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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. In 1961, the 23-year-old son of one of America's wealthiest families disappeared in a remote coastal area off the island of New Guinea in the South Pacific, a region inhabited by tribes known to engage in headhunting and cannibalism. Our guest, writer Carl Hoffman, dug into long-forgotten archives and spent time among villagers in the Asmat region of what happened to Michael Rockefeller, son of then-New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller.

Hoffman believes the fate of Michael Rockefeller is now clear, and his new book tells the disturbing story of the young man who spent months in the region collecting indigenous art for display in the Museum of Primitive Art, in New York. Hoffman's book, "Savage Harvest," is both an investigation of the Rockefeller mystery and an exploration of the lives of the Asmat, whose culture in the 1960s was based on Stone Age technology.

Carl Hoffman is a contributing writer to National Geographic Traveler and has traveled to more than 70 countries. He's the author of two previous books. He spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

Well Carl Hoffman, welcome to FRESH AIR. I'd like you to begin by describing the physical setting, this tribal area where Michael Rockefeller disappeared.

CARL HOFFMAN: Asmat is like nowhere else on Earth, really, that I've been. It's 10,000 square miles of swamp, really: rivers and very high mountains, up to 16,000 feet on one side and the ocean, sort of a hot 85-degree ocean on the other and then just swamp. Even today it's 10,000 square miles without a road, without a hill, without a rock. There's one grass airstrip and one cell tower in the whole region, and, you know, there's no farming. There's no - you can't till the land. It's all just mud and swamp.

DAVIES: Right, and these - the Asmat people live in these villages throughout this region. Describe kind of a little bit about their basic lifestyle, what they do, what they eat.

HOFFMAN: The Asmat people are traditional hunter-gatherers, living in a world where there's sort of no time that is revolving around, for instance, the planting of crops and the harvesting of food. They fish and a lot of small fish and catch these tiny shrimp. They go into the jungle and cut down sago palms, which is just a kind of palm tree, and they process the starch into their main staple food, which is a bit like eating sand or cardboard.

And, you know, it's amazing that they can survive off of that, and they live in this world of just water, and mud, and trees, and sago and fish, and traditionally in that world they hunted and fished and fought each other.

DAVIES: Right, and they have a rich spiritual life, and I want to talk about that, but I thought maybe you could read a section here. This is on Page 39, when you're talking about these folks, and you begin with naming a guy. Do you want to just read this section for us?

HOFFMAN: Sure. Pip and his Jeu mates(ph) weren't savages, however, but complex, biologically modern men with all the brainpower and manual dexterity necessary to fly a 747, with a language so complex it had 17 tenses, whose whole experience, whose whole world was here, constituted in this isolated universe of trees, ocean, river and swamp, cut off from other resources, other men, other ideas, other technologies.

They were pure subsistence hunter-gatherers. They had no crops, no food source that lasted more than a few days. Headhunting and cannibalism were as right to them as taking communion or kneeling on a carpet facing Mecca. There was no Empire State Building, no America or Shakespeare, no atom bomb or rocket ships or cars or radios, no Jesus Christ or telephone.

They had other symbols, other things that ordered their world and their place within it. They knew that a red sunset meant a big headhunting raid was taking place somewhere. They knew that the moon changed shape every night because it was annoyed by the sun, which retreated to the underworld, the land beyond the sea, every evening.

They knew that they were descended from the trees because both trees and men had feet, legs, arms, a fruit on top. A man was a tree; a tree was a man. They knew that they were like the fruit bat, the cooscoos(ph), the king cockatoo because they all hunted and ate the same thing, fruit, whether it was the fruit of the trees or the fruit of men.

They were like the wild boar and the crocodile because boars and crocodiles killed men and ate flesh, and so did they. And they were like the praying mantis because it was just like them. It, too, ate heads in the very act of reconstituting itself.

DAVIES: And that's our guest Carl Hoffman, reading from his book "Savage Harvest." Tell us a little bit about the spiritual lives of these people and how headhunting and cannibalism fit in.

HOFFMAN: They were, as I just read in that passage, a super-complex people with this amazing spirit world that is even - you know, as much time as I spent there, sort of impenetrable in a lot of ways. But it was based on sort of two pillars. One is the idea of sort of reciprocity and balance. They lived in a very bifurcated world, where sort of - a world of incredible emotional extremes.

And balance came from the opposite: death from life, and, you know, happiness and sadness. And it was this incredible world of opposites. And cannibalism was part of that. And also it's almost a - what people tend to describe as a sort of male fertility cult. For instance as young men were becoming initiated into manhood, that required a head placed between the legs of an initiate. The head often was actually touching the groin of initiate for two or three days, and the energy and the fertility of that head would flow into the - literally flow into the groin, loins of young men.

And that all required the taking of new heads, which were taken in battle.

DAVIES: Now to clarify, they didn't eat their own friends and family who had died. I mean, explain what circumstances under which, you know, they would dismember people and why, dismember them and eat them and why.

HOFFMAN: It's important to understand in the Asmat world that cannibalism was a byproduct of headhunting and not the other way around. So important to Asmat were the taking of heads and the balancing of the world, what is called, thought of as reciprocal violence. And so if you and I live, and you live in Philadelphia, and I live in Washington, D.C., and we're enemies, I would go, and I could kill you and take your head, and I would become - might take your name, the name Dave.

And if I went to your village of Philadelphia, for instance, your family would call me Dave and treat me as Dave after I had taken your head and consumed you. And yet at the very same time, someone from your village, someone from Philadelphia, would have to come to my village in Washington, D.C., and reciprocate and balance the world that was now out of balance and kill me or somebody in my village.

It could've even been a woman or a child or an old person. It didn't matter. In fact often vulnerable people were best because they were the easiest to kill.

DAVIES: Right. So the headhunting and the cannibalism was a part of warfare, but it had a spiritual meaning. You know, there's an elaborate ritual for - that you describe for how one dismembers a body. How much of the body would be eaten, and to what extent can you say that this was for nutrition? I mean, these were people who had a pretty limited diet.

HOFFMAN: I think cannibalism is a really complicated subject, and it's super-controversial even among anthropologists. I don't think there's any easy explanations. In Asmat at the time of 1961, when cannibalism and headhunting were super-prevalent, I don't think they were killing people for actual nutritional needs. I think that cannibalism was this sort of byproduct of headhunting.

But I think the question of, you know, where did cannibalism originally come from, why were the Asmat cannibals when so many other people weren't, you know, if you look at Asmat, the Asmat world, there's very little constant and secure food source. I worked with an anthropologist named Peggy Sanday(ph), who wrote a book about cannibalism, and she had looked at about 100 cultures across the world that practice cannibalism, and I think it was 93 percent of the ones who - which practice cannibalism, there was some ecological stress present.

So I think it's reasonable to assume that at some point in Asmat history, maybe thousands of years ago, you know, nutritional, especially protein with a lot of fat, I mean fat is really, really hard to come by in a place like Asmat. I would lose 10 pounds easily every time I'd go there.

And I think that, you know, even at its highest, the murder rate in Asmat was probably not high enough to supply the general population with large amounts of nutrition, but it certainly could have helped the elites and the leaders of the Jeus and their immediate families.

DAVIES: Jeus is a word you use, that refers to kind of a sacred house, right?

HOFFMAN: That's the men's house, which is the center of the Asmat cosmological world and the world where all ceremonies happen and actually the world where the dead and the living coalesce.

DAVIES: Right, spelled J-E-U. We're speaking with Carl Hoffman. His book is "Savage Harvest." And we'll continue our conversation after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

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DAVIES: We're speaking with Carl Hoffman. His book is "Savage Harvest." Michael Rockefeller came to the Asmat region I guess right around 1960, and it was a time when whites were just beginning to interact with the Asmat culture. Talk a little bit about how the Asmat people regarded white people and what kinds of interaction they had.

HOFFMAN: The Asmat lived incredibly isolated lives. I mean, they weren't really aware of other peoples to their north, south, east, west. And when whites began arriving in the 1950s, the mid-1950s, you know, a very, very small trickle and then a little bit more in 1960, '61, they didn't know what to make of those people.

You know, they were strange people who they believe came from the land beyond the sea, which was where the dead went, and they believed the white - at first they believed the whites were spirits and it was very, very upsetting to them. You know, the Asmat practice something called papish(ph), which was sort of mass group sex, men exchanging wives, and they did this because it was so upsetting, and it was so - that it scared the spirits.

