by Drew Martin
If you have been to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and visited the 40,000-square-foot wing on the south side that houses the arts of Africa, (native) Americas, and Oceania, you might have noticed it is dedicated to Michael C. Rockefeller. The collection was kickstarted by Michael’s father, Nelson A. Rockefeller, a former governor of New York, who donated his more than 3,000-piece collection to the Met. Many of the objects in the collection were gathered by Michael during his anthropological and art collecting trips in New Guinea. He was most fascinated by the Asmat people and their ancestral bisj poles (pictured top), which embodied cycles of life and the cannibalistic headhunting raids.
The completion of a bisj pole usually unleashed a new round of raids; revenge was taken and balance restored, new heads obtained—new seeds to nourish the growth of boys into men—and the blood of the victims rubbed into the pole. The spirit in the pole was made complete. The villagers then engaged in sex, and the poles were left to rot in the sago fields, fertilizing the sago and completing the cycle. smithsonian.com
On November 18, 1961 Michael was aboard a makeshift boat during a return expedition in the region. The boat capsized in the rough delta of the Pulau River/Eilandenrivier of the Arafura Sea. Michael left a Dutch companion with the debilitated craft and tried to make the more-than-three-mile swim to shore, which was done successfully earlier by two locals who had also been aboard. He was never seen from again.
Michael was thought to have drowned, or to have been eaten by sharks or crocodiles. There was also strong evidence that he reached shore but was then murdered by Ajam, (pictured here, middle, in a photo from 1973 when he was chief of the Dani tribe) who acknowledged killing Michael and, with the help of others, eating him.
Cannibalism was revenge based so Michael and other Western visitors to this region were typically outside of that death cycle but the tribe that is said to have killed him had yet to revenge deaths by a Dutch official who shot and killed Asmat people a few years prior. One other fantastical story is that he shed his past, and cultural trappings, and went native. Film footage from 1969 of an Asmat war canoe fleet fueled this speculation when a Caucasian man who resembled Michael was noticed among the cannibals. (Still from footage pictured below)
While the latter story is the least likely because of the extensive search for him, it does make for an interesting tale, especially since Michael hastily returned to the area after a brief visit to New York, where he learned his parents were getting divorced. And who better to turn his back on Western culture than one of the heirs of the greatest fortunes, compounded by an unsettled feeling he must have had for his trading of Western tools in exchange for a kind of cultural robbery of a people he had grown so close to, who he found uninhibited and unburdened by the problems of "civilization." And while it is hard to find a good angle at the butchering and consumption of a fellow being, the Asmat people believed you took on the knowledge and power of the individual you cannibalized.
What recently piqued my interest in this topic was a documentary I watched about the search for Michael:
To see a more recent incident of cannibalism in Western culture, watch Ke$ha's video, Cannibal: