Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller's Tragic Quest for Primitive Art

Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller's Tragic Quest for Primitive ArtThe Mysterious Disappearance Of Michael Rockefeller In New Guinea In Has Kept The World And His Powerful, Influential Family Guessing For Years Now, Carl Hoffman Uncovers Startling New Evidence That Finally Tells The Full, Astonishing StoryDespite Exhaustive Searches, No Trace Of Rockefeller Was Ever Found Soon After His Disappearance, Rumors Surfaced That He D Been Killed And Ceremonially Eaten By The Local Asmat A Native Tribe Of Warriors Whose Complex Culture Was Built Around Sacred, Reciprocal Violence, Head Hunting, And Ritual Cannibalism The Dutch Government And The Rockefeller Family Denied The Story, And Michael S Death Was Officially Ruled A Drowning Yet Doubts Lingered Sensational Rumors And Stories Circulated, Fueling Speculation And Intrigue For Decades The Real Story Has Long Waited To Be Told Until NowRetracing Rockefeller S Steps, Award Winning Journalist Carl Hoffman Traveled To The Jungles Of New Guinea, Immersing Himself In A World Of Headhunters And Cannibals, Secret Spirits And Customs, And Getting To Know Generations Of Asmat Through Exhaustive Archival Research, He Uncovered Never Before Seen Original Documents And Located Witnesses Willing To Speak Publically After Fifty YearsIn Savage Harvest He Finally Solves This Decades Old Mystery And Illuminates A Culture Transformed By Years Of Colonial Rule, Whose People Continue To Be Shaped By Ancient Customs And Lore Combining History, Art, Colonialism, Adventure, And Ethnography, Savage Harvest Is A Mesmerizing Whodunit, And A Fascinating Portrait Of The Clash Between Two Civilizations That Resulted In The Death Of One Of America S Richest And Most Powerful Scions This is definitely an interesting story of Michael Rockefeller, son of the very wealthy Nelson Rockefeller It tells how Michael, like his father, became interested in primitive art But he wanted to go one step further to go to the source In this case the source was New Guinea at that time 1961 a Dutch colony, but it was soon to become part of Indonesia The complexity of this territorial transfer, and how it was to impact the search for Michael Rockefeller, is well explained in the book.So Michael went there to a place about as far removed from 5th Avenue, Manhattan as can be imagined He bought piles of stuff and took loads of photos I wish the author would have speculated as to how much Michael was going native or wanted to go native How much was he attracted to a people who took absolutely no notice of his wealth and how much did he notice of them the Asmat tribe was a warrior group with violence and death lurking in the darkness of the jungle Did he feel immune to them The author himself spent considerable time with the Asmat in New Guinea Even though this was fifty years after the disappearance of Michael Rockefeller we are provided with insights into the Asmat people and details of their cannibalistic practices which existed at the time of Michael Rockefeller s visit.I did find the chronology of the book confusing There are constant shifts from chapter to chapter between different time periods before 1961, during 1961 Michael Rockefeller and the current day, during the author s visits All this interspersing of time sequences disconnected the flow of the story.Also there is some embellishment, particularly in the first two chapters For example how would the author know what Michael was thinking and feeling after deciding to swim to shore from the capsized boat How would he know what the Asmat people said who found, or allegedly found him, when he came to shore This is speculation Aside from the fact that Michael Rockefeller disappeared we are unsure of what really happened in 1961 There are strong suspicions of what may have happened view spoiler killed and eaten, with the remaining bones distributed among tribal members hide spoiler The redeeming parts of this book were too few and far between to warrant than two stars And two is generous, believe me.I m upset for the poor Rockefeller family bet that s the only time you ll hear that Just because they re huge doesn t mean their personal sorrows can be made public in such a sensational way, for the profit of another They indicated they wanted nothing to do with this project and that they preferred to focus on the official cause of disappearance and death of Michael Rockefeller Those wishes were not respected and had this been done in a sensitive way, I wouldn t agree with them However, when the very first chapter is a dramatization of the murder, butchering and consumption of Michael, it seems that being sensitive to the feelings of the surviving family was not even a thought or concern in the writing of this book There was a lot of putting thoughts and feelings onto Michael that drew me out of the story Unless it was a direct quote from a journal or letter, how can anyone know what he was thinking I rather read the actual letters and journals than read this book, which had too little input from Michael s own words and