The story goes like this: In 1961, the 23-year-old Michael Rockefeller (son of Nelson), was in the Asmat region of New Guinea, collecting local relics for his father's Museum of Primitive Art. His boat overturned a few miles from shore and he decided to swim back. After doing so for some 20 hours, he was greeted by locals on the shore, who speared and then ate him.
That's been the legend for decades, but it's only now that real light has been shed on the mystery via Carl Hoffman's engrossing new book Savage Harvest. In it, Hoffman explores reasons for the government's coverup of Michael Rockfeller's death (which publicly was estimated to be via drowning or shark/alligator attack), as well as why the Asmat people would have killed an eaten a white stranger (to summarize an incredibly complex internal situation and system of beliefs, it would have restored spiritual balance).
To write his book, Hoffman did exhaustive research and traveled a few times to Asmat to spend time with its people. I spoke with him last week, and an edited version of our chat is below (it has spoilers regarding the resolution of Savage Harvest). Hoffman will also participate in a reader Q&A at the bottom of this post, so ask whatever questions you have for him in the comments below.
Gawker: One thing I love about this book is its balance – it's a story of politics and colonialism, but the presence of cannibalism makes it somewhat lurid in nature. The plot is not unlike Ruggero Deodato's infamous 1980 movie Cannibal Holocaust: guy ventures into the unknown, gets eaten; another guy goes down to trace his steps.
Carl Hoffman: I don't know that movie. Obviously cannibalism is a lurid thing, and it attracts people, but the book to me isn't a very lurid book, except for the second chapter, which is pretty graphic and visceral. Other than that, I think for the most part, it tries to enjoy the sensational. The title Savage Harvest is from a Pablo Neruda poem. It's a beautiful, beautiful love poem and it's really about the intensity desire, and wanting something so bad that you want to possess it and take it over in a physical way.
The book also asks, "Who's the real savage here?" You grapple with this yourself when you say, "I wonder if I was as guilty as Michael" to breeze in and think that you could understand this people.
For sure. I went through a whole evolution from the simplistic notions of the so-called primitive in the beginning of the book to a much more sophisticated view and a realization of the inadequacy of the word "primitive." The Asmat were materially primitive – no cash economy, no technology – but they're obviously incredibly complex, sophisticated people in a lot of ways.
Were you informed by Michael's mistakes? Did you take your time in this culture because he didn't?
Well no, I was forced to, but even so, that's the point between the first and the second trips. I went fast and as an American, it's my own inclination to go, "OK, we're going to Otsjanep, once we get to Otsjanep, we're gonna see all these people and ask 'em, 'What happened to Michael Rockefeller?'" As an American journalist, the reality is that people tell you incredible things that they shouldn't tell you because they're flattered or whatever. That didn't really work in Asmat and it took me a while to realize that. I went back in a different way the second time, and even then I spent a month there. I could spent years there and I wouldn't understand everything. There are endless layers of complexity.
While reading the book, I looked into other Westerners' experiences in the Asmat, and I saw a clip of Tobias Schneebaum telling Charlie Rose that he wouldn't have had the access to the information that he had if he hadn't engaged in sex with Asmat men. Do you think that's bullshit?
No, I don't. I think it's a hundred percent true. Tobias Schneebaum went deeper than I ever did, no pun intended. Tobias' journeys in Asmat and the Amazon were extraordinary. Since the book came out, I have been getting letters from missionaries in Asmat and a lot of them don't like Schneebaum. The question of how much homosexuality actually was in Asmat is a valid question: Was there was much as Schneebaum said or was he projecting? But I don't really think it matters, and I don't think he was lying about having sex with them. The male fertility cults and male appropriation of female fertility stuff—semen exchange, etc.—is well documented. I've been reminded [while promoting the book] that we all seek our own vision of the world when we go to places like Asmat. The missionaries see it through one lens, Tobias saw it through a lens, I see it through a lens. Because we stand out so much, we have such little direct access to the culture and we see what we want to see.
How has the feedback on the book been so far?
So far really good. It's my third book and it's had far more impact and traction than anything I've ever written before. The Rockefellers are starting to respond and that's sort of odd. They're having these surrogates write letters because they won't, you know, stoop low enough to respond. They're in total denial: "There's nothing new here, there's no concrete evidence." It's strange to me. I understand their desire for privacy, and the pain that the idea that Michael was killed and eaten causes, but at the same time, it's the truth. There were so many pieces of this story that were so important. The documents [among them from the Catholic church, which sought to suppress any mention of Michael being eaten], many of which have never been seen before, were so important. In the end, I realized through the time I spent in Asmat, understanding their sacred world and the political obligations within the village, ultimately that's what convinced me that they had killed Michael. I don't believe it was a stretch.
The note on which you end the book, regarding knowing about unknowing struck me as wise. Were you disappointed, though, that you couldn't get your hands on hard evidence like Michael's glasses?
I suppose on some level, yeah, it would be great if I had gotten his glasses and could give them to [his surviving twin sister] Mary Rockefeller Morgan. On the other hand, there's something beautiful about a little bit of uncertainty, about some things being so powerful that you don't really talk about them. I'm satisfied with that, too.
Our chat with Carl has ended. Thanks to all who participated.