I spent two years proving that Michael Rockefeller - the son of NY Governor Nelson Rockefeller - was killed and eaten by cannibals, for my book Savage Harvest. Michael disappeared in New Guinea in 1961. I spent months with the sons of the men who ate him in one of the remotest swamps on earth - 10,000 square miles of roadless mud and river It was hot, intense and I ate beetle larvae and sago. But it was beautiful, too. I am Carl Hoffman and ask me anything.


Comments: 97 • Responses: 36  • Date: 

musicandmakeup11 karma

Was cannibalism something the whole tribe practiced? Were you ever concerned for your own safety while you were with them?

carl_hoffman16 karma

Yes, cannibalism was practiced throughout Asmat, though it was a by product of head hunting and was a sacred ritual, not just grabbing a bite to eat. It began to disappear with the arrival of Dutch and then American missionaries in the late 1950s and early 1960s; today the Asmat are mostly Catholics and it is no longer practiced. I was never concerned for my safety and had a great time there, though it can be a difficult place.

catsfive2 karma

Difficult, how?

carl_hoffman10 karma

The place, being there? So many different ways. Physically: hot, muddy, not much to eat, no power, plumbing, stores. But also other ways. Hard to never be alone, never have solitude or personal space, to be always under the constant watch of large numbers of people (I lived in a tiny house with 20). To only speak Indonesian. And the Asmat are shy and have a complex culture that's full of secrets. Plus I was there to find things out, things they didn't want to talk about - murder and cannibalism. But many joys, too and a great experience.

catsfive1 karma

complex culture that's full of secrets

Oh, absolutely fascinating. I'll read the AMA for more, but, anything on this?

carl_hoffman3 karma

Hard to describe here in a short few words. A world of spirits and ceremonies, formerly of head hunting and cannibalism, even though most Asmat now would call themselves Catholics after a half century of missionary activity, and many of those things are not spoken about openly to foreigners; some traditionally were even kept secret from women or children - parts of what's known as the Jipae mask feast, for instance.

shittit487 karma

what would have been the motive to kill and eat an outsider like Mr. Rockefeller? Are the locals hateful people?

carl_hoffman11 karma

It's a long, complex story that begins with a Dutch government raid on the village of Otsjanep in 1958 that killed five people, four of them the most important men in the village. That made the world unbalanced, in the Asmat cosmos, and ultimately the men who took their places as the heads of the jeu, or longhouses - think of them as clans - were there when Michael swam up exhausted and vulnerable and alone. They killed him.

shittit483 karma

wow wrong place wrong time it seems... thanks for the response kind sir

carl_hoffman6 karma

My pleasure. Thank you.

nuqqet9k7 karma

What, specifically, is the proof?

carl_hoffman13 karma

It is a long accretion of many details and many layers that begins with detailed reports from missionaries on the ground who had lived in the villages for years and spoke Asmat, one of whom remains alive. Then the reports from the Dutch patrol officer sent by the Dutch government to investigate, who remains alive (and who saw the men from Otsjanep on November 19 in Pirimapun as they left to return to Otsjanep). Then the reports from later missionaries who were in the same villages. Then my own time spent in the village, listening to the sons of the men named in the original reports, understanding the village structure, who had been killed by Max Lepre in 1958, what their positions were, how they were related by family and village structure to the men named as having killed Michael, all within efforts to understand the Asmat world. Then, with the help of an anthropologist, we looked at other scenarios, tried to figure out some alternative explanations, and there is none. The Asmat say they did it. Proof is a strong word; there is no smoking gun, no body and there never will be. But I feel certain that's what happened. Others may disagree, but you have to jump through a lot more hoops and create a much more convoluted and complex argument to say he wasn't killed than that he was. Not to mention, of course, all the word with tide tables and locations concerning where the boat was when he overturned.

apis_cerana5 karma

Hi there! Thanks for doing this AMA :) Sorry I couldn't get to the Explorer's Club the other day for your signing!

Do you think some responsibility should be placed on Michael Rockefeller for his own death, for knowingly going into such dangerous territory? I have a very different background than him but understand his drive for adventure and connecting with the hidden parts of the world, very much. Even so, it seems like he was rather naive about a lot of things in that corner of the globe...

carl_hoffman9 karma

Well, he made mistakes, though I think they were the mistakes of youth. Obviously he should never have left the boat, violating the first rule of yachting, and he was warned repeatedly to not travel across the mouth of the Betsj River at that season and time - Father von Peij met with him the day before they both departed and said not to go that way, but to take the longer, less direct inland route.

irisexton4 karma

What kind of person was Michael Rockefeller? What was he doing in New Guinea?

carl_hoffman9 karma

He was young, 23, just out of Harvard. Earnest, deeply interested in so called primitive art - his father had created the Museum of Primitive Art in Manhattan, which opened in 1957. He first went to work on a film in the highlands with a Harvard Peabody expedition; that film, Dead Birds, is worth watching. Later he went to the coast to collect the art of the Asmat and on a second expedition there the boat he was on capsized and he swam away from it, never to be seen again. His companion on the boat stayed on the boat and was rescued that afternoon.

