Michael Rockefeller belonged to one of America’s – and also the world’s – most influential families, the great-grandfather of whom once amassed an oil empire now broken into a few mega-corporations that still dominate global oil industry today – say, ExxonMobil, Chevron, or ConocoPhillips. The family also initiated the establishment of numerous institutions that prevail in global importance until now, including the United Nations. Majority of his relatives and his distant acquaintances were actively involved in business and politics. And he could even possibly be the successor for the family.
But, as a tragic consequence of his adventure-loving habit, he was missing in Papua’s wild jungles in 1962, and had never remained discovered even half a century later. Some speculated that certain cannibalistic tribes – possibly the Asmat, but it may not be true – living in Indonesia’s easternmost island may have consumed his body; and his disappearance mystery even fueled more tentative, and oftentimes outlandish, speculations about what really happened to Michael Rockefeller.
Read the full chronicle in Smithsonian Magazine.
He was 23 years old, the privileged son of New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, seven months into the adventure of a lifetime that had transformed him from clean-cut student to bearded photographer and art collector. One moment his boat was being tossed by the waves, just as ours was, and the next he and his Dutch companion were clinging to an overturned hull. And then Rockefeller had swum for shore and vanished. No trace of him was ever found, despite a two-week search involving ships, airplanes, helicopters and thousands of locals prowling the coasts and jungle swamps. The fact that such a simple, banal thing had happened to him made what was happening to us feel all the more real. There would be no foreboding music. One bad wave and I’d be clinging to a boat in the middle of nowhere.
The official cause of Michael’s death was drowning, but there had long been a multitude of rumors. He’d been kidnapped and kept prisoner. He’d gone native and was hiding out in the jungle. He’d been consumed by sharks. He’d made it to shore, only to be killed and eaten by the local Asmat headhunters. The story had grown, become mythical. There had been an off-Broadway play about him, a novel, a rock song, even a television show in the 1980s hosted by Leonard Nimoy.
I’d been fascinated with the story ever since I first saw a photo of Michael on his first trip to what was then called Netherlands New Guinea. In it he is kneeling, holding his 35-millimeter camera under the close eyes of natives. He was working on a documentary film in the highlands of the Great Baliem Valley. That film, Dead Birds, was a groundbreaking ethnographic examination of a barely contacted, stone-age culture that engaged in constant ritual warfare. The mountains, the mist, the naked men yelling and screaming and attacking one another with spears and bow and arrow, had fascinated and entranced me, as had the whole idea of contact between people from dramatically different worlds. In my 20s, I’d tried to get there, but it was too expensive for my young budget, so instead I’d ended up, briefly, in Borneo.
I spent hours looking at that photo, wondering what Michael had seen and felt, wondering what had really happened to him, wondering if I might be able to solve the mystery. That he had been kidnapped or had run away didn’t make sense. If he had drowned, well, that was that. Except he’d been attached to flotation aids. As for sharks, they rarely attacked men in these waters and no trace of him had been found. Which meant that if he hadn’t perished during his swim, there had to be more.
There had to have been some collision, some colossal misunderstanding. The Asmat people were warriors drenched in blood, but Dutch colonial authorities and missionaries had already been in the area for almost a decade by the time Michael disappeared, and the Asmat had never killed a white. If he had been murdered, it struck to the heart of a clash between Westerners and Others that had been ongoing ever since Columbus first sailed to the New World. I found it compelling that in this remote corner of the world the Rockefellers and their power and money had been impotent, had come up with nothing. How was that even possible?