Michael Rockefeller, the 23-year-old son of then New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, disappeared in 1961 while on an art-collecting trip in the Asmat region along the coast of southwest New Guinea. His boat capsized in rough waters, and, after he and a companion had waited overnight for rescue, Rockefeller decided to swim to shore, buoyed by two empty gasoline cans. He was never seen again—at least not by any witnesses who’ve been willing to come forward.
The official cause of death was drowning at sea. But even as the search for young Rockefeller was still going on, rumors began surfacing that he had been killed and eaten by Asmat natives, among whom cannibalism was still a common and sacred practice. The aim of Savage Harvest is to settle the question of Rockefeller’s fate, just as earlier books and articles have attempted.
Since Carl Hoffman opens his narrative with a jarringly graphic description of what might have been Rockefeller’s last agonizing minutes, it will come as no surprise that he is indeed convinced that the young man was cannibalized. A contributing editor of National Geographic Traveler, Hoffman forms and undergirds his thesis by visiting the same villages Rockefeller scoured for art objects, interviewing descendants and kinsmen of those rumored to have killed him and uncovering personal correspondences and official documents concerning the disappearance. He also explains how the politics of the region— waning Dutch colonialism vs. rising Indonesian nationalism—figured into the story.
Hoffman depicts Rockefeller as a young man bent on pleasing his doting father—talented, to be sure, but a bit overeager and entitled, and oblivious to the fact that the art objects he was acquiring so matter-of-factly still had deep spiritual significance to their creators. Among local tribes, the author explains, taking revenge against one’s enemies was a way of restoring balance to the universe. He speculates that Rockefeller was probably killed in response to a Dutch raid on a native village three years earlier in which the main tribal leaders were slaughtered.
Hoffman’s quest is to discover physical or eyewitness evidence that Rockefeller made it to shore and there met his end. Whether his findings achieve the level of “beyond a reasonable doubt,” readers are left to decide for themselves.