Imrealhighrightnow4 karma

Why didn't the sons eat you, were they more civilized than their parents or did they just not think that you would be that tasty.

carl_hoffman7 karma

See above; they're not cannibals any longer and cannibalism was never the primary point; it was head hunting - heads were the fruit of men and new men could be made from them, in the original Asmat world.

red_wing921 karma

just fyi people have their comments filtered differently so above may not make sense to some readers

carl_hoffman4 karma

Ok, thanks. This is new for me, so learning as I go....

moose_testes3 karma

Thank you for your time here today. My question is in two parts:

1) Do you have any other investigative expeditions planned?

2) How many fingers would I need to cut off to join you?

carl_hoffman6 karma

Right now, the book is just out so I'm talking about it; not sure what the next project will be. Would love to put together a trip there sometime in the not too distant future. Find me through my website and perhaps we can discuss!

robfordforpresident3 karma

Hey! I think I heard you on NPR! Great interview, congrats!

carl_hoffman3 karma

Thank you!

coolguy90012 karma

How does one go about getting a position such as yours at Nat Geo?

carl_hoffman2 karma

Depends; lots of different routes. I freelanced for years, working my way to writing for better and better magazines, wrote a book, kept pitching and pushing and got an assignment for NGTraveler, which the magazine loved, and which opened the doors to more. Slowly over time everything builds on your previous work and you keep pushing and doing more complex stories and....

WalkingTurtleMan2 karma

What made you launch this investigation?

carl_hoffman2 karma

I'd known about the story of Michael vanishing for years - it had been front page news at the time - November 1961 - his father was Nelson Rockefeller, the governor of New York at the time. Various rumors surfaced soon after the search for his body ended, including one in March of 1962 that he had reached shore and been killed by local Asmat. A book in 1972 looked at it further, as did others, but there seemed to be large holes. A few years ago I began looking at it more closely and, for instance, wondered about this Dutch raid that was always mentioned. If it was a government raid, I thought there must be documents. So I hired a researcher in the Netherlands - he disappeared in West Papua, which was a Dutch colony at the time, and began going deep into the archives of the Dutch government and the Catholic Church and we found hundreds of pages of documents. That set me off, and then I had to go to Papua...

Revere122 karma

Do you know of anywhere in the world today where cannibalism is practiced? I mean, outside of the occasional lone psychopathic killer?

carl_hoffman1 karma

Good question and I have to say no. I don't think it is practiced regularly anywhere, anymore.

Flying-Fox2 karma

How has his family responded to your book?

carl_hoffman5 karma

They haven't, really. Appear to be some sort of surrogates writing notes and trying to say that it proves nothing and clinging to the story that he drowned, and shaming me for writing something that could be upsetting for family members, but no surprises there. Kind of a shame, really, because the book is pretty serious and goes deep.

Flying-Fox1 karma

There's nowt as queer as folk. If it were me I'd rather know. That is awful he died like that, but as you've explained there are reasons why it happened and understanding those would be important to me. No doubt it will help some members of his family, and I hope that at some time they are able to thank you.

carl_hoffman2 karma

I agree! And I keep saying that. I have kids and if one of mine vanished I'd want to know everything.

Flying-Fox1 karma

Agree, absolutely. It happened some time ago, could you tell if any of his family been along the trail before you, trying to find answers?

carl_hoffman2 karma

One of the great mysteries remaining. I know that some of the most important witnesses to events that I found, never spoke to anyone from the family. There are a lot of rumors, but my guess is they haven't done much. Milt Machlin, who wrote the first book about MR, in 72, says he wrote the family with his findings and only got a boilerplate thank you from reps. Another guy, an Australian Private Eye, says he was hired by Michael's mother, but most of the story he tells doesn't ring true.

Flying-Fox1 karma

Perhaps if they were exploited by a charlatan or ne'er do well it turned them off the idea. And it was so very adventurous for him to go there, it might have seemed impossible at the time to try and follow in his footsteps. You'd think someone since though in the family would be as inspired as you have been. Congratulations again.

carl_hoffman3 karma

Yes, all true, and I'm sure they just don't want to get involved and to keep it private.

Diecreeperdie1 karma

do you feel like you would do it again?

carl_hoffman1 karma

Oh, absolutely. Hope to go back soon, and to many other nooks and crannies of the world. They are very rich places.

dankzephyr1 karma

i enjoyed listening to your interview on npr. great stuff!

npr books

carl_hoffman1 karma


Noahdutch1 karma


carl_hoffman3 karma

Got an advance from my publisher; then ran out of money and raised additional funds for a second two month trip to New Guinea via Kickstarter. Then I raided my (small) IRAs.

