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The Curious Case of


Features / Published 9 April 2023 @ 18:00 PM

MICHEAL ROCKEFELLER'S disappearance is compelling and there has never been a satisfying answer to the question that’s haunted the Rockefeller legacy since 1961. What ever happened to young Michael Rockefeller?

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Rockefeller was the fifth and last child of Philadelphia-born Mary Todhunter Rockefeller and chairman of Rockefeller Center Inc., Nelson Rockefeller. He was the third son of seven children.


As a child Rockefeller attended The Buckley School in New York City and later graduated from the Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, where he was a student senator and exceptional varsity wrestler. Rockefeller graduated from Harvard University with a BA (Hons) in history and economics. In 1960 he served for six months as a private in the U.S. Army and then went on an expedition for Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology to study the Dani tribe of New Guinea. Unlike many other tribes in that region the Dani is one of the most populous tribes and are found spread across and through the highlands. They are one of the most well-known ethnic groups in Papua.

During Rockefeller’s expedition they filmed an ethnographic documentary produced by Robert Gardner, and for which Rockefeller handled the sound. Rockefeller and a friend briefly left the expedition to study the Asmat tribe who inhabit a region on the island’s southwestern coast bordering the Arafura Sea, which consists of mangrove, tidal swamp, freshwater swamp, and lowland rainforest. Rockefeller became bewitched by the Asmat’s culture and way of life, which is heavily dependent on natural resources found in their forests, rivers, and seas. After briefly returning home from the Peabody expedition, Rockefeller returned to New Guinea to continue studying the Asmat and collect Asmat art. His first trip had been a big success but one trip wasn’t enough – he wanted more.


The 23-year-old Harvard graduate’s return trip to New Guinea would be the last time he was seen alive. Before Michael returned, the Dutch had taken over the archipelago, a collection of islands. Dutch government commander Max Lapre, who was overseeing the operation and colony, had allegedly ordered five elite Asmats to be gunned down. The naive Michael Rockefeller knew this ethnic tribe so wasn’t fearful of returning.


During his previous trip in October the year before he visited 13 villages in three weeks, bartering steel and tobacco for their hand-created bowls, shields, spears and the most sacred objects – the bisj poles, which are dedicated to the dead. The poles are carved from a single piece of a wild nutmeg tree and can reach heights of up to 7.62 m. Their intricate carvings depict human figures standing on top of each other, as well as animal figures and phallic symbols. The Asmat tribe believed that the Bisj poles satisfied restless spirits and helped guide them to the afterlife (Safan) across the sea.


On November 17, 1961, Rockefeller and Wassing were travelling in a 12-metre dugout canoe about 3 miles from shore when their boat was swamped and overturned. Their two local guides were able to swim for help, but it was slow in coming. After drifting for some time, early on November 19 Rockefeller said to his companion, Wassing, “I think I can make it” and began to swim for the shore, which was an estimated 12 miles from the boat. Wassing was rescued the next day, but Rockefeller was never seen again, despite an intensive and lengthy search effort, and his disappearance was a major world news item. His body was never found and he was declared legally dead in 1964. One of many theories is that he died from exposure, exhaustion, and/or drowning. Another possibility is that he became a victim of his surroundings. There are around 170 species in the surrounding area where he vanished, including geckos, legless lizards, dragon lizards and monitor lizards. There are about 100 species of skinks and approximately 110 species of snakes, including sea snakes, tree snakes, pythons and poisonous front-fanged snakes such as the death adder and taipans. Taipans are large, fast-moving and highly venomous, and possess enough lethal venom to kill at least 100 fully-grown men. It has the potential to kill someone in as little as 30 minutes if left untreated. Had he been struck by this reptile his body would have made a perfect feast for a New Guinea crocodile.

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In the remote Sepik River certain tribes have learnt to live with the reptiles and even have specific crocodile hunters within their group who capture adult crocodiles with their bare hands. Other tribes in the area also believe that crocodiles protect them from their human enemies. Due to these strange relationships with the reptiles, these large killing machines have become desensitised by human contact and happily approach humans without fear. Did such a beast approach Rockefeller as he swam to shore, fearing for his life as he tried to scare the creature away, thus distressing the animal and causing the perfect killing machine to retaliate and strike?