too many from someone who suffered from a lot of the arrogance and superiority that he attributed to Michael This book angered and upset me most of the time The best parts were when the present state of Agats was discussed The bugs, the lack of clean running water and electricity The travel information was told in a strong and image invoking manner The attempt to re build the past and talk to the natives about the past, repetitive and boring.I had put in to win this via Firstreads because I knew nothing about a Rockefeller going missing in 1961 It sounded like an interesting book I think I would have learned and been less pissed off and bored by Wiki ing it My sympathies to the Rockefellers. Savage Harvest A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller s Tragic Quest for Primitive Art by Carl Hoffman is an interesting book I enjoyed the parts about Rockefeller but there is a lot that is not about him and just about other things and seems to ramble Parts of that was interesting but some was boring I thought the very opening about how Michael might have died was a bit disrespectful because no one knows how he died and to speculate in such a gruesome detail was unnecessary. Part memoir, part biography, this non fiction delves into the mystery of the disappearance of Michael Rockefeller, son of Nelson Rockefeller, in 1961 At age 23, Michael had just graduated from Harvard He traveled to what was then Netherlands New Guinea now part of Indonesian Papua to film a documentary and collect artifacts for his father s Museum of Primitive Art Michael and his colleague, Ren Wassing, were crossing the mouth of a turbulent river in a catamaran on the Arafura sea off the southwest coast of New Guinea when the boat capsized Michael thought he could make it to shore to get help, so he swam away and was never seen again His companion stayed with the boat and was rescued the next day An extensive search was conducted by the authorities, but nothing substantial was found, and eventually they declared Michael had drowned Rumors began to spread that he made it to shore but was killed by the men from the nearby village of Otsjanep The Asmat had practiced headhunting and cannibalism, which was thought to have been eradicated due to the influence of Catholic missionaries and colonial authorities The author decided to retrace Michael s steps and search for evidence to solve the mystery surrounding his death.This book touches on a fascinating combination of anthropology, art, spiritual beliefs, cultural dissonance, history, political coverups, the dynamics of power, and the gruesome specter of cannibalism It shifts narratives between Michael s trip in 1961 and the author s trip in 2012 It relates the history of the territorial dispute regarding Netherlands New Guinea and the political tensions between the Dutch and Indonesian governments, which impacted Rockefeller s disappearance The greatest strength of this book may also be its greatest weakness Hoffman is a journalist, and his research is based on solid reporting techniques, and an analysis of interviews, historical documents, letters, and journals He seeks out the big picture, but as a journalist, it seems he could not resist the temptation to insert a sensationalistic and graphic depiction of what could have happened to Michael The writing style is uneven, at times choppy and other times eloquent The author traveled twice to the region, once with an American journalist s approach of asking direct questions and expecting direct answers, and the second time with a nuanced perspective of gaining an understanding of the Asmat people by living among them and recognizing their complexities The book brings up thought provoking questions about the accumulation of artifacts without understanding of the meaning behind them, and of attempting to judge the past based on modern viewpoints Hoffman makes a good case for his interpretation of events He sheds light on the culture of the Asmat people and puts it in context of the time and place and leaves it to the reader to render a verdict This book will appeal to those that enjoy unsolved mysteries, world history, or cultural anthropology. The World s Literature, a group in Goodreads, is reading books from Southeast Asia and Oceania in 2015 This book isn t on the official list but after reading Four Corners A Journey into the Heart of Papua New Guinea by Kira Salak, I didn t want that to be my only experience with New Guinea I made a long list of potential reads and this book seemed to be the most recent.I expected a sensationalized account of Michael Rockefeller, who died on a trip back to New Guinea in 1961 Instead I found an impeccably researched account, shedding light on questions that have been unanswered for decades While Carl Hoffman can t claim he knows the answer for absolute certain, he makes a good case for the possibility that Michael was killed and probably eaten by cannibals Many of the pieces of information were part of the Dutch government record, which were uncovered and translated by a research assistant From that work came connections to people related to the events in New Guinea