Michael C Rockefeller

The content below is from Episode 104 of the Who’d a Thunk It? Podcast


  • Shannon recorded the recommendation segment this week. Tune in to the audio podcast to hear what recommends you check out.


  • Micheal Clark Rockefeller was the youngest of 5 children raised by Mary Todhunter Rockefeller and Nelson Rockefeller.
    • He was born on May 18th of 1938.
    • Mike’s father Nelson was a New York Governor and former U.S. Vice President.
    • He was the grandson of American financer John D. Rockefeller Jr. and the great grandson of Standard Oil co-founder John D. Rockefeller
    • Basically Mike was American Royalty.
      • His story is one of those bios I read and can’t help but self reflect by saying to myself: “look at all the amazing crap this dude in his life by the age of like 25… what am I doing?”
      • But then I realize I wasn’t born in to one of the top 10 most wealthiest familes to have ever existed. Also, I realize I’m a happy person and that’s what matters most to me. … MOVING ON! lol
    • After attending The Buckley School in New York, and graduating from the Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, where he was a student senator and exceptional varsity wrestler, Rockefeller graduated cum laude from Harvard University with a A.B. in history and economics.
    • Though his father expected him to follow in his footsteps and help manage the family’s vast business empire, Michael was a quieter, more artistic spirit. When he graduated from Harvard in 1960, he wanted to do something more exciting than sit around in boardrooms and conduct meetings.
  • 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 western Netherlands New Guinea.
    • It was then known as western Netherlands or Dutch New Guinea. It is a massive island off the coast of Australia.
      • Today, New Guinea (the worlds 2nd largest island) doesn’t all fly the same flag.
      • New Guinea is administratively divided into two parts: its western half comprises the Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua (collectively, formerly called Irian Jaya); and its eastern half comprises the major part of Papua New Guinea, an independent country since 1975.
      • It is an island of immense cultural and biological diversity, it’s known for its beaches and coral reefs. Inland are active volcanoes, granite Mt. Wilhelm, dense rainforest and hiking routes like the Kokoda Trail. There are also traditional tribal villages, many with their own languages
  • Michael Rockefeller’s expedition filmed Dead Birds, an ethnographic documentary movie produced by Robert Gardner, and for which Rockefeller was the sound recordist.
    • “Michael said he wanted to do something that hadn’t been done before and to bring a major collection to New York” said Karl Heider, a graduate student of anthropology at Harvard who worked with Michael. By collection he was referring to a art or “primitive art” as they called it at the time.
    • Michael’s father Nelson Rockefeller was a prolific art collector. He had recently opened the Museum of Primitive Art, and its exhibits, including Nigerian, Aztec, and Mayan works. And this seemed to captivate young Michael.
  • Rockefeller and a friend briefly left the expedition to study the Asmat tribe of southern Netherlands New Guinea. After returning home from the Peabody expedition, Rockefeller returned to New Guinea to study the Asmat and collect Asmat art.
  • Michael’s upbringing had already given him ample experience with travel.
    • He had traveled extensively already, living in Japan and Venezuela for months at a time, and he craved something new: he wanted to embark on an anthropological expedition to a place few would ever see.
  • By the 1960s, Dutch colonial authorities and missionaries had already been on the island for almost a decade, but many Asmat people had never seen a white man.With severely limited contact with the outside world, the Asmat believed the land beyond their island to be inhabited by spirits, and when white people came from across the sea, they saw them as some kind of supernatural beings.
    • When Mike Rockefeller and the other white people with him wondered in to their territory they were an unwelcomed curiosity.
    • The locals put up with the team’s photography, but they didn’t allow the white researchers to purchase cultural artifacts, like bisj poles, intricately carved wooden pillars that serve as part of Asmat rituals and religious rites.
    • Michael was undeterred. In the Asmat people, he found what he felt was a fascinating violation of the norms of Western society — and he was more anxious than ever to bring their world back to his.
    • At the time, war between villages was common, and Michael learned that Asmat warriors often took the heads of their enemies and ate their flesh. In certain regions, Asmat men would engage in ritual homosexual sex, and in bonding rites, they would sometimes drink each other’s urine.
    • His journal read: “Now this is wild and somehow more remote country than what I have ever seen before.”
    • When the initial scouting mission concluded, Michael Rockefeller was energized. He wrote out his plans to create a detailed anthropological study of the Asmat and display a collection of their art in his father’s museum.