Another theory is that the fearless traveller was tortured, beheaded and eaten in a ritualistic cannibal killing by a New Guinea tribe. In 2016 a young couple, Matthew Iovane and Michelle Clemens, were captured while trekking in a jungle during their dream trip to Papua, New Guinea. They were pounced on by painted men with machetes and were beaten and stripped before being blindfolded and led deeper into the jungle. They tried to flee but become tangled in vines and were quickly recaptured in the snake-infested scrubs, before being subjected to a torture game that seemed to go on for hours. The badly injured couple finally saw a window of opportunity and managed to escape, encountering a pack of wild dogs along their journey to safety. Eventually they were spotted by a man building a shack near the end of the trail, who raised the alarm. Villagers ran to their aid with blankets as a rescue helicopter was scrambled from the capital, Port Moresby.


In 2013 a group of Aussie hikers were injured and their two porters killed. Other adventurers were hacked at in 2014. While cannibalism was made illegal more than 50 years ago, a TV documentary co-produced by the BBC and the Discovery Channel and hosted by former British Royal Marine Bruce Parry, alleged he saw evidence of it in 2006 when filming with the Papuan people of Melanesia in Western New Guinea. In 2012 a cannibal cult, including a boy of 13 and a teacher in his 50’s, were arrested during a dawn raid at Biam village, Madang province on PNG’s northeast coast. The cult was believed to practise the millenarian movement also known as the cargo cult, a religious practice found in some pre-industrial tribal societies and formed around the belief that wealth can be attained through magic.


The claim by author Carl Hoffman in his 2014 book, Savage Harvest, alleges that after the long swim Rockefeller saw the shoreline. He had almost reached safety – but for the flotilla of

canoes that were nestled in the trees. There were 50 Otsjanep native men waiting in eight 40ft long canoes at 6am when the sun had just started to rise. They reached for their spears thinking it was a crocodile but when Michael rolled over onto his stomach they saw it was a man and they recognized him from having been in the village. The natives wasted no time and paddled quickly out to the swimming Rockefeller, surrounding him and towing him into shore, but not before they had driven a spear into Rockefeller’s ribs. They then pulled Michael into their canoe. The men then rowed their canoes south on the Ewta River and turned into the shoreline that was soft mud, where they dragged Michael out of the canoe and slapped him on his skull. The tribesmen allegedly held Michael’s chest off the ground and pushed his head forward, and with one blow of an axe in the back of his neck Michael Rockefeller was dead. He was then turned over and a bamboo knife was thrust into his throat. They then pressed his head back until the vertebrae cracked, making him sacred meat.


A deep cut was made from the anus to the neck, down the side of Michael’s trunk to the armpit, across the collarbone to the throat and down the other side. It was the ancestral ritual on how to butcher a man. But this was a white man, so this ritual was performed in secret. His ribs were broken with an axe, his sternum ripped out, his arms and legs cut off and his entrails pulled out, and all the while the natives were chanting. Michael’s head was later scalped, cooked and cut across the face from the root of the nose to the nape of the neck. A small hole two inches in diameter was cut in his skull and they shook the brains out onto the leaf of a palm They then scraped out the inside of the skull with a knife to get every last bit, then mixed the mass with sago, wrapped the leaf up, and roasted it on the fire to eat during their feast.


Whether or not Hoffman’s account is work of fiction or based on fact as he claimed, the official version of events is that Rockefeller died while trying to reach the shore. The Dutch government vigorously denied the book’s claims and officials disputed the story, calling the sources unreliable. An even more bizarre theory was that Rockefeller was still alive and had been kept as a white idol by a tribe near the coast. This is partly backed up by unearthed film footage of the mysterious white canoeist filmed in 1969, close to the spot where Rockefeller had gone missing.


So whether you believe the official explanation advanced by the former colony’s Dutch rulers that he drowned while trying to swim to shore from his capsized boat, or that he met a more horrible fate – killed and eaten by cannibals seeking revenge on white men for a Dutch attack on their village – this is one mystery that is unlikely ever to be solved, or at least not anytime soon!


Sleep tight and don’t have nightmares....

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