Savage harvest : a tale of cannibals, colonialism and Michael Rockefeller's tragic quest for primitive art

by Carl Hoffman

Hardcover, 2014

Status

Available

Publication

New York, NY : William Morrow, 2014.

Description

Retracing Rockefeller's steps, journalist Carl Hoffman traveled to the jungles of New Guinea to solve a decades-old mystery and illuminate a culture transformed by years of colonial rule.

User reviews

LibraryThing member akblanchard
In 1961, Michael Rockefeller, the youngest son of Nelson Rockefeller and an heir to the Rockefeller family fortune, was on a expedition to purchase "primitive" art from New Guinea's Asmat ethnic group when he went missing. After an extensive manhunt failed to locate him, his family had him declared dead, with drowning listed as the cause of death. Nonetheless, rumors that he was murdered and eaten by cannibals persisted, despite official statements that such barbaric acts could not take place in Dutch-ruled New Guinea.

In 2012 journalist and travel writer Carl Hoffman set out to discover the truth behind Michael Rockefeller's mysterious disappearance. Hoffman visited to the remote region where the Asmat live, which is still very primitive by Western standards, and investigated "dusty" Dutch archival documents (why are archival documents always "dusty"?). He learned an Indonesian language to speak to the sons of the men who were implicated in the disappearance. Most importantly, he tried to understand the Asmat cosmology and worldview, which are based on the idea that the spirit world demands balance--life for life, and death for death.

Hoffman turns himself into the hero of his own book, a man willing to forgo even the most basic of Western comforts in order to solve a fifty-year-old mystery. I have the impression that Hoffman cared less about Rockefeller and his fate, or about the Asmat and their culture, than he did about being "right" about what actually happened on the coast of New Guinea on November 19, 1961.

How much you enjoy this book will depend on how much you enjoy spending time with the author.
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LibraryThing member Corvida
It was forward-looking of Nelson Rockefeller to see the aesthetic qualities of so-called primitive art in the 1940s and 50s.

Art is the expression of emotion from all different sorts and there are many more means of expression than the classical form of art teaches. Nelson Rockefeller said that. I wouldn’t have expected that from an old-school old-money kind of Republican, but I don’t know why not once I thought about it.

He was raised to look at art and to value the aesthetic. His mother wrote him a letter when he was at university and said that if he started to cultivate his taste and eye so young, then by the time he could afford to collect he’d have the eye to collect very good stuff.

I like the idea that if you’re going to be rich enough to amass all this stuff (and those Rockefellers piled up loads of stuff), you at least had to know if it was good stuff. Maybe there are still exceedingly rich people who raise their children to this sort of noblesse oblige. I guess Elizabeth II does.

Nelson was Michael’s father. Michael grew up surrounded by art like you can’t believe: Picasso, Matisse, Praxiteles. Nelson took Michael round to art dealers, teaching him & developing his taste, as his own mother had done for him.

The opening of the Museum of Primitive Art coincided with the ending of colonialism. It’s too bad it was called "primitive". Michael was 19 when it opened. He was 23 when he went on the trip he disappeared from.

The author points out that artifacts are hung in museums divorced from their cultural context and meanings. These are dark, bloody meanings in some cases. So when collectors of this stuff go and—as it were—try to buy a piece of art direct from the artist, they walk into danger they aren’t aware even exists.

The practices of headhunting and cannibalism don’t just come from nowhere. Nelson R set out for Asmat as soon as he got news of Michael’s disappearance. A member of Nelson’s group said that even though the Asmat people had practiced headhunting as few as ten years ago, now it was “safe.” The “natives have now taken to wearing clothes and are eager to trade with the white men.”

People can wear clothes and be greedy and still butcher people in the way their spirit ancestors taught them. Those spirit ancestors are hard, maybe impossible, to root out. Ten years sure won’t be enough; that’s not even a generation.

What I didn’t like: the author’s voice. He wasn’t as interesting as he thought he was. At one point he says he wanted to know what it was like decapitating someone’s child or wife. I think that also counts as decapitating “someone”.… (more)
LibraryThing member Stbalbach
Great book on a topic I knew nothing about. In the end I didn't care what really happened to Michael Rockefeller but was entranced by the tribes of New Guinea and Hoffman's trip there. The book takes on literary qualities about the power of myth over materialism. The natives may be "dirt poor" and uneducated, but through their ownership of story about Michael Rockefeller, they have reclaimed some of the power taken from them by the encroachment of modernity, the tables are turned. It also reminded me of a real-life Life of Pi, dealing as it does in a ship-wreck, cannibalism and two alternate stories left up to the reader to decide which to believe.… (more)
LibraryThing member Eesil
I won this book from Goodreads. This is not a book I would normally choose to read. Mostly because it's non fiction, but also because it's not a story that on its face seemed particularly compelling. But I entered the giveaway on a last minute whim, won the book and was happily surprised. The first three quarters were interesting -- providing historical background to a part of the world I know very little about. But the last quarter was particularly interesting and compelling as it got into the author's attempt to really live there, get to know the people and figure out what happened. It's hard to imagine how someone can paint a sympathetic picture of cannibalism, but somehow Hoffman pulls it off. He gives depth to the people and their history without being condescending.… (more)
LibraryThing member etxgardener
I was in Junior High when the disappearance of Michael Rockefeller on an expedition for primitive art in New Guinea splashed all over the national media. One night at dinner my dad, who had been stationed there during World War II said, "I bet the headhunters ate him." We all laughed & my mom swatted him with a dish cloth because it was so ridiculous. Such things did not happen in 1961. However, that apparently is exactly what did happen as Carl Hoffman describes in detail in this extraordinary book.

