In 1961, Michael Rockefeller drowned somewhere off of a beach in New Guinea while on an art expedition… or did he? Though publicly accepted, the tale of Rockefeller’s disappearance was overshadowed with doubts and sensationalized stories. Years later, Carl Hoffman, a contributing editor at National Geographic Traveler, journeyed to New Guinea, lived in the jungle, and shared meals with former cannibals as he worked to uncover the mystery of what happened to Michael Rockefeller.
Bookish: The Rockefeller family—particularly Michael’s twin sister, Mary—would not cooperate with you, preferring the accepted account that Michael simply drowned. Since solving the mystery and completing the book, have you had any word from them?
Carl Hoffman: Mary and I have exchanged some email notes, but we haven’t spoken since she received a copy of the book. I’ll defer to her privacy and just say she was gracious.
Bookish: You divulge the truth about Michael’s disappearance in the very first pages of the book, and the mystery after that is more about why he disappeared. Did anyone the book was pitched to urge you to go the traditional route and save the whodunit for the end?
CH: No. Stories, I think, have their own, natural arc; the structure always feels like it presents itself from within, rather than being something I, the writer, impose. I toyed with various approaches, but only this one worked.
It’s a traditional murder mystery—the gun goes off and the victim falls dead in the first scene. The twist here is that I suggest who pulled the trigger and then say, well, I’m not sure, though. And then spend the next 300 pages proving the hypotheses. It’s such a complex story, with so many pieces and there’s no way to discuss all those pieces without knowing from the start that this is what might have occurred.
Bookish: At the heart of the story is the Asmat tribe of New Guinea, who until a generation ago had a culture steeped in perhaps thousands of years of headhunting, cannibalism, and endless blood feuds. When you lived with them, you found warriors who were no longer allowed to make war, and had not replaced that ritual violence with anything else. The men don’t work, they rarely hunt, and to an outsider it would seem they’ve lost their reason for being. Maybe this is a Western view, but has any attempt been made to give them something new to define themselves, since they were persuaded by missionaries to abandon their old ways?
CH: Well, Catholicism was given to them, and that, perhaps, was supposed to be enough. The Catholic missionaries encouraged the Asmat to keep their carving and many of their traditions alive. But the area is so remote and physically difficult—just a big, roadless swamp—that I suppose what would come next—development and jobs—remains far away. That said, the longer I spent with them, the more I understood the richness of their culture and that much of it remains; more than meets the eye, I’d say. They still have a rich spiritual life, but their ultimate fate is a huge open question, especially if mineral resources are ever discovered in Asmat or roads ever pierce their realm.
Bookish: The Asmat have no electricity, no running water, little food, and a seemingly unbreakable belief that there is no difference between this world and the spirit world. What was the hardest thing about spending a month with them? What was the most rewarding?
CH: The hardest thing for me, a Westerner, is the lack of personal space—my own quiet corner to escape to to daydream and recharge—and the lack of anything really to do. Time passes very slowly there. Also the smoking and the food. Asmat eat sago and small fish and shrimp, interwoven with some rice and freeze-dried ramen, when they can get it. It’s hard to feel full and there’s little flavor.
But to be there, in a world so different from my own, to be accepted (if even marginally), and to witness their lives and drumming and singing and dancing–their deep self-expression that dates back who knows how long–is an incredible privilege. Not to mention the feeling of really getting to know this tiny village in the middle of nowhere, its history, its structure; there’s something wondrous-feeling about that.
Bookish: You describe the Asmat as “biologically modern,” what’s the importance of that definition? Do you think they’ll ever be “fully” modern?
CH: They are different, culturally, from you and me, but they are very smart and very sophisticated about their world. It’s not up to us to say how they should be. They should determine their own fate and, sad though it may seem to us, they probably will ultimately be increasingly dragged into the modern economy as they, like most people, fall under the spell of consumer goods and culture.
Bookish: Have you been back to the Asmat region since your month-long stay?
CH: I haven’t. I’d love to go back, and hope to, but it’s so far and takes so long to get there that short trips aren’t possible. If everything goes perfectly, it still takes about a week to get in to Agats, the main Asmat city, and then a week back home, so that’s two weeks of raw travel, not counting time on the ground in the village.
Bookish: The Asmat art Michael Rockefeller bought for lumps of tobacco, steel axes, and fish hooks 50 years ago now reside in the Met and are worth millions. We know who the indigenous artists were, who their children and grandchildren are, and that they live a subsistence life in the swamplands. Has anyone suggested that the children and grandchildren of the artists be properly compensated retroactively by the Met or the Rockefellers?
CH: Not as far as I know. A Rockefeller foundation did grant money to the small museum in Agats years ago, but certainly none of the carvers themselves, or their families, have ever been compensated after the initial purchase. Direct compensation would be a disaster, but it’s too bad that there’s not some avenue for the Asmat to benefit.