And almost inevitably, every - all those early encounters with westerners, the villages would go into these sort of mass exchanges of partners in which everyone would be sleeping with, you know, the other's partner.

DAVIES: So it was a series of liaisons. We're not talking about some teeming orgy.

HOFFMAN: It wasn't all, you know, 100 people piled in one room, no, no. It would just be each person in - you know, I'd sleep with your wife, you would sleep with mine.

DAVIES: And it would be disconcerting. So tell us a little bit about Michael Rockefeller and what brought him to the Asmat region.

HOFFMAN: Well, Michael graduated from Harvard in 1961, and he got involved in a Harvard Peabody expedition film that was being shot in the Baliem Valley, which is the highlands of New Guinea. Nelson Rockefeller, his father, who was governor of New York at the time, had opened the Museum of Primitive Art in 1957 in New York, which was the first museum in America dedicated exclusively to primitive art.

And he got the idea that he wanted to go to Asmat and collect, which was an area that, you know, few people had really been to and here, you know, was full of these strange people who did beautiful, incredible carving that, you know, most of the West had never seen before.

So he got the idea he would go and collect art for the Museum of Primitive Art.

DAVIES: So he makes some trips and in 1961, disappears. And to understand the context of this, there was some violence among the tribes and among the Dutch authorities that I think matters here. Do you want to just tell us a little of what happened here? This was a few years before Rockefeller actually came to Asmat.

HOFFMAN: I mean, what's fascinating about this whole story about Michael's disappearance is that, you know, you have this culture in which all these villages are engaged in constant inter-tribal, inter-village warfare. And two villages in particular, the village of Ochenep(ph) and Omatocep(ph), that were on parallel rivers just a few miles apart, maybe a two-hour canoe ride, and in 1957, those two villages had actually come together for a little voyage, sea voyage.

And the end result of that was 124 men from the two villages set out, and only 11 returned. All the rest were massacred. And that was sort - you know, it had nothing to do with westerners or white people. It was the Asmat doing their own thing as they'd been doing for thousands of years. But there was a zealous Dutch colonial patrol officer, sort of like a policeman named Max Lapre, and he was new to Asmat, and he wanted to show - teach the Asmat a lesson.

DAVIES: So what did he do?

HOFFMAN: And so he arrived in the village of Ochenep, and he arrived in a, you know, steel ship with 12 armed Papuan policemen and a whole flotilla of villagers from actually an enemy village. And he - you know, everybody freaked out. I mean, the villagers, the men from Ochenep had no idea why he was there, and they were frightened, and shots rang out in all the chaos, and he killed four out of the five leaders of the Jeus.

DAVIES: Right, and again Jeu, that's J-E-U, it's this long house, which was the home of sort of the spiritual life of the village. So when Michael Rockefeller disappears, he's unaware of this whole background of terrible violence and retribution and I guess in some respects kind of unrequited violence or unpaid debts among the villagers of Ochenep. Tell us about what actually happened to Michael Rockefeller when he disappeared, what we know happened.

HOFFMAN: Michael was - he had been - he had actually made two trips to Asmat, and this time he had kind of a homemade catamaran, two native canoes that were joined in the middle with a thatch hut and outboard motor. And he was with a Dutch anthropologist named Rene Wassing, who had been assigned to him by the Dutch government and two - he was with two local boys, who were sort of his boat boys, assistants.

They were crossing the mouth of a river, and the craft ultimately capsized, and...

DAVIES: So when the boat capsizes, they're not that far from the shore. Then the two young Asmat boys who were traveling with them swam to shore. But Michael Rockefeller and his companion, Rene Wassing, stay with the boat overnight. And then what happens?

HOFFMAN: In the morning, after drifting for 24 hours, they weren't sure what to do. And they could still see the narrow, sort of dim piece of the coast. And Michael said I think I should swim for it. And Rene said I can't swim that well, there's no way, I'm not leaving. And Michael strapped a couple of empty gasoline cans to his waist and said I think I can make it and swam away. And he was never seen again.

DAVIES: Right, and...

HOFFMAN: And Rene Wassing was, in fact - you know, Michael violated the first rule of yachting, which is never leave the ship as long as the ship is still floating. And Rene stayed on the overturned catamaran and was rescued, well spotted, that afternoon by a Dutch patrol plane and rescued the next morning.

