In Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller’s Tragic Quest for Primitive Art, Carl Hoffman’s reimagining of Michael C. Rockefeller’s death at the hands of the Asmat people on Nov. 20, 1961, seems startlingly real, enough to make the viscera churn. The brutality of the act of ritualistic cannibalism—replete with anatomical detail—is amplified by the tribesmen’s banter and jokes about what Rockefeller might have been doing when he was last alive.
Rockefeller’s remains were never found, but in Savage Harvest, Hoffman cites sources who believe that the Asmat still keep his skull as something of a prized possession bearing otherworldly significance. To this day, the Rockefeller family chooses to believe that the 23-year-old scion drowned in the river when his catamaran capsized.
Hoffman’s book intricately investigates the various elements—political opportunism, colonialism, Asmat ethnography, ritualistic art and symbolism—that complicate the story of Rockefeller’s fatalistic journey to Dutch New Guinea. Nelson Rockefeller, Michael’s father and the former vice president of the United States, was a generous benefactor who made invaluable contributions to the cultural landscape of New York through his work with the Museum of Modern Art and the establishment of the Museum of Primitive Art in 1954.
Michael inherited his father’s interests and went to Dutch New Guinea to tap into the vibrancy (and artifacts) of its indigenous tribes, which he had first encountered while working as a sound recorder on Robert Gardner’s documentary Dead Birds. After a short period spent collecting art from the Asmat, Rockefeller vanished without a trace.
As Hoffman retreads Rockefeller’s path and reveals what actually happened—leaving as little to conjecture as possible—he also offers an incisive exposition of the intersection of art, politics and unfettered violence. Hoffman has always been fascinated and haunted by Rockefeller’s story. A few simplistic parallels between the two—both New Yorkers, drawn to “exotic” lands and about the same age—also nurtured a sense of affinity. “I have always been fascinated with the faraway, exotic and hidden places of the world,” Hoffman says. He suggests that books and movies bred in him this craving for the mystic and fantastical: As a child, The Chronicles of Narnia, Tolkien’s work and films like Lawrence of Arabia whetted his appetite for exotic travel.
“Anything that took place in jungles or what I would then call ‘primitive’ places, they had a big attraction for me,” he says. “I had the powerful desire to see those places I grew up reading about, and I wanted to live that life, to wander and to see and taste and touch and smell it all for myself.”
Hoffman’s intrigue for Rockefeller’s story was also encouraged by other developments in his life—his father lived in Indonesia for a while, which is how Hoffman learned about Tobias Schneebaum’s deeply insightful writings about the Asmat. He first saw images of the Asmat’s ritual warfare while watching Dead Birds.
The loose ends of Rockefeller’s life constantly gnawed at Hoffman, though. The more he traveled, the more he recognized “the goodness of the world and the beauty in the world,” as he puts it. He felt certain that if something evil had happened to Michael, “there was a story there. Something had gone awry. I was trying to understand what happened to Michael and whether this story that he was killed by these people was culturally consistent,” he says. “Even if every piece of information pointed to that fact, did it seem logical?”
Hoffman has a profound sociological appreciation of behavioral complexity in Savage Harvest, which enables him to intellectualize even radically taboo acts as cannibalism within a contextual framework. The author, who is also a contributing editor at National Geographic Traveler, has visited about 70 countries throughout his career. His wanderlust allows for a rich investigation of the idea of a common humanity—how it is universally underscored by similar motivations and the differential is essentially borne of its habitat, geopolitics and history. As he immersed himself in Asmat culture, Hoffman also engaged with and appraised definitions of “primitiveness” and “civilization.”
“I obviously came to the understanding that saying that these people are primitive is an incredibly inadequate term and pretty reductionist,” he says. “Asmat is so complicated, and there are these beautiful examples of how brilliant and creative and complex the human mind can be when you stick a bunch of people in a place where there is nothing.” He cites their language, which has seven tenses, and the incredible art they make with the few resources they have.
Even though the Asmat are “now pacified”—according to the Dutch, their former colonizers, and the Indonesians—and are not rabid cannibals, their history is significantly defined by violence. “Human beings are violent, human beings are crazy, complex, savage people, and you can count all of us in that. The Asmat are horrifically, brutally violent,” he says. “Their everyday lives, their rituals, the things that bring meaning to their lives were these unspeakable, taboo acts of violence.”
Hoffman suggests that while “civilized, technologically advanced societies” might have moral “filters” that remove them from the unruly world of the Asmat, violence is still deeply embedded in all of human consciousness. He references instances of organized violence like the Holocaust and drone warfare. Hoffman also points to the irony of Dutch official Max Lapré’s violent oppression in the Asmat village of Otsjanep in 1958—in the book, he links this to Rockefeller’s death, believing the Asmat might have been looking to avenge the deaths of their tribesmen by Lapré.
Rockefeller’s death has now become something of a nativistic story for the Asmat. Toward the end of the book, as he reaches for the tender gut of the brutish tribe, Hoffman conveys the humanity in the Asmat: “The Asmat that day killed Michael Rockefeller out of passion and love, love for what they had lost and what they were losing—…their culture and traditions, headhunting—as modernity and Christianity closed in from every direction.”
Neha Sharma is a cultural writer based in New York. Her work has also appeared in the New York Observer, Vulture, Virgin America and Rolling Stone (India).