BoogerMcFee1 karma

How was he eaten? Raw/cooked? Was it the practice to prepare human meat like any other dish (with seasonings and side dishes, etc)? Was there some ceremonial element? Was it an experience shared by a small or large group? Just leaders or everyone?

carl_hoffman0 karma

It was done according to very strict ceremonial and spiritual guidelines. I actually go into the detail in the book, but I won't here. It's pretty graphic, and was first written about by Gerard Zegwaard, a Dutch priest, in the American Anthropologist in 1959.

Flying-Fox1 karma

In the times when things were really tough, what kept you going?

carl_hoffman2 karma

It wasn't that tough, really. It was a beautiful experience and I felt privileged to be able to spend time in Asmat and get to know a rich, complex culture a little better. And it's a great story, that's always exciting to uncover.

Flying-Fox1 karma

Thanks for answering my questions, I look forward very much to reading your book.

carl_hoffman2 karma

Thank you! This has been cool!

torgis301 karma

Did you ever run into Jared Diamond wandering the wilds of New Guinea?

carl_hoffman3 karma

Never! But I enjoy his books:)

[deleted]1 karma


carl_hoffman3 karma

Downcast!? Well, I was trying not to talk too fast and to enunciate slowly.... Lots of silly things; the whole enterprise is serious, but odd, too, no question about that. The sleeping and eating and shitting and smoking were all sort of odd. And getting stuck places for hours and days at a time. And I did go after his glasses, which were brought to me...and turned out to be a pair of 90s wraparound shades. Def not.

HipsterTeenJesus1 karma

What did the beetle larvae taste like?

carl_hoffman4 karma

The larvae of the Capricorn beetle is a key source of fat and protein in a world where there isn't a lot of that. It tastes sort of like nuts and bacon - mostly the diet is sago, a dry starch, and small shrimp and fish, and you long for flavor and fat and the larvae has it. I don't like their heads, though - kind of crunchy.

HipsterTeenJesus-1 karma

I'm a vegetarian...so I probably wouldn't have lasted long out there.

carl_hoffman1 karma

Not a lot of vegetable in Asmat, except sago. The occasional green one, but not many.

HipsterTeenJesus1 karma

You never said what the Sargo tasted like?

carl_hoffman5 karma

Sorry - tastes like cardboard, sort of nutty cardboard. Fresh and warm it's not bad, actually can be good, but it's just hard to eat a lot of it and enough to feel full - for me, that is.

ButtersHound1 karma

How were you able to gain the tribes trust and "assimilate" yourself?

carl_hoffman7 karma

Assimilate is a big word; not sure I was ever assimilated. I made a number of trips with local translator and guide and got to know a few men, then studied Bahasa Indonesian and returned and asked one elder if I could come live with him and he said sure. So I did. It's a very different place and I was always an outsider, though we spent many days talking and sitting and smoking and I feel at a certain level we got to know each other.

ButtersHound1 karma

Thanks! What were you guys smoking on if you don't mind?

carl_hoffman6 karma

The Asmat prefer an Indonesian brand of loose leaf tobacco called Lampion, though they'll smoke anything. I myself preferred Sampoerna Lights, a tobacco/clove cigarette.

Flying-Fox1 karma

When you say Papua New Guinea is beautiful, what stood out for you?

carl_hoffman2 karma

Well, most of my book, the story of Michael Rockefeller's disappearance in Asmat in 1961, took place in what was then Dutch New Guinea and is no west Papua - Indonesian Papua, not Papua New Guinea. The island of New Guinea is a giant place of incredible ruggedness, from 16,000 foot high mountains to endless mangrove swamps, full of an almost infinite variety of cultures speaking hundreds of different languages. What can be more beautiful than that?

Aking5121 karma

What was the most shocking thing you came across while researching for Savage Harvest?

carl_hoffman1 karma

Hmmm. I guess the way the Catholic Church and the Dutch government hid the reports it was getting from the Rockefeller family and the world at large. And the way the Dutch government used Michael Rockefeller's disappearance to gather attention to its efforts in the United Nation's General Assembly. The actual documents are remarkable. Saying, for instance, that Michael's disappearance brings more attention to the Dutch case in the UN than anything else and that the government should use it to showcase it's political ambitions. There's nothing really shocking about the Asmats themselves. But the Westerners are pretty shocking. And the way the Church said, "this is like a cabinet of glass, keep it secret, say nothing."

tr3vw0 karma

Shouldn't "one of the remotest swamps" be "one of the most remote swamps"?
That is my question.

carl_hoffman7 karma

No, actually, I don't think so.

ISMOKEWEED117-6 karma

What was the purpose? Do you feel as though you wasted your time searching for the answer to a question no one cares about?

carl_hoffman9 karma

Naaa, hardly. Huge numbers of people care about it, since I've been filling book stores and public events for the last ten days. And here you are, asking about it. It's a deep, complex and rich story that speaks to a fascinating people, primitive art, colonialism and one of the great mysteries of the 20th century.