Many people love taking the opportunity to travel the world: to fly or sail to amazing lands across the globe. The glorious experience of adventure is something that you can’t put a price on. Though, if your great grandfather was John D. Rockefeller, the cost isn’t something you need to worry about.
When Michael Rockefeller heard adventure calling him in 1960, he answered with an emphatic yes. But he would soon find those jungle expeditions are legendary not only for the amazing wonders of the natural world but also the unseen dangers that lurk around every corner…
Michael Rockefeller and his twin sister Mary were born in 1938. The fifth child of Nelson and Mary Rockefeller and the great grandson of the infamous John D. Rockefeller, young Michael was fortunate enough to be born into a life of wealth, opulence, and most importantly for a bright, inquisitive child, like Michael, opportunity.
In his teens, Michael attended the Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire where he became a student senator. He was a brilliant young man and eventually graduated cum laude from Harvard University with a B.A. in both history and economics. Of course, brains and wealth weren’t all young Michael had going for him…
In addition to being uncommonly intelligent, Michael was also a superb wrestler and kept himself in excellent physical shape. In the 60’s he joined the U.S. Army, but only remained there for six months before finding his true calling. Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology invited him to go on an expedition with them.
Michael would travel with the rest of the ethnographers to Netherlands New Guinea as the expedition’s sound recordist. The crew was going to study the Dani tribe: a group of indigenous people. The ethnographic documentary they filmed, Dead Birds, concluded filming quickly and it afforded Rockefeller time to go out on his own…
Rockefeller and one of his friends briefly left the expedition to study the Asmat tribe, another indigenous group that lived in Southern Netherlands, New Guinea. The Peabody team had given Michael the exploration bug. He returned home, and before he had even unpacked his suitcase, he’d charted another expedition to New Guinea.
Thirst for Adventure
While he was in New Guinea, he captured data and collected Asmat art. Rockefeller wanted to learn more about the Asmat but it was more than that. “It’s the desire to do something adventurous,” he explained, “at a time when frontiers, in the real sense of the word, are disappearing…”
In one of his letters home, he wrote: “I am having a thoroughly exhausting but most exciting time here…The Asmat is like a huge puzzle with the variations in ceremony and art style forming the pieces. My trips are enabling me to comprehend if only in a superficial, rudimentary manner, the nature of this puzzle.” It would be one of his final letters.
Michael Rockefeller was 23 years old and living in the humid, unforgiving jungles of New Guinea, but he was doing exactly what he wanted. Unfortunately, after only a few weeks studying the Asmat, Michael would disappear forever. Yet, the circumstances surrounding his legendary last days are still shrouded in mystery…
Rockefeller had gone downriver on a separate expedition to collect Asmat woodcarvings when his catamaran overturned in the water. Rather than swim to shore with the two local guides, Michael and his friend, Dutch anthropologist Rene Wassing stayed with the boat. They didn’t want to lose all their supplies and research.
Swim for It
The jury-rigged boat drifted out into the Arafura Sea. By the next day, both men had found themselves floating nearly 10 miles offshore. Rockefeller knew that it was hopeless to try and save the supplies, at this point all they could do was save themselves. He made the choice, he decided to swim for it…
Famous Last Words
Wassing stayed with the boat and was rescued by a search party the next day. Meanwhile, Michael hitched up his trousers and said: “I think I can make it.” These famous last words have begged the question that has baffled explorers and historians alike for the past five decades: did he make it, and if he did, where did he end up afterward?
Michael’s father, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, funded an extensive search of the area. His hired explorers combed the entire jungle but sadly, no trace of Michael was ever found. Nor has any trace of him been found since then. Tales of Michael’s last fateful journey soon made all the local newspapers…
Michael Rockefeller’s disappearance is one of the most fascinating unsolved mysteries of the 20th Century. Journalists, filmmakers, and would-be adventurers have all gone to New Guinea in search of the answers to this open-ended disappearance, and many theories abound as to what might have happened to the erstwhile ethnographer.
Some fanciful theories about Rockefeller’s disappearance include him having orchestrated his own disappearance in some misguided attempt to eschew society. There were also theories that he had suffered amnesia then saved by a jungle tribe where he lived as a captive, a slave, or even some sort of godlike being for the rest of his days. There are more down to earth theories, however…
Lost at Sea
The most obvious theory is that Rockefeller was simply lost at sea. He either drowned or was attacked by some sort of large marine predator, like a shark or saltwater crocodile. For their part, the Rockefeller family has always stuck to the story that their son was lost to the sea like so many other poor souls before him.
If he did make it shore, it’s possible that he was captured by a group of savage natives from the Otsjanep village. These natives were not friendly to outsiders because a Dutch colonial patrol had killed a number of their people several years prior. If he was taken a prisoner, it is very likely that he would have been tortured, killed, and finally eaten in a cannibalistic act of revenge…
Indeed, neither cannibalism nor headhunting was uncommon in the Asmat tribe. These practices were part of a complex tit-for-tat revenge cycle. It is possible that Rockefeller was an inadvertent victim of the ongoing feud between the Asmat and the colonial Dutch. Sadly, without any concrete proof of either theory, we may never know what happened to Michael Rockefeller.
As unlikely as it sounds at first, the theory that Michael may have been eaten by cannibals seems the most likely. The tale captured our collective imagination so spectacularly that in 1969, Milt Machlin, editor of Argosy men’s magazine, embarked on a journey to solve the mystery once and for all…
Machlin journeyed to New Guinea to find answers. There he met with a gruff Australian named Donahue who told him, “Suppose I told you that I saw Michael Rockefeller alive only ten weeks ago?” According to Donahue, he had seen Michael Rockefeller months earlier in the Trobriand Islands, very much alive.
Wild Goose Chase
After several months of fruitless investigation, Machlin finally gave up. He had gone on a wild goose chase. Despite the fact that he had managed to track down and interview missionaries who were there at the time of Rockefeller’s disappearance, he came up empty. Eventually, he released a book chronicling his quest, but we’re still no closer to find out what really happened that day.