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Julie Hambleton
Julie Hambleton
April 16, 2024 ·  6 min read

One of the last known photos of Michael Rockefeller with the cannibal tribe believed to have killed him

In November 1961, the United States was shocked when Michael Rockefeller, the youngest son of one of New York City’s most influential families, disappeared. Only 23 when he was last seen attempting to swim to land from his turned-over canoe in the Asmat region of southwestern Netherlands New Guinea, many rumors circulated about his disappearance and supposed death. Experts, however, are now starting to agree on what his actual cause of death was, and the truth is quite a gruesome one.

What Actually Happened To Michael Rockefeller

It was pretty clear early on in his life that Michael Rockefeller, the youngest son of former United States vice president turned New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, was not destined for business or political greatness as his brothers and all the men who came before them were. Rather, Michael was more artistic and became very interested in exotic indigenous tribes’ works. His father founded the unfortunately named Museum of Primitive Art in New York City, to which Michael became a trustee by the time he graduated college. Wanting to further explore these tribal cultures and their art, he signed on to work with a crew for a documentary film being shot the following year in the Netherlands New Guinea. (1)

While he was on location, he heard about a tribe known as the Asmat. Apparently, many people considered them to be quite talented artists. During a break in filming, he went to go see for himself, and he was quite pleased with the various works that he found there. He then began planning an actual collection trip for when the documentary filming was done in order to bring some pieces home for the museum.

Read: Reporter forced to eat human brain with cannibal tribe while wearing crown made out of teeth

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Not To Plan

At first, his trip back to see the Asmat was a success (or at least, a success according to his definition). He collected several pieces that did go on display in the Museum of Primitive Art the year following his disappearance. The treasures included canoes, spears, carved crocodiles, as well as bisj poles, which the Times described as totem-like structures. Truthfully, these polls are actually columns of ancestors stacked one on top of another.

Each pole embodies the soul of a man who has recently died with a commitment to revenge (or reciprocate) their death. It is a representation of the Asmat’s spiritual worldview. This gives clues as to what experts think happened to young Michael Rockefeller, six decades later. On November 18, 1961, Michael set out in a motor boat with Dutch anthropologist and government chaperone Rene Wassing and two local boys as guides.

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Because of the boat that they were in, they decided to risk the more dangerous sea route. This would prove to be the first of a few mistakes made on that trip. Though the water was calm at first, soon after their excursion began, the winds picked up causing big, crashing waves all around them. One particularly large wave swamped the boat and ruined the motor – they were officially stranded. (2)

The two local boys very quickly decided that this was not something sticking around for. Still close enough to shore that they could likely swim there, they decided to give it a shot rather than waiting until they had floated further out to sea. Michael and Rene, however, did not want to leave their things behind, so they decided to stay with the boat. This was the second mistake.

It wasn’t long before the large waves crashing into the boat eventually flipped it right over. The pair were now hanging on to the hull of the boat while they watched their stuff drift away, as they continued to float further and further out into the water.

Read: The Inventor of a ‘Water-Powered Car’ That Died In A Restaurant Yelling ‘They Poisoned Me’

The Third Mistake

About 24 hours later, around 8 am, Michael decided that he’d had enough of just hanging onto the boat, waiting to be rescued. Rene says that he removed his pants and told him “I think I can make it” and took off swimming for shore. Rene was not so confident and decided to stay with the boat. Not long after that, Rene was spotted and rescued. What happened to Michael, however, would become one of the most talked about mysteries of the time.

That was the last time anyone, at least in the Western World, would ever set eyes on the youngest Rockefeller son. His cause of death was officially listed as drowning, but rumors circulated, saying that Michael had made it to shore, only to be eventually killed by the Asmat tribe who he had been taking pictures of not long before. While this remained a mystery in the United States for a long time, many experts say that the Dutch Catholic Church knew all along what had likely happened to him, based on their knowledge of the Asmat tribe.

Worried that their rule over New Guinea would be in jeopardy if the real story got out, the Dutch hid the evidence they had that Michael Rockefeller had actually not died of drowning. They thought it would make it look like they were incapable of controlling their own people. This evidence included two Dutch missionaries who were working in the area who had a written report of who had stabbed Michael, who had speared him, and who had his head, who had his tibia, and who had his femur.

Without A Doubt, The Asmat Killed Michael Rockefeller. But Why?

Experts have since done extensive investigation that has led them to the conclusion that Michael did not drown, rather, he was killed and likely eaten by the Asmat, who were known to be cannibalistic. This is based on information from missionary reports, locals’ stories, and even an uncovered photograph showing a white man who looks very much like Michael Rockefeller (though at this point fully bearded) paddling fully naked with a group of also naked Asmat people.

The question is, why did they murder him in the first place, rather than helping him get back to the mainland? What experts who have spent time with the tribe have learned is that this was certainly not a random act of violence. What they believe is that the Asmat saw it as an obligation. If you recall from before the “totem” poles representing their ancestors? Well, the Asmat believe in balance and reciprocity. If one person dies or is killed for one reason, someone else then has to “pay” for that and maintain the spiritual balance. Otherwise, the soul of the “unavenged” person would hang around and terrorize the village.

Years before Michael arrived on their shores, there was a war between several Asmat villages. A Dutch officer, in retaliation, came in and killed four of the five most important men in the Omaesep. Experts think that their killing of Michael was seen as a way to avenge those Asmat men that the Dutch officer killed and set their souls free. Essentially, they used Michael as a sacrifice to keep their spiritual world in balance. It seems as though the evidence that Michael actually survived the swim, only to later be eaten by cannibals, is unavoidable. I suppose, however, we will never know the full, true story of the disappearance of Michael Rockefeller.

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  1. Was This Rockefeller Heir Eaten by Cannibals?The Daily Beast. Allison McNearney. June 20, 2021.
  2. What Really Happened to Michael Rockefeller.” Smithsonian Mag. Carl Hoffman. March 2014.