DAVIES: Right, and so Michael swam - not exactly clear how many miles, but several miles toward shore and then was never found. This was obviously a huge event for the Rockefeller family. How did they respond?

HOFFMAN: Well, Nelson, who was governor of New York at the time, and Michael's twin sister, Mary, jumped on a plane instantly and flew to Hawaii, where they chartered a Boeing 707 and loaded it with reporters and flew on to New Guinea; and ended up not quite in Asmat but next to it, in a place called Moroki(ph), and spent 10 days trying to find Michael.

I mean, this huge search and rescue operation was launched by the Dutch. I mean, you know, President Kennedy offered the help of American aircraft carriers, which was refused. Australian army helicopters were flown in, PBY Catalinas, ships. There was this huge, exhaustive effort over about 10 days to find any trace of Michael, and nothing was ever found.

DAVIES: In the weeks after Rockefeller's disappearance, rumors emerged that in fact, he'd made it to shore alive and had met with a violent end. How did the political circumstances of the Dutch, who then had this area as a colony, how did that affect their willingness to really get the story and get it out?

HOFFMAN: Michael's disappearance came at the worst possible time for the Dutch. At the very same time that he disappeared, the Dutch were engaged in this sort of complex political struggle in the United Nations to retain its colony, and when he disappeared, the search and rescue was a great opportunity to show the world how committed the Dutch were and, you know, how effective and efficient they were.

But when rumors surfaced that Michael had in fact not just disappeared at sea but been possibly murdered and cannibalized by residents of its colony, it was the worst thing possible. And the Dutch - it complicated the Dutch efforts, and they didn't want anything - any part of it, and brushed it under the rug.

GROSS: Carl Hoffman will continue the interview with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies in the second half of the show. Hoffman's new book is called "Savage Harvest." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with Carl Hoffman, author of the new book "Savage Harvest." It investigates a case of suspected cannibalism. In 1961, the 23-year-old son of then-New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller disappeared in a remote coastal area off the island of New Guinea in a region inhabited by the Asmat, a tribe known to engage in headhunting and cannibalism. Michael Rockefeller was collecting indigenous art for display in the Museum of Primitive Art in New York.

This part of the interview includes a brief but disturbing description of cannibalism.

DAVIES: You went to the area of Asmat twice. But before you did that, you did some archival research and really found some fascinating stuff. Tell us about it.

HOFFMAN: You know, for all the rumors and speculation about Michael over the years, apparently either nobody really, really looked at these documents, or they weren't available earlier. But I found hundreds and hundreds of pages of original memos and cables and letters between the Dutch government and the Catholic Church and between, you know, the church and its priests.

And, you know, it was this huge paper trail that showed that within - really, two weeks almost of Michael's disappearance, two priests on the ground, Asmat-speaking people who had, men who had been in the area for years and who knew the villages, and the men who lived in them well, heard rumors that Michael had swum ashore and encountered men from Otsjanep, and he'd been killed by them.

And they, those priests looked into it further and wrote, actually, fairly long, detailed reports in which they named names - who had Michael's head, who had other parts of this skeleton. They filed those reports both to their superiors in the church and to the Dutch government. And they're all sort of saying, what are we going to do? Let's not tell the Rockefellers. And on and on it went, even to the extent that the Dutch did a full investigation and sent a police officer to the village of Otsjanep to live and find out.

And that was all kept secret, and it was denied. Even, you know, I have the cables sent to the Rockefellers saying, we've investigated everything - at the very time they were, in fact, sending the investigator to the village.

DAVIES: So what's the story that emerges from these accounts of what happened to Michael Rockefeller?

HOFFMAN: On the day before Michael disappeared, the men of Otsjanep, which was this village that had been assaulted by a Dutch colonial officer and had its - four of its most important men killed, had in fact set off in canoes - 50 men in nine or so canoes - set off for a government station down the coast. And Vim Vandoval(ph) was at that station, and he saw those men. They left that night and the next morning, they arrived at the mouth of the Utar(ph) River, in which the village lay. And they were taking a break when what they thought was a crocodile swam up, and it wasn't a crocodile but a man.

