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What Happened to Michael Rockefeller?

This case has remained unsolved for 62 years, 0 months, and 18 days.

A wealthy young man from a well-known family vanishes in the untamed jungles of a remote, untamed land. It sounds like the short synopsis of a mystery novel, but for Michael Rockefeller, it became his reality — and untimely demise. 

For many decades now, people have debated what exactly happened to Rockefeller. He was studying the Asmat people in Dutch New Guinea (now known as Papua New Guinea) when his boat capsized. Instead of waiting for help, he decided to try to swim for shore and was never seen again.

Despite searches and offers of reward money by the Rockefeller family, he was never found. Theories about what really happened to Rockefeller abound, even over 60 years later. Was he really eaten by cannibals, as so many have suggested, or did he simply drown, as his family has insisted? Did a predator attack him as he tried to swim to shore? What really happened to Michael Rockefeller?

Table of Contents

About Michael Rockefeller

Michael Rockefeller was born as the youngest of five children on May 18, 1938 into one of the richest families in America: the Rockefellers. He was the son of Mary Todhunter and Nelson Rockefeller, who later went on to become the governor of New York

Growing up, Rockefeller participated in wrestling in high school, then went on to graduate with honors from Harvard University. He served as a private in the US Army for six months, but his real passions were archaeology and ethnology. 

Michael Rockefeller interacting with Asmat locals.
Michael Rockefeller interacting with Asmat locals (Smithsonian Magazine).

One of Rockefeller’s friends described him as “a quiet, artistic spirit.” This was at odds with what father wanted for his son, namely a career in banking or finance, and Rockefeller struggled to make the decision between making his father happy or pursuing his own passions and life. In the end, he followed his passions — and may have ended up paying the ultimate price for doing so.

Rockefeller’s Expeditions

At Harvard, Rockefeller met filmmaker Robert Gardner, and he agreed to go with him on an expedition for Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology specifically to study the Dani tribe in Dutch New Guinea (now known as Papua New Guinea) in the Asmat region. This could prove somewhat dangerous as some of the tribes living there were often accused of cannibalism.

Dead Birds Documentary

During the Peabody expedition, Rockefeller helped to record a documentary called Dead Birds. “Mike was was very quiet and very modest,” said one of the others working on the film. The documentary told the tale of ritualistic warfare between the Dani people, and was eventually added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in 1998.

Michael Rockefeller interacting with members of the Dani tribe.
Michael Rockefeller interacting with members of the Dani tribe (Mysterious Universe).

An Asmat Art Collection

Rockefeller’s main goal at that time though was to bring back Asmat art and establish a collection of it in the United States. One of his friends said, “Michael said he wanted to do something that hadn’t been done before and to bring a major collection to New York.”

After the Peabody expedition ended, Rockefeller desired to return to Dutch New Guinea to study and learn more about the people living there. He was especially interested in Asmat art and wanted to bring some back to be put in the museum. He wrote, “It’s the desire to do something adventurous at a time when frontiers, in the real sense of the word, are disappearing.”

The only issue was that the Asmat people were undeniably cannibals, unlike the Dani people that he studied in his previous expedition. Where the Dani people were peaceful and agricultural, the Asmat were battle-scarred warriors who engaged in cannibalism. Their justice system was that of an eye for an eye, and that one death must be balanced by another; it was a system that was far and away from anything Rockefeller had ever experienced. 

A map of the Asmat Cultural Region.
A map of the Asmat Cultural Region (Smithsonian).

A New Expedition

Regardless of the potential dangers of returning to Dutch New Guinea, Rockefeller ended up going back in October 1961, this time to the town of Otsjanep, to continue to try to gather up some Asmat artworks. He was accompanied by anthropologist René Wassing and together, they were able to interact with the Asmat and collect some art pieces to be taken back to New York. Rockefeller wrote of his time there in his journal:

“I am having a thoroughly exhausting but most exciting time here… The Asmat is like a huge puzzle with the variations in ceremony and art style forming the pieces. My trips are enabling me to comprehend (if only in a superficial, rudimentary manner) the nature of this puzzle.”

Michael Rockefeller (Source: Harvard)

Many of the Asmat people had never even seen a white person before, making them a great people to study, according to Rockefeller. The Asmat heavily believed in spirits and thought that every death happened for a reason — either by enemies attacking or by the spirits causing mischief. For a while, the Asmat thought that the Europeans who first met and interacted with them were spirits themselves.

Cultural Items Collected

In his time with the Asmat, Rockefeller collected four bisj (sometimes spelled bis) poles despite the locals not wanting to sell the items to him. These 20-foot long wooden poles were used by the Asmat tribe as a cultural item. After a battle, the blood of the victims would be smeared on the bisj poles and then the flesh of the bodies consumed. In this way, the Asmat believed that they could retain and absorb the good qualities of those who’d been slain.

