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The Fascinating Mystery of the Death of Michael Rockefeller

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Ravi loves writing within the cusp of relationships, history, and the bizarre, where boundaries are blurred and possibilities are immense.

What Really Happened to Michael Rockefeller?

What Really Happened to Michael Rockefeller?

What Really Happened to Michael Rockefeller?

There are few places on earth as remote and terrifying as the jungles of New Guinea.

It is also the home to the Asmat people who have lived, hunted, and flourished in those swampy jungles for the last 10,000 years. And it was this land with its ferocious people that came into prominence in 1961 when the world was trying to solve a mystery involving one of America’s most prominent families: the Rockefellers.

Michael Rockefeller was the young 23-year-old privileged son of New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller who had left his luxurious life to pursue the hard life of an anthropologist and an art collector, traveling to Dutch New Guinea to understand the Asmat culture and get their exquisite artwork for the Museum of Primitive Art founded by his father, a renowned art collector himself.

On November 17, 1961, Michael Rockefeller was traveling to this dangerous area of dense rainforests, mangrove swamps, and crocodile-infested mudflats known as the Land of Lapping Death when his small catamaran capsized in rough seas. Michael Rockefeller, a strong swimmer immediately jumped into the sea and began to swim to the shore.

Michael reportedly told his companions, “I think I can make it” and jumped into the water. That was the last time people saw and heard about him.

Over the years, the question of whether he made it to the shore has remained unanswered with bizarre theories floating around about his disappearance starting from he, orchestrating his own disappearance to the gruesome theory of being killed and eaten by cannibals.

The mysterious disappearance of Michael Rockefeller has been haunting the world for the past 60 years to date.

Unlike other sons, Michael was quiet and different with an artistic temperament buoyed by a sense of adventure to explore the unknown.

Unlike other sons, Michael was quiet and different with an artistic temperament buoyed by a sense of adventure to explore the unknown.

The Story of Michael Rockefeller

Michael Rockefeller was born in 1938. He was the youngest son of New York governor Nelson Rockefeller and a scion of a dynasty of millionaires founded by his famous great-grandfather, John D. Rockefeller.

Unlike other sons, Michael was quiet and different with an artistic temperament buoyed by a sense of adventure to explore the unknown. His father, a prolific art collector, had recently opened the Museum of Primitive Art, and its exhibits, including Nigerian, Aztec, and Mayan works, enthralled Michael. He decided to follow his heart and become an anthropologist and create his ‘own collection’ of primitive art.

This was what led him to Dutch New Guinea, one of the wildest, most remote places on Earth, populated by people living the same lifestyle for the past 10,000 years. These people were the Asmats and they were not only ferocious cannibals, but they also made beautiful artwork and stunning wooden sculptures (rubbed with the blood of those they killed).

They also had bizarre customs like smearing blood on each other during sex, sharing wives, and polygamy. They sometimes drank each other’s urine and covered themselves in human blood during bonding rituals.

They believed the blood of the foes gave him the dead men’s power and this led to endless revenge attacks against neighboring villages to collect and conquer new lands and new skulls.

Michael was fascinated by them and visited and explored more than 13 villages of the tribe from where he not made detailed notes of their lifestyle but also collected hundreds of items.

Michael was fascinated by them and visited and explored more than 13 villages of the tribe from where he not made detailed notes of their lifestyle but also collected hundreds of items.

Michael Was Fascinated by the Asmat Tribe

Michael was fascinated by them and visited and explored more than 13 villages of the tribe from where he not made detailed notes of their lifestyle but also collected hundreds of items including bowls, shields, spears, sacred bisj poles, and spiritual artifacts that are often dedicated to the deceased that now hang in the Michael C. Rockefeller Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

However, for Michael, one trip was not enough. On November 17, 1961, he embarked upon his fateful trip that would be his last. His boat capsized and he jumped off it and started swimming to the shore. He was never seen again.

As expected, the search was intensive and exhaustive, and no expenses were spared. Ships, airplanes, and helicopters scoured the region, searching for Michael or some sign of his fate.

After nine days, the Dutch interior minister stated,

“There is no longer any hope of finding Michael Rockefeller alive.”

Michael’s official cause of death was put down as drowning.

It is believed that the Otsjanep tribesmen speared and killed Michael, cutting off his head, and cleaved his skull to eat his brain.

It is believed that the Otsjanep tribesmen speared and killed Michael, cutting off his head, and cleaved his skull to eat his brain.

Did Cannibals Eat Michael Rockefeller?

In 2014, Carl Hoffman, a reporter for National Geographic investigated Michael Rockefeller’s disappearance and revealed a fascinating story in his book ‘Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism and Michael Rockefeller’s Tragic Quest for Primitive Art’

Hoffman pierces together the details painstakingly and tells us a gruesome story of cannibalism and murder that started 3 years before the fateful journey of Michael Rockefeller.

In 1957, a massacre occurred between two Asmat tribes, the Otsjanep and the Omadesep who killed dozens of each other’s men. The ruling Dutch tried to intervene but, in the process, mistakenly killed four of the war leaders of the Otsjanep tribe. The Otsjanep were enraged and vowed revenge against the ‘white man’.

It was with this background that the Otsjanep tribesmen stumbled upon Michael Rockefeller as he swam to their land.

They speared and killed him. Then they cut off his head and cleaved his skull to eat his brain. They cooked and ate the rest of his flesh. His thighbones were crafted into daggers, and his tibias were made into fishing spear points. His blood was drained, and the tribesmen drenched themselves in it while they performed ritual dances and sex acts.

Later the Otsjanep regretted their decision as they saw the massive search operations launched for Michael Rockefeller. They were afraid of the white man’s wrath as their leaders ‘instructed’ their entire clan not to talk about the incident.

Though many Asmat people told this story to Hoffman, nobody came forward and confirmed if it had really happened to Michael Rockefeller. The details were deliberately kept vague and subject to interpretation.

The Rockefellers on the other hand denied and refused to believe Hoffman’s version sticking to the fact that Michael Rockefeller had unfortunately drowned at sea and nothing else. It was a private matter, and they did not want any further correspondence on it.

Was he murdered? Did he drown? Or has there been a cover-up hiding another truth? No one has clear answers to these questions yet.

Sources

© 2021 Ravi Rajan

Comments

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on August 25, 2021:

Thanks Vanita

Vanita Thakkar on August 25, 2021:

I did not know about this incident. Very tragic. Interesting and informative as well.

Thanks.

I love reading your articles.

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on August 25, 2021:

Thanks Rosina

Rosina S Khan on August 25, 2021:

This is an interesting account of Michael Rockefeller, who loved adventure and collecting art. His disappearance though on one of his trips for the quest of art is really mysterious. We will never know for sure how he met his death. Thanks for sharing, Ravi.

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on August 25, 2021:

Thanks Misbah

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on August 25, 2021:

Thanks John

Misbah Sheikh from The World of Rebels. on August 25, 2021:

I always enjoy reading mysteries. So thank you for this wonderful read, Ravi

Blessings to you!

John Hansen from Gondwana Land on August 25, 2021:

This was an enthralling story, even more so because it is factual. I had heard the story of Michael Rockefeller’s death before and the belief that he was killed and eaten by the cannibalistic tribespeople. Whether that is true, or he drowned I guess we will never know for sure.

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on August 25, 2021:

Thanks, Bill for your kind comments.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on August 25, 2021:

Fascinating indeed! I did not know this story, so thank you!

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