“It’s the desire to do something adventurous, at a time when frontiers, in the real sense of the word, are disappearing.”

Michael C Rockefeller

He spent his time in Netherlands New Guinea actively engaged with the culture and the art while recording ethnographic data. In one of his letters home he wrote:

“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 C Rockefeller
  • Although adventure seems to fill those of us who crave it with a imense sense of purpose and thrill, it is also dangerous.
    • In fact, the danger is what makes it so damn fun.
    • While attributes such as experience, grit, strength, and intellect can partially negate the dangers of adventure; even the most battle-hardened adventurers are still mere humans and therefore can fall victim to these dangerous circumstances.
    • Mike was very intelligent, strong, and had all the resources imaginable at his disposal, and yet he did fall victim to the dangers of adventure.
  • On November 17, 1961, Rockefeller and Dutch anthropologist René Wassing were in a 40-foot (12-metre) dugout canoe about 3 nautical miles (6 kilometres; 3 miles) from shore when their double pontoon boat was swamped and overturned. Their two local guides swam for help, but it was slow in coming.
    • After drifting for some time, early on November 19, 1961, Rockefeller said to Wassing: “I think I can make it.” He then swam for shore. The boat was an estimated 12 nmi (22 km; 14 mi) from the shore when he made the attempt to swim to safety, supporting the theory that he died from exposure, exhaustion, or drowning.
    • Wassing was rescued the next day, but Rockefeller was never seen again, despite an intensive and lengthy search effort. At the time, Rockefeller’s disappearance was a major world news item. His body has never been found.
    • Rockefeller was declared legally dead in 1964.
  • Rich and politically connected, Michael’s family ensured that no expense was spared in the search for the young Rockefeller. Ships, airplanes, and helicopters scoured the region, searching for Michael or some sign of his fate. Even his parents flew to New Guinea to help in the search for their son.
    • The Dutch interior minister was quoted saying “There is no longer any hope of finding Michael Rockefeller alive,” just 9 days after he had gone missing.
    • His official cause of death was written down as drowning.
Asmat people today
  • While that is the official story, it is not the end of our story.
    • and could you imagine if it was?
      • Rick boy goes on an adventure and disappears, never to be seen again. The end. Thanks for coming. Good night… no. Now we delve into what most THINK happened to Michael C Rockefeller.
    • In 2014, Carl Hoffman, a reporter for National Geographic, revealed in his book Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism and Michael Rockefeller’s Tragic Quest for Primitive Art that many of the Netherlands’ inquiries into the matter resulted in evidence that the Asmat killed Michael.
    • Apparently there were 2 dutch missionaries that had lived among the Asmat people for years. They spoke their language well and were told by Asmat people that they had killed a white man around that time. Based on the Missionaries’ description, the Asmat people beleived their own had killed Michael Rockefeller.
    • There was also a police officer by the name Wim van de Waal who also was convinced Michael had been killed by the Asmat people. He supposedly was given a skull by the Asmat that they claimed was Michael’s.
    • But the police report was classified and never shown to the Rockefeller family. They were told anything beyond his disapearance was mere rumor.
  • How Michael Rockefeller Died At The Hands Of Cannibals according to Carl Hoffman… over 50 years later.
    • Carl travelled to New Guinea, specifically to Otsjanep.
  • Apparently his guide overheard a couple of locals say something like “don’t talk about the white American that died here,” or something like that.
    • I find this a bit hard to beleive because who talks about something that happened 50 years ago? … but whatever, I wasn’t there.
    • Carl asked his interpreter to pry. The interpreter asked who the man was that the locals were talking about, and he was told it was Michael Rockefeller. He learned that it was common knowledge on the island that the Asmat people of Otsjanep killed a white man, but they shoulnd’t talk about it for fear of revenge or whatever.
  • But Carl and his interpreter also learned more about Michael’s supposed murder.
    • Just 3 years before Michael arrived on in Otsjanep there was war between the Asmat people. The Otsjanep people were having it out with the Omadesep and dozens of men from each side were killed.
    • The Dutch had just recently taken control of the island and wanted to keep their new land as colonizable as possible. So the Ducth colonial government tried to put an end to the violence… (because when foreigners try to put an end to age-old wars it always works out just fine lol).
    • The Dutch tried to disarm the Otsjanep tribe, but it didn’t go well. The two cultures were so different that communications were bound to break down. It ended witht he Dutch open firing on the Otsjanep people.