Bisj poles that can be seen in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Bisj poles that can be seen in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art (Met).

The four bisj poles that Rockefeller collected are actually still on display at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. If you ever get the chance, be sure to check them out. 

New Research and Discoveries

For a while, Rockefeller’s expedition to the Asmat region and with the locals there seemed to be going well. He was conducting a lot of research into Asmat cultures and customs, and he was collecting some art and cultural pieces to bring back to the States. However, things would take a turn for the worst in the days to come.

The Disappearance

It was November 17, 1961 when Rockefeller, Wassing, and a few local guides were heading out to collect some new artwork from the Asmat. Their boat was approaching the coastal city of Otsjanep when rough waves and high winds caused the dugout canoe to capsize. Thankfully, no one was hurt in the initial incident, and the guides went to swim for help. However, help wouldn’t come for a long while.

Michael Rockefeller adjusting his camera near some tribesmen.
Michael Rockefeller adjusting his camera near some tribesmen (Mysterious Universe).

The guides managed to make it to shore later that day, but by then, the canoe had drifted far from its original position and it would take time to find out where it had gone. The Dutch colonial government began getting search parties ready, including boats, airplanes, and helicopters, but it would still take time to locate the capsized vessel.

November 19, 1961

For several days, Rockefeller and Wassing drifted along on the capsized canoe with no help or aid in sight. Rockefeller told Wassing he was worried that they would continue to drift further and further out to sea where the chance to be rescued would be nearly impossible. For that reason, he was going to attempt to swim back to land.

Rockefeller decided that he could make it to shore that morning, a 3 to 12 mile swim depending on which source you use. He tied a few empty jerrycans to his waist for buoyancy to help him on his long swim, then told Wassing, “I think I can make it.” He swam off, and was never seen again.

In a cruel twist of fate, Wassing was rescued the next day. A spotter plane caught sight of the canoe the same day that Rockefeller tried to swim for land, and Wassing was picked up the next morning by rescue workers.

The Search

When Nelson and Mary Rockefeller, Michael’s parents, heard that their son was missing, they chartered a plane and filled it with reporters, wanting to get the word out about their missing son. Airplanes, helicopters, boats, and volunteers scoured the area, but nothing of Rockefeller could be located. 

An aerial photograph of a beach near the area where Michael Rockefeller went missing.
An aerial photograph of a beach near the area where Michael Rockefeller went missing (All That’s Interesting).

Very quickly, news media from around the world were writing about the disappearance of a rich young white man in untamed jungle of Dutch New Guinea. Given that the Rockefeller name was known worldwide, the news spread all over. 

Additionally, the Rockefeller family put out a monetary reward for information about their lost son’s location or evidence pointing to what happened to him. By contrast, the Asmats were offered 250 sticks of tobacco — a veritable fortune to the primitive people — as a reward for any evidence regarding Michael Rockefeller. However, no information or evidence was ever gathered or released publicly.

November 24, 1961 

On November 24, 1961, the Dutch Minister of the Interior said, “There is no longer any hope of finding Michael Rockefeller alive.” A few weeks later, the Dutch called off the search completely. No one had found any evidence about what had happened to Rockefeller, his remains, or any other clues.

Theories on What Happened

Due to the high-level profile of this case, many people have had many theories over the years about what really happened to Rockefeller. In truth, to this day we don’t know for sure, although more and more evidence seems to point to the idea that he was cannibalized. 

Rockefeller Drowned

Due to how far the capsized canoe had drifted out to sea, many people hypothesize that Rockefeller ended up drowning before ever making it back to land. Indeed, some of the upper limits on the estimates for the swim distance were up to 14 miles, which is a long swim even for an experienced swimmer. For an exhausted and dehydrated Rockefeller, it may have been impossible.

Asmat warriors and their intricate shields.
Asmat warriors and their intricate shields (Mysterious Universe).

Predators Ate Rockefeller

Many have suggested that Rockefeller ended up being eaten by crocodiles or sharks in his efforts to try to swim to shore. Indeed, Papua New Guinea has its fair share of dangerous animals, from venomous snakes like the New Guinea death adder to large carnivorous reptiles like the New Guinea crocodile

And while there are sharks in New Guinea, most are not very big. The largest species, the Northern river shark, tops out at around 6 feet in length. Theoretically, they could attack a human, but their diet consists mostly of small fish so it’s not very likely that one of them would attack Rockefeller. Furthermore, the Northern river shark’s range doesn’t encompass the area that Rockefeller was last seen in

So, while a predatory attack is possible, there was never any evidence discovered that suggested Rockefeller was attacked by a predator. 

Rockefeller was Killed and Cannibalized

Another theory is that Rockefeller was killed by local tribesmen as revenge for Dutch soldiers killing some of their own tribespeople. Some dismissed this as an insane theory, but others investigated further.