And he was exhausted and vulnerable and weak, and they recognized him. And they knew his name because he had been to the village before. And that's always important in Asmat spiritual world. And they stabbed him with a spear right then and there, and then took him to a very sacred, hidden spot, the Kalechawar(ph), where they, you know, undertook their ceremonial rites.

DAVIES: Right. When people think of cannibalism, there are a lot of images - I mean, you know, people in a pot. Can you describe the ritual? I mean, when one was murdered and then subjected to these practices, what actually happened?

HOFFMAN: Well, it's a pretty long and gruesome and visceral process that I don't think I'll describe in great detail. But it involved the ritual dismemberment of the body in a prescribed way - the separation of the limbs and the rib cage and the entrails, and the cutting off of the head and mixing a lot of the body parts, in particular the brain, with sago, which is a - not only the main source of nutrition, but also a sacred food to them.

DAVIES: You went to the Asmat area twice. Give us some of your first impressions, you know, based on your - what you saw in your encounters with the Asmat people.

HOFFMAN: Asmat is, you know, this world of river and swamp and trees that's - and you go into these villages and there's no plumbing, no power, no stores. There's no trash because there are no consumer goods. And the Asmat are not cannibals or headhunters anymore. They are Catholics. They often cross themselves before they eat, for instance. But they also have multiple wives and live in this incredibly rich spiritual world, and they remain so sort of outside the world's thinking that, you know, they don't ask you questions.

You know, if you go anywhere in the world, people ask you about yourself and where you're from and, you know, about America and Hollywood and cultural icons. And Asmat never do that. They're shy, on the one hand and the other, they are just so sort of isolated, they don't really know what to ask. So you're in these places and it's hot, and flies and mud. And there's nothing to eat, and there's no furniture in Asmat. You know, to sit with Asmat is to sit on the floor for hours at a time. And they all smoke and they tell stories and they drum and sing and, you know, it's really like getting sort of sucked into an alternative universe.

DAVIES: When you asked people about cannibalism or Rockefeller, what did you hear?

HOFFMAN: Every Asmat will say, well, Michael Rockefeller was killed by the men from Otsjanep, and we all know this. And if you go to Otsjanep itself and you say, what happened to Michael Rockefeller? they look at you absolutely blankly. And if you press them, they'll say, you know, then they're adept at changing the subject, and if you press them they'll say, well, we've heard this story but we don't know anything about it. And in Otsjanep, it's like trying to see a black hole. You know, if you look for a black hole you can't see the black hole; no light emits from it. But if you look around its edges, you can see the effects of it. And that's how, I guess, we've identified them. It's the same way with Michael.

DAVIES: Headhunting and cannibalism were an important part of the spiritual life of these villages for hundreds - maybe thousands - of years. When did they cease the practice? And when you were there, how did they speak about it? Did they miss it? I mean, did it alter their lives, in a way?

HOFFMAN: Obviously, the first thing that Westerners on arrival in Asmat - and most of those people were priests, Catholic priests - wanted to do was stamp out headhunting and cannibalism. And that effort, you know, first started in the late 1950s and - I mean, I think it took about 20 years, ultimately, to stamp out - there were reports of cannibalism and headhunting as late as the '70s and even up till 1980 or so.

People - the Rockefellers were told, and journalists were told, at the time of Michael's disappearance that there was no more cannibalism and headhunting, but that was far from true. I mean, in places like Otsjanep, I mean, it was standard practice completely. And today, when you ask the Asmat - Asmat, you know, their lives are full of song and story, and almost every song or story relates a battle or a killing.

And they will say, oh - they'll sort of bend forward, and they'll chop the back of their head, you know, showing you chopping off the heads. They're very forthright about that. But if you then ask them about cannibalism, they get very quiet, and they don't want to talk about it. I mean, I think one of the mysteries is, you know, what they think among themselves, and what they say among themselves. But certainly to Westerners, they understand that, you know, the incredible taboo that cannibalism is. And I think feel ashamed that they did it or that their fathers did it, and they don't, you know, if you push them they'll say, well, we used to do this, but we don't anymore.

DAVIES: Carl Hoffman, thanks so much for speaking with us.

HOFFMAN: Thank you.

GROSS: Carl Hoffman is the author of "Savage Harvest." He spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies, who is also a senior reporter at WHYY. You can read an excerpt of "Savage Harvest" on our website, freshair.npr.org.

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