In Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller’s Tragic Quest for Primitive Art, veteran travel writer Carl Hoffman separates fact from fiction in the notorious case of Rockefeller’s 1961 disappearance in New Guinea.
What drew you to this project?
In my 20s, I started traveling all over the world. My dad was living in Indonesia and got me interested in New Guinea and the Asmat people. I discovered Robert Gardner’s Dead Birds, the film [Gardner] had made in the highlands of what was then Dutch Indonesia and is now New Guinea. What I didn’t realize was that Michael Rockefeller had been the sound engineer on that film. That’s what had drawn him to New Guinea in the first place. The rumor was that Michael had left the boat he was in, swam to shore, and was killed and eaten. I never forgot that story, and the more I traveled, the more I thought something weird must have happened to him. Even in remote places and conflict zones, I always found people to be incredibly generous. The Asmat had never killed a Westerner before. [Rockefeller] just happened to swim into the wrong place at the wrong time. Had he been with other people or swum into another village, he would have been fine.
Were you always on your toes while living with the Asmat people?
No, I was not afraid. They’re complex, beautiful people. They’d talk about the Dutch raid [that led to Rockefeller’s murder years later], but when they thought I was going to ask them about Michael, they’d get very closed. They come from a culture in which certain things are secret or very sacred. The Asmat are Catholics now. They’re not headhunters. They’re not cannibals. They look upon [cannibalism] with some shame now. It’s an egocentric/ethnocentric expectation that they’ll tell me everything. It wasn’t until I lived with them and made a commitment to stay that they opened up more.
Have you heard from the Catholic Church or any of the other entities, such as the Dutch government, named in the book?
The story is 50 years old. My researcher had access to archives of the Dutch government, as well as the Sacred Heart, which is the brotherhood of the missionaries in that area. The Provencal, the head of the order, even let me use photos.
Do you think your book will bring some closure to the topic and for the Rockefeller family?
I did try to talk to Mary, Michael’s twin sister, and got nowhere. My expectation is that I won’t hear anything.