in the 1960s, or their widows and descendents, people both native to the area or people working there as priests Interviewing these people was illuminating, and revealed some details that had been deliberately kept silent so many years ago.Carl Hoffman also took two trips to visit the Asmat One trip was frustrating and didn t yield the information he was hoping, and he feared he had been too forceful, too demanding, too Western He returned to spend a week sleeping in the open wooden house in the center of a village, a guest of a man who was likely at the events that could have surrounded Michael Rockefeller s death Hoffman tries to push down his own assumptions, his own culture, and to see events from the perspective of the Asmat warriors, with their circular sense of time, warrior identities, and reactions to outsiders For a journalist, he does a pretty decent job at forging the beginnings of an insider perspective common for longer term researchers This book is intrinsically linked to most of the rest of the books I intend to read before my month of New Guinea is out I have already looked through the volume of Michael Rockefeller photographs of the Dani people, which he took to support the work of Robert Gardner and Peter Matthiessen, both who also wrote books about this time, sometimes utilizing Rockefeller s photographs Robert Gardner also made a film during that time I also have The World Until Yesterday What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies , which is a recent look at the Dani people This is long enough already but I have so many pages marked in this book I guess New Guinea, both sides of it, hasn t quite left me since sinking its teeth into me in 1995 Perhaps I will come back and incorporate thoughts at a future date.ETA In a world without photographs or television or recorded anything, the Asmat are wonderful storytellers, expressive and dramatic with their voices and bodies, their stories full of the chopping of heads and the shooting of arrows and the driving home of spears When Kokai talked about canoes or paddling, he d bend forward and spread his arms wide, become a canoe gliding over the sea, a canoe I could see Once he imitated a fruit bat he scrunched up and made a creepy face, exposing his teeth, screeching holding his hands like he was clinging, and he was the bat I could see it hanging upside down in a tree 248 Hoffman s book tells not only of Michael Rockefeller s disappearance in Netherlands New Guinea now Irian Jaya, or West Papua, a part of Indonesia , but also the authors two visits to the same area in his research.Michael Rockefeller had spent a lot of time in the Asmat area of Dutch New Guinea, with a guide translator attempting to purchase stone age artifacts from the towns in the region Those items he succeeded in purchasing are part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, as a part of the Michael C Rockefeller Memorial Collection.It was in 1961 that Rockefeller and Dutch anthropologist Rene Wassing and two native guides were making their way along the coast in the 40 foot canoe Rockefeller had bought from the natives, when it capsized Both men were unharmed, and the guides immediately swam for shore to raise help Almost two days later, Rockefeller determined that he could swim to shore, as they began to doubt a rescue was underway Wassing argued against this action, and remained with the capsized boat to be rescued some time shortly after Rockefeller was not seen again.The political situation at the time was messy The Dutch were under pressure for Dutch New Guinea to become a part of Indonesia The Dutch had commenced a propaganda drive to emphasise how much the natives benefited from Dutch rule that they were steadily becoming Christian, that headhunting had ceased, and education and health were improving America had a neutral stance, and the disappearance of a high profile American was considered by Dutch leaders as an opportunity to gain good international press if things were to work out positively They suppressed as much as possible any rumours and stories about Rockefeller reaching shore They promoted the view that he was drowned or taken by sharks or crocodiles As so anyone who stepped out of line with the official report, such as Father Hurbertus van Peij and Father Cornelius van Kessel were removed from Dutch New Guinea, and their reports to their superiors were also suppressed.In this book the chapter titles are dates month and year , and do jump around a little, but generally maintain their two timelines Rockefeller s 1957 1961, and Hoffmans in 2012.Hoffman gives a good account of the facts known and is pretty clear where he speculates My only criticism of the book is it does become quite repetitive because Hoffman is continually hearing stories all along the same lines and continues to tell us them from each source The other aspect which makes it a little confusing is something beyond the authors control, but many of the place names, and peoples names are similar and this creates a little confusion Asmat is the region and the tribe, and Agat a town , Amates a guides name , and a bunch of other places