effort to end it. Nowhere was that truer than in the village of Otsjanep, a large, powerful, and deeply traditional place of 1,000 souls divided into five jeus, or clans. In December of 1957 the men of Otsjanep and the neighboring village of Omadesep had come to blows. Of 124 who set out for battle, only 11 made it home.

Three months later a zealous Dutch colonial patrol officer named Max Lapre decided to teach Otsjanep a lesson. Lapre arrived in the village with a force of armed policemen and four canoes full of warriors from an enemy village. Although later claiming he only intended to arrest and intimidate the men, his police were armed, and the situation ignited: he shot five men dead and injured a sixth. Even worse, he didn't just kill anyone, but four out of the five jeu leaders, the most important and sacred men in the village.

"The course of affairs is certainly regrettable," Lapre wrote in his official report, "but on the other hand it has become clear to them that headhunting and cannibalism is not much appreciated by a government all but unknown to them … It is highly likely that the people now understand that they would do better not to resist authorities." What of the spirits of those five killed by Lapre? They were out there, wandering around, causing mischief, haunting the village, making people sick. The world was out of balance, an open wound festering in the village every day. The situation was particularly challenging because Lapre was a Westerner and traditional reciprocation was impossible.
3) The details surrounding Rockefeller's accident are well documented

Asmat is 10,000 square miles of flat jungle swamp along the Arafura Sea. Its villages lie up a network of winding, often interconnected rivers. Rockefeller left the village of Per on the morning of November 18th in a small boat with two local Asmat teenagers and Rene Wassing, a 34-year-old anthropologist from the Netherlands New Guinea Department of Native Affairs, bound for the village of Basim. They were crossing the turbulent, three-mile-wide mouth of the Betsj River when the boat's engine was swamped by a wave and the vessel capsized. The two teenagers jumped in the water and swam to shore for help, but Rockefeller and Wassing couldn't see if they made it. The teenagers did make it, but it was close to midnight when they alerted authorities who the next morning scrambled a squadron of P2V Neptune maritime patrol planes with radar sophisticated enough to pick out a floating coconut.

"It is certain that Michael Rockefeller was murdered and eaten by Otsjanep," wrote van Kessel

By that time Rockefeller and Wassing had been drifting for 24 hours and Rockefeller felt impatient. He roped two empty gasoline Gerry cans to his waist, said "I think I can make it," and swam toward shore. Wassing refused to leave the boat and witnessed Rockefeller's departure at about 8 am. Wassing was spotted at 4:30 that afternoon by a Neptune, and rescued the next morning by a boat vectored to coordinates supplied by the airplanes circling overhead. Wassing and the two teenagers spoke widely and at length about the incident. The original Dutch Naval documents detailing the search and rescue, including the latitude and longitude pinpointing where Wassing was spotted on the afternoon of the 19th and his rescue on the 20th, are available. I spoke to the pilot who first spotted the catamaran.
4) We know where Rockefeller came to shore

We know where the boat capsized from Wassing's description. When Wassing watched Rockefeller leave, he said they could still see the shore, even if faintly. The curvature of the earth is listed in routine maritime distance-to-horizon tables: if the mangroves on the flat shoreline were even 50 feet tall, then he and Rockefeller were no more than nine and a half miles from shore - not an unreasonable distance for a fit, determined 23-year-old male to swim in 85-degree sea with a set of ad-hoc water wings. And they might have been closer. At a half mile an hour he was but 20 hours away from shore, an easy romp compared to the 64-year old Diana Nyad's recent 110-mile swim from Cuba to Florida. We know from the searcher's descriptions that the water was calm.

Tides in Asmat are strong and according to the tide charts for that day they were in Rockefeller's favor: between four pm and the next morning, there was a high tide at midnight, a brief low tide at two am and then another high tide at eight am. Which means that for 12 of the 14 hours between four pm and the next morning, the water was pushing him toward the coast when he was most tired. Because we know where the boat overturned and the locations where Wassing was first seen and then rescued the next morning, we know its drift path and speed, which corresponds to prevailing currents - a location and currents that would have placed Rockefeller at the mouth of the Ewta River on the morning of the 20th.
5) Rockefeller swam right into a group of 50 men from Otsjanep

A day's paddle south of the village of Otjsanep stood the government post of Pirimapun, overseen by another Dutch patrol officer named Wim van de Waal. Van de Waal was as different from his colleague Max Lapre as possible. He was 23, craved adventure, loved and felt at ease among the Asmat, traveled widely and unarmed in his district on a boat he'd built himself - the very boat he'd sold to Rockefeller a month earlier and on which Rockefeller had foundered. Today he is alive and well. I found him living in Spain, with vivid memories and a notebook of photos and documents. He let it be known among the Asmat that he'd trade palm building supplies for tobacco, fish hooks, axes - the usual currency at the time. And on the morning of the 19th a group of 50 men from Otsjanep arrived in Pirimapun - they preferred to paddle their canoes down the coast at night, when the tides were right and the waves calm.


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