Born in 1938, Michael Rockefeller was the youngest of five children of Nelson Rockefeller and first wife Mary Todhunter Rockefeller, the younger twin of sister Mary. Excelling academically, he joined a Harvard University expedition to study the Dani people in Western New Guinea. On returning to New Guinea in 1961 to study the neighbouring Asmat people, a group known to still practice cannibalism, Rockefeller went missing after attempting a 12-mile swim to shore following his boat being overturned. While drowning is considered the most likely reason for his disappearance, other members of the expedition opined that Rockefeller was a strong swimmer, well-capable of reaching the shore in what were calm seas. Sharks or crocodiles presented alternative culprits, but many speculate that the Asmat people were responsible for his death.
After studying at Phillips Exeter Academy, one of the oldest schools in the United States, Michael Rockefeller graduated with a degree in history and economics from Harvard University in 1960. Following a six-month spell in the US Army, Rockefeller signed up with an expedition by the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology which was dispatched by Harvard to study native tribes in what was then Dutch New Guinea. The young heir was already infatuated with the study of indigenous arts, holding a board position at the Museum of Primitive Art, founded by his father in 1957. During the expedition, Rockefeller and a colleague briefly departed to study the neighbouring Asmat people. They later reported a number of relatively friendly interactions with the group. While the Asmat tolerated the pair’s presence and allowed them to take photos, they refused to allow them to purchase artworks.
Enthused by his initial successful contact with the little studied Asmat and driven to bring home a new collection for his father’s museum, Rockefeller returned to Dutch New Guinea the following year, specifically to live with, study and trade with the Asmat. He set out to return to the Asmat village of Otsjanep alongside Dutch government anthropologist Rene Wassing. However, 12 miles offshore, their 40-foot pontoon was swamped by a wave and overturned, leaving the two men clinging to the hull.
With the distant shore just visible on the horizon, Rockefeller lashed empty fuel cans to his belt and set out to make the long swim to shore. This was the last time he was ever seen, at least by any Westerner. His family’s immense wealth funded one of the largest search operations in history, but no sign was found of the missing 23-year old. The official explanation is that he drowned attempting to reach land, but this has since been questioned both by contemporaries and later researchers. A shark attack was also suggested, although sharks in that area are generally not considered a threat to humans. One other very real possibility is that he was killed by a saltwater crocodile as he approached the shore.
Rumours grew that Rockefeller had either been killed and consumed by tribesmen, or alternatively, that he had integrated with the Asmat and continued to live amongst them. While neither theory had any real evidence to support it at the time, further investigations unveiled additional details to support both possibilities.
Eight years after Rockefeller’s disappearance, New York magazine editor Mitt Machlin traveled to the same area of Papua New Guinea to investigate the disappearance of the missing heir. A retired Dutch missionary who lived in that area, Cornelius Van Kessel, acted as a liaison between Machlin and the local Asmat, telling the journalist of a story that had circulated since a few weeks after Rockefeller’s disappearance. Three years previous, a clash with an armed Dutch patrol had resulted in the death of five tribal leaders at the village of Otsjanep. Asmat traditions meant they were duty bound to exact revenge, although this presented a significant difficulty for the primitive tribal warriors against Dutch patrols armed with modern firearms. However, their difficulty was seemingly resolved, in their eyes, when a hunting party found an exhausted white man crawling up onto the beach near the village. Van Kessel had been told that Rockefeller was stabbed to death with fishing spears on the beach, before his body was taken back to the village, dismembered and consumed.
Dutch officials, however, disputed the claims, calling Van Kessel an unreliable source. One is even reported to have suggested, perhaps flippantly, that Rockefeller instead was alive and had integrated into the tribe, specifically as a ‘white idol’ for a tribe. Many pacific islanders believed that white men possessed powerful magic, but while there was a possibility that Rockefeller might have joined the tribe, few took the possibility very seriously. Official reports remained that he had drowned, while some researchers were persuaded by the argument that he had been killed and eaten by the Asmat.
40 years later, surprising evidence surfaced to support this third theory; that Rockefeller had joined the tribe. During his 1968-69 visit, Machlin had not received permission to visit Asmat lands himself, but had sent videographer Malcolm Kirk to record a large gathering of various tribes, including the Asmat, at a cultural gathering that featured a fleet of 17 fully manned war canoes. Machlin appears to have dismissed the footage, and it languished in a storage vault for 40 years before being unearthed by American film producer Fraser Heston (son of the actor Charlton Heston).
On examining the footage, a white, bearded man can be clearly seen rowing alongside the indigenous warriors. The possibility that it is Rockefeller is obvious, although many have argued over the level of resemblance the man in the footage has towards Michael, with some anthropologists claiming that there were more white individuals in that part of the world that many would think at the time. However, it offers a compelling possibility that Rockefeller did indeed join the Asmat rather than being killed by them, and Heston himself believes the footage is persuasive, noting that Rockefeller was a capable canoeist before his disappearance.