and people Starting with B, were are not much better off, towns named Baiyuan, Biwar Lautv Betjew, tribesemen named Bif, Ber, Bere and Bese So, is there an outcome, solid evidence, a confession That would be telling, but if you are not troubled by spoilers, the Wikipedia entry for Michael Rockefeller describes the outcome of Hoffmans book.Enjoyable at 3.5 stars, rounded down. What I learned from this book in no particular order 1 Don t mess with cannibals, even supposedly reformed ones, especially if they have a particularly bloody creation myth that they insist on reenacting in real life DESOIPITSJ WAS OLDER and unable to hunt, so Biwiripitsj had to do all the work One day the boy brought home a wild pig He cut off the head and thrust a cassowary bone dagger into its throat, pinning the head to the floor Bah, a pig s head is but a pig s head, said Desoipitsj, watching Why not replace it with a human head That would be something, I think Biwiripitsj didn t agree, and anyway, where was he to get a human head Desoipitsj was fixated on the idea and said, Well, you can have my head After a lot of cajoling, he convinced Biwiripitsj to kill him with a spear, cut into his throat with a bamboo knife, and press the head forward until the vertebrae cracked Even as Biwiripitsj removed his brother s head, Desoipitsj continued to speak, describing the correct technique of butchering humans and initiating boys into manhood, instructions that had to be followed to the letter Time and space shift in this story, for it is also a charter, a set of instructions on how all Asmat men and women were to act in the future, even though there weren t yet any other people in the world 2 Colonial authorities are not to be trusted, especially if they are only concerned with window dressing in their colonies Claiming that cannibalism is eradicated is not the same as actually eradicating it Ditto the church It was a stunning moment of geopolitical maneuvering The world s eyes were now on New Guinea, including Nelson Rockefeller s, and it was the Netherlands chance to show that its colony wasn t just some backwater full of headhunters, as President Kennedy s advisers were arguing, but a nation in the making, with a well oiled government that could make things happen For Dutch officials, the search for Michael had become part of a larger strategy to leave no canoe unturned and no patch of ocean unexamined, and to have Nelson Rockefeller return home, if not singing the praises of the Luns Plan directly, at least saying how great the Dutch in New Guinea were And the same for the international press whether Michael turned up dead or alive 3 Appropriating other people s ritualistic art without properly understanding their culture may have unintended, fatal consequences Village ambushes were associated with ceremonies meant to restore order in a world of opposites, including the creation of elaborate wooden poles carved from a single piece of mangrove that could be as tall as twenty feet, known as bisj Each pole depicted a column of stacked ancestors the pole carried the name of its topmost person Canoes, snakes, and crocodiles were carved into the base of the pole, and symbols of headhunting extended out in a three foot long protrusion from its top The poles were haunting, alive, often sexually suggestive.For the Asmat, ancestors are involved in every aspect of their existence The carvings are memorial signs to those ancestors, and to the living, that their deaths have not been forgotten, that the living s responsibility to avenge them is still alive and strong, and that the living should not be punished if those deaths haven t yet been avenged 4 Being a member of the white tribe in the colonies might confer certain advantages, but also may bring unforeseen dangers, especially if you are treated as the other white meat The men from Otsjanep who would have been there at about the same time were related though I wasn t yet sure exactly how to the men killed by Max Lapr in 1958, just three years before, and those deaths had never been reciprocated Seventeen men, women, and children had been killed in the past decade, eight by crocodile hunting Chinese Indonesians considered white by the Asmat and five by Lapr , and Michael had found seventeen bisj poles still in the jeus The Asmat were known to be opportunists, preferring victims to be alone and unprotected, and Michael would have been exhausted, vulnerable in a way they d never encountered in a white before And he d been to the village already they would have known him and may have remembered his name, an important factor in choosing a headhunting victim 5 Having the toilet in the kitchen is an unhygienic arrangement, not to mention an extremely repellent one The air reeked of human shit the moldy, always wet outhouse was in the kitchen and the hole dropped straight to the ground beneath the kitchen, with those widely spaced boards There were houses next to Kokai s, behind it, and in front of it across a small creek, the houses were everywhere, and each one was filled with people shitting onto the ground The rich, pungent smell pervaded the village, and I never