As family names go, few conjure up images of wealth and privilege as strongly as that of “Rockefeller”. The family of New York financiers is considered to be one of the richest families of all time, an enviable position that also descended to Michael Rockefeller, the fifth child of former United States Vice President Nelson Rockefeller.
Such people would usually expect to live lives free from want and discomfort, but this was not the case for Michael. For he chose a path that eschewed family tradition, and one which may very well have led to this death.
During an expedition in the 1960s, Michael Rockefeller disappeared somewhere off the Papua New Guinea coast. While no physical proof has ever been found to confirm what happened to him, tantalizing clues remain which suggest Michael may have ended up far from home indeed.
The Early Life of Michael Rockefeller
Michael Rockefeller was the fifth and last child of Nelson Rockefeller and Mary Todhunter Rockefeller. He was born on the 18th of May, 1938 and received his early education from The Buckley School in New York.
Later, he graduated from The Philips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire and, in 1960, he served as a private in the US Army for six months. However this did not seem to be his passion, as after his tour in the armed forces he went on to join Haward’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology expedition. Their goal? To study west New Guinea’s Dani tribe.
While there Rockefeller seemed deeply taken by his work, even leaving the expedition briefly along with one of his friends in order to study southern New Guinea’s Asmat tribe. He spent most of his time in Dutch New Guinea and actively engaged with the tribespeople as he came to understand their culture.
The Expedition to Asmat
During the 1960s, the Dutch missionaries, as well as colonial authorities, had been in contact with the Asmat for nearly a decade. However, a number of Asmat people had never seen a white man. Given this very restricted contact, the Asmat thought that the land beyond the island was occupied by spirits and when white people visited Asmat, they were thought to be supernatural beings.
Michael Rockefeller, along with his team of documentarians and researchers, travelled to the Otsjanep village that housed major Asmat communities. The locals tolerated photography, but they did not allow the researchers to buy any cultural artifacts such as carved wooden pillars and bisj poles.
While living among the Asmat people, Michael Rockefeller did however learn much of their culture and found them to be in stark contrast to Western society norms. Conflict and violence was quite common among the villages, and there were few taboos around homosexuality, or more ominously cannibalism.
The Asmat warriors were known to take their enemies’ heads and ate their flesh. In some of the regions, Asmat men also engaged in homosexual sex. All these facts fascinated Michael Rockefeller. Even after the initial scouting mission ended, Michael Rockefeller planned to develop a detailed anthropological study of the Asmat. He also decided to collect the art of the Asmat people for display in the museum founded by his father.
In the year 1961, Michael Rockefeller again set out on another expedition New Guinea with a Dutch anthropologist named Rene Wassing accompanied him. On the 17th of November, 1961, Michael Rockefeller and Rene Wassing boarded a 12-meter dugout canoe, and paddled out about 6 kilometers (3.7 miles) away from the shore.
There, their double pontoon boat was swamped by the waves and overturned. Their local guide swam in order to help them. However, they were unable to reach Michael Rockefeller and his companion.
Trapped in open water, by the 19th of November 1961 the situation was looking desperate. In an effort to find help, Rockefeller told Wassing that he felt he could make it to the shore safely, and set off to make the attempt. The next day, Wassing was rescued. However, Michael Rockefeller was never seen again.
As the family of Michael Rockefeller had a lot of political connections, they left no stone unturned to search for him. Planes, helicopters, as well as ships were used in order to thoroughly search the region and find any evidence of where he might be.
However, despite all the search efforts made, the body of Michael Rockefeller was not found. The mysterious disappearance of Michael Rockefeller became a media sensation at that time. Rumors started spreading at a rapid pace through the newspapers. But, when no evidence was found, Michael Rockefeller was legally declared dead three years later in 1964.
Where Did He Go?
There were a number of speculations made relating to the sudden disappearance of Michael Rockefeller and what could have happened. Initially, the official cause of his death was believed to be drowning. However, some others believed that the saltwater crocodile or shark might have attacked Michael Rockefeller.
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But as cannibalism and headhunting were present in the Asmat region, some speculated that it could be the cause of the disappearance and death of Michael Rockefeller. It has been speculated that Rockefeller did in fact reach the shore, only to be attacked and killed by the natives.
In the year 1969, Milt Machlin, a journalist, traveled to the island in order to investigate the disappearance of Michael Rockefeller. There he found some evidence that indicated Michael Rockefeller was killed.
A number of leaders of the Otsjanep village had been killed by a Dutch patrol in the year 1958. The local rumor was that the people of the tribe had killed Michael Rockefeller in order to take revenge, certainly a possibility given the tribal customs of the region.
In the year 2014, the National Geographic reporter Carl Hoffman published his book named Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism and Michael Rockefeller’s Tragic Quest for Primitive Art. In the book, he discussed researching the mysterious disappearance and death of Michael Rockefeller.
During a number of visits to the village, he heard stories about men of the village killing Michael Rockefeller after he swam to the shore. The stories were similar to the testimonies that were collected in the 1960s. The stories centered around some people arguing and then deciding to kill Michael Rockefeller in order to take revenge for the 1958 incident.
After the murder, the village was struck by a cholera epidemic. The villagers believed that it was punishment as a result of killing Michael Rockefeller.
Though a number of Asmat people told the story to Hoffman, none who were part of the murder actually came forward. All simply said that it was the story they had heard. And the true fate of Michael remains as much a mystery today as it did then.
One strange clue remains. In 1969 a group of Asmat were photographed waving spears near where Michael went missing. Among there number is what appears to be a white man, dressed identically to the tribespeople and waving a spear. Could Rockefeller have survived after all?
By Bipin Dimri
Paoletti, G. 2022. The Story of Michael Rockefeller’s Death and The Gruesome Theories Behind It. Available at: https://allthatsinteresting.com/michael-rockefeller
Hoffman, C. 2015. 53 years ago, a Rockefeller Son was eaten by cannibals. Available at: https://www.vox.com/2015/1/30/7928001/michael-rockefeller-cannibals
Hoffman, C. 2014. What Really Happened to Michael Rockefeller. Available at: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/What-Really-Happened-to-Michael-Rockefeller-180949813/