In 1961, 23-year-old Michael Rockefeller, scion of the famous and wealthy Rockefeller family and son of New York governor Nelson D. Rockefeller, set out on the voyage of a lifetime. Instead of entering the world of business or finance, he wanted to expose the western world to the art of so-called “primitive” societies. To this end, he started the Museum of Primitive Art in 1957.
In order to find pieces for his museum, he traveled to numerous villages in New Guinea, taking photographs and collecting artifacts. It was during this expedition that the accident occurred that would lead to one of the 20th century’s most mysterious missing persons cases. While traveling in a catamaran with anthropologist Rene Wassing and two local guides, they were hit by a large wave, causing the small vessel to overturn.
The guides swam to shore, leaving Rockefeller and Wassing clinging to the boat’s hull for a day. That’s when Rockefeller decided to swim to shore for help, which was approximately 10 miles away. He was never seen again, and his remains were never found.
For years, no one had any clue as to the fate of Michael Rockefeller, despite the intensive search that followed his disappearance. Naturally, this led to all kinds of speculation. One of the most prominent theories, based on the fact that Rockefeller sought to differentiate himself from his influential family, posits that he used the boat accident as a means to voluntarily disappear. Advocates of this theory believe that he was either living on his own in the jungles of New Guinea or that he had joined one of the native tribes.
Others believe that he was eaten by sharks or drowned during his long swim to shore. Some even believe he might have been kidnapped by local Asmat tribesmen and was being held prisoner or being actively worshipped as some kind of god.
Fifty years after Michael Rockefeller’s unexplained disappearance, however, a journalist by the name of Carl Hoffman uncovered what he believes is the true story of his fate. To arrive at his conclusion, he researched hundreds of documents kept by the Dutch government and interviewed anyone he could find who was alive at the time of the disappearance and who might know what happened.
Sadly, the truth that Hoffman uncovered is nothing short of horrific. Rockefeller was killed and then eaten in an act of ritual cannibalism by members of one of the local Asmat tribes. He was found after successfully swimming to shore by a small group of tribesmen, who then proceeded to kill and butcher him.
This was not just a random act of violence, since it was extremely rare for the Asmat to kill a white person. The murder of Michael Rockefeller was an act of revenge for the killing of a group Asmat warriors several years earlier by some Dutch colonial officials. In order to appease the spirits of these dead men, they killed Rockefeller as an offering.
According to Hoffman, Dutch authorities knew what happened to Rockefeller for years, but they chose to keep his fate hidden out of respect for his family and due to the PR nightmare it would have caused. His official cause of death was ruled as drowning.
Michael Rockefeller’s art expedition was not completely fruitless, though. Many of the objects he collected before his death can still be seen in the wing named after him at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.