    • This was one of the Otsjanep people’s first time coming in to contact with white people and western cultures. It was definitely their first time with firearms. And what happened? The village watched as 4 of their jeus (war leaders) were shot and killed.
    • Try to imagine what their impression of white people was at the time. Just 3 years later and a young Michael Rockefeller was swimming ashore right up to these people…
  • Well according to one of those Dutch missionaries, the Otsjanep tribespeople who first saw Michael in the water thought he was a crocodile, but quickly realized he was a Dutch colonizer or a tuan as the locals called them.
    • These first people on the banks to see Michael were jeus themselves, but not just any jeus. They were the sons of the men who were gunned down just 3 years prior. They had a score to settle. “People of Otsjanep, your’ve always talking about headhuting tuans. Well, here is your chance,” cried one of the jeus.
    • At first the villagers were hesitant, probably for the consequences of their actions. But it wasn’t long before their spears were thrust in to the exhausted Michael who had just swam 12 miles.
    • Then it got pretty gruesome. Once he was dead they cut off Michael’s head, cracked open his skull and ate his brain like a coconut. They cooked his body on a spit over a fire and ate his flesh.
    • No part of his body went to waste. His thigh bones were used to make daggers and his tibias were sharpened to make fishing spear points.
    • His blood was drained. The Otsjanep tribesmen bathed in it while they performed ritual dances and sex acts.
      • This all sounds like some sick and evil act. And maybe it is in some objectionabley kind of judgement that we humans don’t have access to.
    • But in the minds of these tribesmen this was the right thing to do. It was their beliefe, their theology. The Otsjanep people believed in a balance of the world and that they should restore this balance. To them: the “white man tribe” had killed 4 of their highest ranking warriors. It was setting the balance of the world back to normal when they took Michael’s power. They consumed his body and absorbed his energy, the very same energy that had been taken from them.
      • Again, this is all according to Carl Hoffman in his book written in 2014 from a translator who was talking to Dutch missionaries.
      • That is quite a long line for this information to pass along (kind of like the telephone game). Also, 50 years is a long time for information to be distorted or fabricated all together. So who knows if this really happened.
      • Though many Asmat people told this story to Hoffman, no one who took part in the death would come forward; all simply said it was a story they had heard.
  • Aftermath
    • Of course the Otsjanep people didn’t just forget about it the next day. They couldn’t because it wasn’t long at all before the search for Michael came to their doorstep.
    • Remember, his mom and dad scoured the area with every ship, plane, and helicopter the Rockefeller fortune could buy. And for the Asmat people this must have seemed like the equivalent of a UFO army landing on the White House lawn. They had never seen these types of vessels before.
    • Not long after, cholera swept through the Otsjanep village and surrounding area. These villagers probably connected this sickness to the murder of the white man.
  • Then, one day when Hoffman was in the village, shortly before he returned to the U.S., he saw a man miming a killing as part of a story he was telling to another man. The tribesman pretended to spear someone, shoot an arrow, and chop off a head. Hearing words relating to murder, Hoffman began to film — but the story was already over.

Hoffman was, however, able to catch its epilogue on film:

“Don’t you tell this story to any other man or any other village, because this story is only for us. Don’t speak. Don’t speak and tell the story. I hope you remember it and you must keep this for us. I hope, I hope, this is for you and you only. Don’t talk to anyone, forever, to other people or another village. If people question you, don’t answer. Don’t talk to them, because this story is only for you. If you tell it to them, you’ll die. I am afraid you will die. You’ll be dead, your people will be dead, if you tell this story. You keep this story in your house, to yourself, I hope, forever. Forever…”

  • Does Carl Hoffman’s story read like complete mullarky? Yes. To me it does. It seems too sensational to be true. However, I wasn’t there. Sometimes sensational and horrible things happen.
  • Should I have saved this episode for Ocotober and make it part of the Who’d a Thunk It? FRIGHTFEST where I post only spooky stories all month? Perhaps, but I couldnt’ help myself. This story surprised me.
    • I couldn’t believe I had never heard it before. Michael C Rockefeller was practically American Royalty and a lot of people believed he was eaten by cannibals?!
    • until next week


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