On November 19, 1961, Michael C. Rockefeller stood on a capsized catamaran in the bathwater-warm Arafura Sea, less than 10 miles off the coast of New Guinea but about as far away from the world of New York high society as it was possible to venture.
The 23-year-old son of Governor Nelson Rockefeller had been on a mission to collect artwork from the Asmat, a remote, mysterious tribe that hadn’t had sustained contact with outsiders until just years earlier. When his catamaran had foundered, his local guides had leaped into the water and swum to safety. Now, after drifting for 24 hours waiting for rescuers, Rockefeller decided to make for shore himself. Attaching a pair of empty gasoline tanks to his waist, he slipped into the sea. His expedition partner remained on the boat and was later rescued. He was the one who was able to report his companion’s last words: “I think I can make it.” Rockefeller’s body was never found.
The official ruling was that the Harvard graduate had drowned. Over the years, however, rumours began to trickle out. Rockefeller was still alive and had “gone native.” He had been consumed by crocodiles. The most persistent, most disturbing story was that the young scion had made it to shore, where he’d been killed and ceremonially eaten by the Asmat, a people with a long history of headhunting and cannibalism.
Fifty years later, travel writer Carl Hoffman set out to solve the mystery of Rockefeller’s disappearance. His book, Savage Harvest, follows twin storylines: a reconstruction of the banking heir’s journey and the story of Hoffman’s own attempts to unravel the puzzle, as he searches through archives, tracks down people who knew Rockefeller, and retraces the young man’s steps through the muddy mangrove swamps of the New Guinea.
For both Rockefeller and Hoffman, a trip to Asmat was fueled by a desire to visit the wild places of the world and live among people as different from themselves as possible. Even today, the collection of villages along the coast of New Guinea remain remote, deeply unfamiliar places. It’s a world without running water or even nails, a place with “no connection to anywhere else in the universe except by human touch and the distance over which a voice could shout.” The Asmat have long lived in a system of reciprocal violence, with killings between different villages that need to be avenged. Their world has changed rapidly over the last 50 years, headhunting has been eliminated, but even today it’s likely that the eldest villagers have tasted human flesh – a fact so transgressive, so far beyond all western taboos, it threatens to make them impossibly alien.
For Hoffman, then, a journey into the world of the Asmat takes on the trappings of the classic adventure tale. It’s a yarn in the mold of an H. Rider Haggard or Rudyard Kipling story, in which our western hero ventures into the wilds and encounters all manner of exotic, terrifying, sometimes ennobling savages. The allure of these kinds of stories is the idea of catching a glimpse of some prelapsarian civilization – humankind before the fall from grace brought about by technology and “civilization” and all the corruption and self-consciousness that comes with it. “I hungered to see a humanity before the Bible, before the Koran, before Christian guilt and shame, before clothes and knives and forks,” Hoffman writes.
Of course, Hoffman is an intelligent writer who’s well aware that this kind of romanticization is outdated thinking. The idea that a culture as complex as the Asmat is any less “civilized” is a relic of an outdated idea of anthropology in which mankind progresses in some linear parade, from hunting in the jungle to living in condominiums. But the allure is real. The pull of “the primitive” still holds sway.
As Hoffman slowly unravels the mystery of the Rockefeller disappearance – explaining the history of cannibalism in the region, unearthing the fraught history between the Asmat and Europeans in the dying days of colonialism, detailing the intricate cosmology of the Asmat people – the book becomes a fascinating meditation on the way we look at people on the other side of the globe, at the commonalities but also the enormous differences.
The purpose of Rockefeller’s trip, after all, was to collect “primitive art.” In the Museum of Primitive Art, created by Michael’s father, works by indigenous artists were displayed in white rooms, under track lighting, without the usual anthropological dioramas and descriptions. The emphasis was on the universality of the human condition, not the exoticism of The Other. “My interest in primitive art is not an intellectual one. It is strictly aesthetic,” the elder Rockefeller once told an interviewer. “I am not in the least interested in the anthropological or ethnological end of it.”
The idea, progressive at the time, was that this art could stand on its own, as simple human expression. But as Hoffman argues, this approach could also mean ignoring some vital context. The bisj poles that Rockefeller collected, which today stand in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, weren’t just beautiful works of art, they were objects with deep spiritual significance, a tribute to murdered kin as well as a pledge to balance that wrong. To ignore their meaning – to assume that a shared humanity is enough to understand a specific work of art, a specific people – is to disregard some fundamental differences. It is the sort of hubris that could lead an overconfident 23-year-old to venture into places he simply didn’t understand.
Hoffman’s approach, in contrast, is to just put in the time. Hoffman is a travel writer, a fact that’s evident not only in the lush physical descriptions and well-chosen observations, but in his approach as well. If you’ve ever been travelling, you’ve likely met the Hoffman-type – the hardcore backpacker who hitches rides with the locals and scoffs at the sunburned tourists peering from the windows of the package tour bus. Hoffman criticizes Rockefeller’s habit of moving through villages quickly, buying up whatever he could find. In order to truly understand a place, the committed traveller believes, you can’t just pass through for a couple of days. You need to move slowly.
Hoffman makes multiple trips to Asmat, spending months living on the floor of a villager’s house, eating the sago palm and krill of the locals, learning Indonesian, and slowly getting to know a people that, he writes, are unlike anyone he’s ever met. The effort pays dividends. Not only does Hoffman gain insight into the Rockefeller mystery, piecing together clues that begin to shed light on his disappearance, he creates a clearer picture of the Asmat themselves.
This, of course, is the great promise of travel – a chance to watch as what seemed like a tightly wound, impenetrable world slowly unfurls. A place that, from an airplane flying above, looks like nothing more than a “green carpet cut with the interconnected veins of brown water snaking in every direction” slowly becomes a known landscape, the different hues of green accounted for, the various rivers explored. Broad, cartoonish ideas about cannibals and exotic natives become specific. A photo of Asmat men – an impossibly exotic tableau of humans with bones through their septums and mud caked over their bodies – becomes a portrait group of individuals with names and personalities, specific fears and desires.
This is the reward of deep travelling, but it’s also the reward of the best kind of non-fiction writing.
Nicholas Hune-Brown is a writer for Toronto Life, Hazlitt, and other publications.