Author Paul Toohey released a book in 1979 titled Rocky Goes West. The book claimed that Mary Rockefeller had hired a private investigator to try to figure out what really happened to her son. The investigator allegedly ended up trading a boat engine for three human skulls — reportedly the only three white men this particular tribe had ever killed. 

Ultimately, the investigator brought these three “white men’s skulls” back to the Rockefellers. Publicly, the Rockefeller family never commented on the find, but there are some reports that the Rockefellers ended up paying the investigator $250,000 — the reward money that they’d agreed to pay upon finding proof of their son’s fate. It’s not clear if the skull has ever been tested for DNA or confirmed to be Rockefeller’s.

Michael Rockefeller on a canoe.
Michael Rockefeller on a canoe (Business Insider).

It was later learned that in 1961 and about a month after Rockefeller had vanished, a priest who lived and worked in the Asmat region and spoke the local language had talked with the locals about what might’ve happened to Rockefeller. Ultimately, some people confirmed that Rockefeller had been killed by some tribespeople in retribution for the Dutch killing some of their own years earlier. His body was allegedly dismembered and eaten.

However, this information was concealed from the Rockefeller family by the Dutch government, citing a lack of evidence. It was only uncovered decades later that several priests had reported hearing the same story and told it to the government, only to be ignored time and time again.

Rockefeller Survived and Lived With the Natives

In the years following Rockefeller’s disappearance, investigative filmmakers visited the Asmat region to try to figure out what happened. Some of the footage wasn’t used and was stored in a warehouse for many years. Later, when the 10 hours of unedited footage were uncovered and watched, there was a curious piece of imagery: what appeared to be a white man rowing with the natives.

A still image from the footage appearing to show a white man rowing with a native Papuan tribe.
A still image from the footage appearing to show a white man rowing with a native Papuan tribe (Daily Mail).

This footage was filmed in 1969, about eight years after Rockefeller went missing, and was near the area where he disappeared from. The footage was too grainy though to conclude positively that the figure was or wasn’t Rockefeller, although many have taken it as a sign that he survived and went on to live amongst the natives. 

What Do I Think Happened?

After examining all of the evidence, I think that Rockefeller was probably killed by a cannibalistic tribe, especially with the latest evidence that has come to light. The 2014 book Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism and Michael Rockefeller’s Tragic Quest for Primitive Art by Carl Hoffman pretty clearly outlines the evidence supporting this claim including accounts by the natives who had lived in the area at the time Rockefeller went missing.

White Man Rowing Footage is Odd

I admit that the video footage captured in 1969 of a white man rowing with some tribal people is a very strange situation, especially because the video was allegedly captured near the area where Rockefeller went missing. However, there isn’t any conclusive proof that the man on the tape was Rockefeller. 

It also would stand to reason that Rockefeller would have been discovered hiding amongst the local people at some point in time. Even if he hid for a while (namely during the intensive searches following his disappearance), he couldn’t have been hidden away forever. Catholic missionaries in the area often visited the various tribes and certainly would have noticed a white man living with the natives.

A photograph of some tribespeople prodding a steam pit.
A photograph of some tribespeople prodding a steam pit (Peabody Museum).

A Sad End

I think after so many years that it’s safe to assume that Rockefeller is dead, no matter which theory you ascribe to. DNA testing on the skull found by the private investigator would likely confirm or deny whether Rockefeller really was cannibalized by the Asmat. 

It’s sad that Rockefeller’s life came to an untimely end, although he died doing what he loved: studying the native people and artwork of Dutch New Guinea.

Case Updates

There have been some important case updates over the years regarding the case of Michael Rockefeller.

1965: Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Fellowship Established

The Rockefeller family established the Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Fellowship in 1965. It’s a post-graduate, year-long experience that enables students to seek “a deeper understanding of our common human experience and their part in it.”

1969: Milt Machlin Investigates

In 1969, journalist Milt Machlin traveled to the Asmat region to investigate what happened to Rockefeller. He concluded that, “I think [Rockefeller] was killed almost immediately after making shore.” Ultimately, he published a book about the investigation called The Search for Michael Rockefeller.

2014: New Book Released

In 2014, a new book covering the Michael Rockefeller case was released by author Carl Hoffman called Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism and Michael Rockefeller’s Tragic Quest for Primitive Art. Hoffman himself traveled to Otsjanep and beyond and heard the same tale — that Rockefeller was killed and eaten by the Asmat — from the locals he spoke to.

Cold Case Questions

  • What do you think happened to Michael Rockefeller?
  • Is it possible that Rockefeller lived among one of the native tribes for a time?
  • What do you make of the photograph that was taken of a white man rowing with a native tribe of Papua New Guinea?

Let me know your thoughts about this case in the comment section below!

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