In 1961, Michael Rockefeller, the 23-year-old son of Nelson Rockefeller (then Governor of New York) and freshly graduated from Harvard launched an expedition to Dutch New Guinea to collect primitive art for his father's new museum. He had been there several months earlier on a Harvard Peabody Expedition that included the noted writer Peter Matthiessen, but this time he was basically on his own. As the child of extreme privilege, Rockefeller was used to everything pretty much going his way, but on this trip he, unfortunately learned otherwise.

In 1961 the area where Rockefeller was searching for artifacts was a dangerous place. Although, the Dutch put out the story for their own political reasons that headhunting and cannibalism had ended in the southern Asmat region of the country, nothing could have been further from the truth. All during the 1950's the region had been the scene of bloody internecine warfare among the Asmat with each killing leading to revenge killings in a cycle that seemingly could not be unbroken. Rockefeller, who did not speak the language proceeded with a hubris that would lead to his grisly downfall.

On November 19, 1961 he and Dutch anthropologist Renee Wasing, along with two young Asmat guides set out on an expedition to collect primitive art, moat especially the ceremonial bisj poles. They soon ran into trouble in rough seas and their catamaran capsized. The young guides went for help, but Rockefeller grew impatient & after several hours decided to swing to shore himself in defiance of every known precept of how to survive a shipwreck. Unbelievably he survived the 14-hour, 10-mile swim to shore, but once there was met by a group of Asmat warriors looking to avenge killings in their village several years before, who took their opportunity.The young guides, had, of course made it to shore, and notified the Dutch authorities who, given the importance of the man on board, launched a full-scale military rescue mission. Rene Wassing was quickly found, but Michael Rockefeller seemed to have disappeared into thin air

Now the Dutch government's worst nightmare began. They had to notify Rockefeller's family and given the fact that they were petitioning the United Nations to hold onto their colony, they also had to cover-up the more unsavory aspects of the native population. Already rumors were swirling about that Rockefeller fils had been killed and eaten by the Asmat. The Dutch had to suppress these rumors at all costs.

Nelson Rockefeller and Michael's twin sister, Mary arrived in New Guinea several days later accompanied by an entourage of press and political aides. The Dutch government officials told them a probable story about an exhaustive search reaching the conclusion that Michael had died by drowning.This story was accepted by the Rockefeller family and they returned to the United States full of praise and thanks to the Dutch officials for all their help in trying to find Michael.

Flash forward fifty years and the author, a self-professed outsider who has made his living writing about adventure is now pursuing the story. He travels to New Guinea (now part of Indonesia), immerses himself in the Asmat culture and does exhaustive work in the Dutch colonial archives to arrive at the story of what really happened. What he finds is incredible documentary proof that Rockefeller was, indeed, killed, beheaded, butchered and eaten by a group of Asmat warriors on that fateful day. These facts were specifically covered-up by the Dutch Colonial officials to further their own political ends. The Asmat, however, are not so willing to give up their secrets. Although he comes very close, no one will admit to him directly what happened on that fateful morning. But that detail hardly matters. The story is all there: the clash of the last vestiges of a prehistoric people meeting the modern world so sure of themselves and their superior culture. This is a cautionary tale.
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LibraryThing member jen.e.moore
I'd kind of like to finish reading this just so I could write a review about how obnoxiously racist it is, but I have far too many other books to read right now, so instead I'm just going to bring it back to the library and be sad that yet another book labeled "ethnography" turns out to be racist bullshit.
LibraryThing member yoyogod
Michael Rockefeller disappeared, and was presumable killed, in New Guinea in 1961. The official cause of death was drowning (or possibly being consumed by sharks or crocodiles). Unofficially, many people have speculated that he was actually killed and eaten by a cannibalistic headhunting people called the Asmat. In Savage Harvest, Carl Hoffman travels to New Guinea to investigate the matter.

As this was an event that happened over 50 years ago in what is essentially a swamp among close-mouthed and (in the 60s) fairly primitive people, it should come as little surprise that Hoffman didn't manage to find any definitive proof. He does however dig up some fairly substantial circumstantial evidence. This includes documents from the Dutch government (who ruled the area at the time of the disappearance) and a fair amount of information on the culture and religion of the Asmat.