quite grew used to it 6 You can create art worth millions of dollars, be paid in worthless trinkets and remain dirt poor They had begun the legal steps necessary to declare him dead within months of his disappearance Through the Museum of Primitive Art, they d moved quickly to ship everything he d collected back to New York some five hundred objects in total, valued by insurance appraisers in August 1962 at 285,520 It was a stunning sum, a quarter of a million dollars in value created via a few fishhooks, fishing line, axes, and lumps of tobacco, off the talents of men who were illiterate and penniless As the centerpieces today of the Michael C Rockefeller Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, their value in attracting visitors and funding is incalculable, not to mention the priceless cache and hefty tax deductions their donation to the museum must have brought Nelson Rockefeller and his family In 2012 the Met hosted six million visitors, with a recommended voluntary entry fee of 25 if the average visitor paid 15, the Met brought in 90 million in entry fees alone, while the grandson of the man Michael regarded as one of the best artists in all of Asmat, Chinasapitch, the man who carved the lovely canoe that holds prominence in the Met, sweeps the floor in bare feet Until I told him, he had no idea what had ever happened to that canoe Had priceless land or millions of dollars worth of mineral rights been acquired from illiterate villagers via a few lumps of brown weed and bent wire, cries of injustice might have rung out, with demands that a people unable to understand the deal they d agreed to be fairly compensated Without physical evidence, say, a skull that had been pierced to allow the brain to drain out or a gnawed tibia, what happened to Michael Rockefeller after his swim in the Arafura Sea would probably remain a mystery forever, but Carl Hoffman builds a persuasive case that he was indeed murdered and eaten by Asmat warriors from the village of Otsjanep Why Because he had unwittingly trespassed into tribal territory where natives had been murdered by heavy handed colonial authorities and had been compelled by their deep rooted belief to avenge them on a member of the white tribe He might have sealed his fate when he bought those magnificent bisj poles that now stood in the Michael C Rockefeller Wing in the Metropolitan Museum of Art these were erected for tribe members who had been killed and must be avenged something that Rockefeller Jr was aware of, Hoffman surmised, in a sort of a clinical way The missionary fathers who intimately knew the Asmats and their culture were convinced that this was what happened, but their reports were suppressed by Dutch authorities who would like to present their half of New Guinea as a civilized, cannibal free colony The Indonesians who later took over the territory were also not keen to conclude that their new fellow citizens ate an American Even Michael s twin sister and father, who came to the swamps of Asmat to futilely search for him, ultimately convinced themselves that he drowned After than fifty years, Hoffman unearthed the suppressed reports, long buried in the Dutch colonial archives, and interviewed the remaining witnesses The book ends, rather abruptly, just after a tribal elder dramatically revealed a long buried secret to the men of his village After we d eaten, Marco, a man I guessed to be in his late sixties or early seventies, began telling a story in the Asmat language Everyone listened, some lying down and even falling asleep I lay down too, noticing a soot blackened rattan bag at the top of Ber s roof, round, covered in cobwebs, like it was holding a ball A skull I wondered Although I couldn t understand the words, and the story wasn t for me, I watched the drama unfold as dogs scraped around in the swamp below the house There was the firing of arrows, the powerful side arm stabbing of someone with a spear I heard the words Otsjanep and Dombai Marco walked Stalked Stabbed again Pulled his pants legs up tight, thrust his hips forward, not like he was having sex, but as if he were peeing or having his penis sucked Men grunted Nodded Uh Uh Finally, an hour into it, I picked up my camera and switched it to video and began filming But the theatrics were over he just talked and talked, and after eight minutes, running low on power with no way to recharge, I stopped And that s how the trail ended, cold, in a tale told in an incomprehensible language in a smoky men s house on the coast of the Arafura Sea. From one island to another ten thousand miles away, but tens of thousands of years apart Safe Return Doubtful I had a mental image at the start of Hoffman s novel the privileged Rockefeller, a poster boy for REI, standing ankle deep in the swamp mud, surrounded by his equipment bearing entourage pockets bulging with credit cards and currency, a million dollar smile, and those ubiquitous thick framed black glasses Gazing back at him, the stone age Asmat people, smeared with ash and mud, bone pierced septums, bare bodies bejeweld with the skulls and bones of small animals Progressing from that freeze frame