The disappearance of Michael Rockefeller

Michael Rockefeller, of the famous oil dynasty, was collecting indigenous art in Dutch New Guinea when his boat overturned. He may have drowned or been eaten by crocodiles, but the most likely theory is he suffered a much worse fate.

Asmat shield
Wolfgang Sauber [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Rockefeller was a keen explorer, and was in the area collecting art like the shields pictured above. He was studying what he saw as one of the last frontiers. (The locals did not, I’m sure, see it the same way.)

November 17, 1961, he, two guides, and an anthropologist named René Wassing were on a boat that overturned in rough water. The guides swam for help, and Rockefeller and Wassing sat on the boat hull and waited.

Two days later, Rockefeller was tired of waiting and swam for shore. That’s the last thing we know for sure – he was never seen again. It’s entirely possible that he drowned or was attacked by sharks or crocodiles on the 19km swim to shore. But if he made it, the nearest settlement was Otsjanep, of the Asmat peoples, and that was a problem.

At the time, this area was controlled by the Netherlands (it is now part of Indonesia). Under colonial rule, a Dutch patrol had killed several leaders of the Otsjanep settlement three years earlier. So when a white dude washed up on shore, they may have killed him in retribution. And, because ritual cannibalism was still practiced at this time in this place, he may have been eaten too.

Rockefeller’s disappearance made headlines around the world, and subsequent inquiries seemed to support the retribution theory (including a skull supposedly returned to his mother by a private investigator), but Rockefeller himself has never been found.

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