For readers who are interested in odd history, the grotesque, and foreign people, this is a book that's well worth reading.
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LibraryThing member ElizaJane
When I think of Imperialism, Colonialism and empire building, the last country that would have come to mind is The Netherlands. But they did indeed have colonies such as Dutch Guiana, Gold Coast, Mozambique, South Africa, and many others including Dutch New Guinea where this book takes place. I found this story entirely fascinating and in more ways than I had expected. The author goes back to track Michael's footsteps,read the now public access records and talk to natives who knew Michael or their relatives. Probing into the stone age culture that still practiced headhunting and cannibalism at the time of Rockefeller's death was fascinating. The government played a large part in convincing the world that these people, the Asmat, no longer practiced these atrocities. While I'm usually not interested in obscure country's politics, what was going on behind the scenes with the Dutch government who at the moment Michael disappeared were trying to convince the UN they should be allowed ownership of the colony, was stimulating. While Michael Rockefeller was presumed drowned at sea after an extensive public search, the real search for the truth wasn't started by the Dutch authorities until everyone had gone home and what they discovered was shared with few and silenced to secrecy. The author uncovers the truth fifty years later for the public, but questions will always remain.… (more)
LibraryThing member dele2451
A powerful reminder that money, fame, or a Harvard education can't protect you from the perils of the jungle.
LibraryThing member carolfoisset
Fascinating story. I knew nothing of this incident so the story was very compelling to me. Listening to this on audio was difficult at times (for me) because there is a lot of information and details in the book and I would lose my focus at times.
LibraryThing member gayla.bassham
Do you remember how, in early seasons of Survivor, the finale would show Jeff Probst traveling breathlessly to the jungle to deliver the final votes to the CBS studio? This book is the narrative equivalent of that sequence, except with cannibals.

The author is clearly very proud of his research and spends long paragraphs telling of his travels and his meetings with Asmat tribe members. I would have preferred to know more about Michael Rockefeller and his interest in Native art. But the author is not interested in Rockefeller's life, only his death, and his death is only a puzzle to be solved in (the author hopes) the creepiest way possible. (It's hard not to picture the author reciting the essentials of his theory around a campfire, with a flashlight illuminating his face.)

Of course, the author reaches the conclusion that cannibals ate Rockefeller. That is the conclusion he wanted to reach all along. There doesn't seem to be a lot of evidence for this conclusion, but the author has fallen in love with his theory and he is determined to hold onto it. I don't believe a word of it -- Occam's Razor suggests that Rockefeller drowned -- and when reading this book, I often wondered whether some of the Asmats with whom the author spoke were pranking him.

In short, Michael Rockefeller deserved much better than this. Savage Harvest is not a good book, and I cannot recommend it to anyone who is not Jeff Probst. I suspect that Jeff Probst, however, would thoroughly enjoy it.
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LibraryThing member amandacb
I just...did not enjoy this. The first few pages are like WHOA but then you come to realize it's just Hoffman's speculation, not the facts. This book, though, does have plenty of facts -- perhaps too many, as it became rather like reading a dry anthropology textbook.
LibraryThing member Sullywriter
Fascinating investigation of the mysterious disappearance of Michael Rockefeller who went missing in 1961 during an expedition in Dutch New Guinea. The official version is that he drowned at sea but the author reveals a plausible case that he was killed and consumed by a tribe of headhunting cannibals.
LibraryThing member eenerd
Fascinating look at the story of Michael Rockefeller and the people and culture of 1960's Papua New Guinea. Gripping and thoroughly researched, Hoffman does a good job of investigating the numerous points of view--native, Dutch colonial and American as well.
LibraryThing member jennifersalderson
It is simply one of the best nonfiction travel adventure stories I have read in a very long time. An award-winning American journalist, Hoffman recounts his fascinating journey to Papua New Guinea, where he retraces the last art-collecting expedition made by anthropologist Michael Rockefeller. He juxtaposes his own travels through the Asmat region with a fictive reconstruction of Rockefeller’s final days before his mysterious disappearance, based on extensive archival research and new eyewitness accounts. He effortlessly combines mystery, adventure, personal self-discovery and colonial history into one captivating novel.… (more)
LibraryThing member readyreader
A fascinating chapter in the Rockefeller family history. I completed the book, but found it hard to stay with as it seemed repetitive and often uneven.
LibraryThing member crsini
I received an ARC of this book via a giveaway on goodreads. Thanks to those that made it happen!

I really enjoyed this book. Hoffman has an engaging style of writing which, despite the occasional novelization of scenes, never strays too far from the facts. The book is as much an ethnography of the Asmat as it is a story of Michael Rockefeller's disappearance, and both subjects coalesce into a tale both gripping and extraordinary.… (more)

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