‘Savage Harvest,’ by Carl Hoffman - The New York Times

Retracing the steps of Michael C. Rockefeller, who went missing during a 1961 expedition to New Guinea, an avid traveler immerses himself in the world of former headhunters and cannibals to uncover the truth behind the disappearance.

The sea felt warm as Michael Rockefeller lowered himself in from the overturned wooden hull. René Wassing peered down at him, and Michael noticed he was sunburned and needed a shave. Their exchange was brief. They'd been drifting on the ocean off the coast of southwest New Guinea for twenty-four hours now, and there wasn't much that hadn't been said.

It wasn't long until there was no more René on the overturned catamaran behind him. He knew that feeling from swimming off the coast of Maine every summer, how the shore behind you receded quickly even when the destination didn't seem any closer. And the Arafura Sea here was shallow. He ought to be able to stand, to touch the muddy bottom, when he was still a mile from shore. He rolled onto his back and kicked, long, slow, steady kicks, dragging the cans. He could hear his heart thumping and the sound of his own breathing.

Retracing the steps of Michael C. Rockefeller, who went missing during a 1961 expedition to New Guinea, an avid traveler immerses himself in the world of former headhunters and cannibals to uncover the truth behind the disappearance.

The sea felt warm as Michael Rockefeller lowered himself in from the overturned wooden hull. René Wassing peered down at him, and Michael noticed he was sunburned and needed a shave. Their exchange was brief. They'd been drifting on the ocean off the coast of southwest New Guinea for twenty-four hours now, and there wasn't much that hadn't been said.

It wasn't long until there was no more René on the overturned catamaran behind him. He knew that feeling from swimming off the coast of Maine every summer, how the shore behind you receded quickly even when the destination didn't seem any closer. And the Arafura Sea here was shallow. He ought to be able to stand, to touch the muddy bottom, when he was still a mile from shore. He rolled onto his back and kicked, long, slow, steady kicks, dragging the cans. He could hear his heart thumping and the sound of his own breathing.

The disappearance of Michael Rockefeller in November of 1961 was an international incident; Rockeller, just 23, was the scion of one of the world's richest families. He had gone to New Guinea to collect native art for his father's newly founded Museum of Primitive Art in New York — and then, he had vanished.

Rockefeller was collecting masks, shields, and poles among the Asmat, a Stone Age people known for their cannibalism as well as their beautiful carving skills — but ultimately, his fate was an unsolved mystery. Until now. Author Carl Hoffman has spent years tracking the story; searching documents, living amongst the Asmat, even learning their language for his new book, Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism and Michael Rockefeller's Tragic Quest for Primitive Art . Hoffman tells NPR's Jacki Lyden that Rockefeller disappeared after his flimsy catamaran capsized off the coast of southwestern New Guinea. "He dove in and swam to shore, and he was never seen again."

The Asmat lived in a world of sacred reciprocal violence. Death had to be balanced by life, and life had to be balanced by death. And actually, two Asmat villages had gone to war with each other, and in response, overzealous Dutch policemen had raided the village of Otsjanep and killed a lot of people, and those deaths had been unreciprocated. The world was out of balance when Michael just happened to appear on the shore.

 
 
 
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