image, a gigantic round boulder suddenly rolling in Rockefeller s direction, the sounds of phhfftt, phhfftt, phhfftt, would have seemed perfectly in order, I was tensed for the attack No one, including Spielberg himself, could have told this outrageous tale vibrantly so eloquently orchestrating the facts and myths to shed some light on the human condition, as well as the mystery.Hoffman, a travel journalist and contributing author editor for National Geographic and Smithsonian, said in an interview that his goal in writing this book was not to solve the mystery of Michael Rockefeller He wrote I the author hungered to see a humanity before the Bible, before the Koran, before Christian guilt and shame, before clothes and knives and forks By immersing himself in the Asmat culture, Hoffman came to understand far beyond clues, mythology, and hoaxes, what might have happened to Rockefeller, and fundamentally, why The book has been on my mind for a couple of weeks now I ve tried to figure out from which angle to approach a review It s so much than just the tale of Michael Rockefeller s disappearance which alone could rank among Into Thin Air, Kon Tiki, The Right Stuff, The Perfect Storm Savage Harvest is back stage access to an amazing story, a travel pass to trek along with a great story teller traveler and a public figure that was an avid adventurer on a quest It is a revealing excursion through a political history, and an education of an ancient people with a complex spiritual system based on the conception of a dualistic, balanced cosmoswhose village was currently feeling very unbalanced and at odds with the modern concepts imposed on them The last great unexplored land, a remote island that was until as late as 1953, still practicing the ritual of head hunting and cannibalism Hoffman gives his readers a multi faceted gem that has been crafted with skill and intelligence Most impactful for me The beginning of the book gives a sequence of Michael s demise, from the capsizing of the boat, to the horrific step by step ritual of preparing the body for consumption But, it is Hoffman s wrap up He concludes with an enigmatic look at another possibility which I will not reveal In a few places, the book reads like an educational piece than an adventure novel, restating facts, careful alignment with objectivity, but the story itself is unimaginably fascinating and drives you forward smoothly over any little bumps Perhaps you ve gone to the Michael C Rockefeller wing and seen the art of the Asmat people procured by Rockefeller he was on his way to pick up a piece on his fatal expedition The canoes, platters, shields carved from mangrove trees are impressive The bisj or bis poles are hypnotic and eerie The Asmat believe spirits of deceased ancestors inhabit the sacred wooden poles until their death is avenged The symbols of the Asmat cosmology, indigenous birds, animals and insects, as well as symbolic references to headhunting, and the crowning phallic symbol, are intricately carved into the trees in cyclic rituals which accompany the death of a great warrior, headhunting raids, and as appeasement of evil spirits You can also listen to Michael s twin sister and father talk about the pieces, their provenance Michael C Rockefeller Expedition, collected 1961 Indonesia, Monu village, Unir Undir River region upper Culture Asmat people. And, you can hear twin sister Mary explain the thick black framed glasses her brother wore Michael was dyslexic All the Rockefeller money couldn t buy for Michael the artifacts, the Asmat had no need for money they cost him chunks of tobacco, metal axes, ramen noodles, and possibly his life. Savage Harvest is about much than Michael Rockerfeller s disappearance in 1961 This book is brilliant and contains elements of exploration, self analyzing, anthropology, and politics.From the beginning I could not put the book down The book begins with a graphic account of a man being killed and ritually eaten by other men captivates the reader to know I was drawn into wanting to know about the Asmat and how they live in a world profoundly different from the one occupied by a advanced western civilization I applaud the author who in this book avoided reducing the Asmat to simple stereotypes such as Savages or Oppressed Victims, or Uncivilized Heathens Hoffman describes the Asmat and their culture with brutal honesty And he does so using redolent prose that is often poetic.

Carl Hoffman is a contributing editor at National Geographic Traveler and the author of Savage Harvest A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism and Michael Rockefeller s Tragic Quest for Primitive Art, his third book His second, The Lunatic Express Discovering the World Via It s Most Dangerous Buses, Boats, Trains and Planes, was named one of the ten best books of 2010 by the Wall Street Journal and wa

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  • Hardcover
  • 322 pages
  • Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller's Tragic Quest for Primitive Art
  • Carl Hoffman
  • English
  • 02 March 2019
  • 9780062116154

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