Michael Clark Rockefeller was born in 1938, the son of future New York Governor and US Vice President Nelson Rockefeller. He was also a great-grandson of business magnate John D. Rockefeller whose wealth, when adjusted for inflation, makes him the richest American of all time. Michael was thus among fortune’s favorites, with the world at his feet, green pastures all around, and unlimited horizons. For a scion of plutocrats, he was not a spoiled trust fund brat who coasted on the family wealth, but instead showed promise and a desire to leave his own mark.
Rockefeller attended the Buckley School and the elite Philip Exeter Academy, America’s most prestigious prep school. There, he excelled as a varsity wrestler. He continued his education at Harvard, where he graduated cum laude with a degree in economics and history. Then in 1960, although medical exemptions were easily obtainable at the time to get rick kids out of the draft, he did a stint as a lowly private in the US Army. In an unfortunate plot twist, all that promise and potential came to a macabre end in 1961, when he was killed and eaten by New Guinea cannibals.
Michael Rockefeller was not cut of the same businessman cloth as the tycoons who made his family America’s richest clan. Instead, he was into art and travel. In 1954, his father established the Museum of Primitive Art, America’s first museum dedicated to the works of tribes from Africa, the Americas, and Oceania. Michael was made a trustee. After his stint in the US Army, he went to Papua in western New Guinea, now part of Indonesia but then still under Dutch colonial administration. Michael was a soundman in an expedition sent by the Peabody Museum to film an ethnographic documentary about the Dani tribe. The resultant documentary, Dead Birds, won accolades and awards and ended up in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry. At some point, Rockefeller took a short break from the expedition to study the Asmat tribe, which dwelled along Papua’s southwestern coast.
They fascinated him. So when the Peabody expedition was over, Rockefeller returned to Papua to further study the Asmat and collect samples of their arts. He secured hundreds of objects such as spears, drums, shields, and bowls. He also collected totem-like structures known as bisj poles that were used in ceremonies and ceremonial carvings known as spirit canoe. The expedition came to an abrupt end on the morning of November 18th, 1961, when Michael, a Dutch anthropologist named Renee Wassing assigned to him as a governmental chaperone, and two local kids, boarded a motorboat. Their route crossed the mouth of the Betsj River, a tricky stretch where outrushing water met incoming tides. Calm waters suddenly grew turbulent when the wind picked up, giant waves began to crash all around, and the boat was swiftly swamped, its motor overrun.
The local kids swam to the nearby shore. Michael Rockefeller and Renee Wassing did not want to abandon their possessions, however, and stayed in the swamped boat. It was a bad decision. The boat drifted further out to sea, and continued to fill with water until it finally overturned. The duo clung to the hull, as their possessions sank or drifted away. Early on November 19th, 1961, they were about fourteen miles from shore, and Rockefeller decided he could reach it. He told Wassing “I think I can make it“, and struck off. He was not seen again. If he had waited, he might have been saved along with Wassing, who was rescued the next day. A huge search operation failed to find Rockefeller. He was declared legally dead in 1964, presumed to have drowned, or been eaten by a crocodile or shark. The Dutch colonial authorities knew otherwise.
In a plot twist, Rockefeller had reached shore, only to be taken down by Asmat tribesmen. The Dutch suppressed the information, however, because it made them seem unable to control their colonial charges. Decades later, researcher Carl Hoffman uncovered reports that detailed “who had his head, who had his femur, who had his tibia, who had stabbed him, who had speared him“. Local Catholic priests also wrote at the time that Rockefeller had been killed and eaten by Asmat tribesmen. Hoffman traveled to the region in 2012, and collected further evidence that confirmed Rockefeller’s macabre end. He even confirmed that some Asmat men pictured by Rockefeller were the same ones named in colonial and missionary reports as the men who had stabbed, ended, and eaten him. Many of the Asmat works collected can now be seen in the Michael C. Rockefeller Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading