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 Art

3.8 19
by Carl Hoffman
     
 

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The mysterious disappearance of Michael Rockefeller in New Guinea in 1961 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 story.

Despite exhaustive searches, no trace of Rockefeller was ever found. Soon after his disappearance, rumors surfaced

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Overview

The mysterious disappearance of Michael Rockefeller in New Guinea in 1961 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 story.

Despite 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 now.

Retracing 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 years.

In 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.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Joshua Hammer
…a taut thriller…In this book, Hoffman goes further than anyone in describing the charged political backdrop and the dynamics of Asmat society that surrounded Rockefeller's disappearance. He also builds a strong case for cannibalism—though the truth will probably never be known with absolute certainty…As [Hoffman] makes clear in this gripping book, keeping the real story buried may have been the safest choice for everyone involved.
Publishers Weekly
★ 11/18/2013
Born into one of the world’s richest and most influential families, Michael Rockefeller was immersed in the art scene virtually from birth and eventually developed an affinity for primitive artwork that would lead to his disappearance in 1961 off the coast of New Guinea in an area populated by cannibals. Whether then-23-year-old Rockefeller was eaten by those inhabitants was the source of a tremendous amount of speculation and, as Hoffman (The Lunatic Express) shows, an intricate conspiracy involving the Dutch government and the Catholic Church. In an expertly told tale that is begging for a film adaptation, Hoffman travels to the area to speak with members of the Asmat tribe, hoping to gain insight about their practices and complex social structure. By understanding how a possibly unrelated event—the slaughter of a handful of Asmat men by a panicked Dutchman years earlier—led to Rockefeller’s death, Hoffman shows readers the larger picture, and the ways this tragic event had terrible consequences for Rockefeller as well as the tribe. Aware of his own biases as well as Rockefeller’s hubris in collecting items now housed in the Michael C. Rockefeller Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Hoffman crafts a remarkable, balanced examination of this sensational case. While the truth of Rockefeller’s disappearance may never be known, Hoffman deserves much credit for this riveting, multilayered tale. Photos. Agent: Joe Regal and Markus Hoffmann, Regal Literary. (Mar.)
Kirkus Reviews
★ 2014-02-05
A bare-knuckle, adventure-filled journey in search of the answer to a half-century–old cold case: Whatever happened to Nelson Rockefeller's son, Michael? Michael was 23 when he disappeared off the coast of southwestern New Guinea, having nearly made land after swimming for 18 hours when his catamaran capsized. Dutch officials (for this was still colonial territory in 1961) eventually reported that the renowned explorer and collector of so-called primitive art had drowned. National Geographic Traveler contributing editor Hoffman (The Lunatic Express: Discovering the World…via Its Most Dangerous Buses, Boats, Trains, and Planes, 2010, etc.) writes that, all this time later, the story compelled him: "I was a half-Jewish middle-class mutt with a public education, not a blue-blooded scion, but Rockefeller's journey resonated with me." Empathetically channeling Rockefeller as someone who wasn't out in such remote territory merely to acquire stuff but was instead challenging himself in anything but the privileged surroundings of his youth, Hoffman set out to reconstruct that last voyage. He encountered evidence that the young man's end was greatly different from the one depicted in the official records. Moreover, he notes, it was an open secret that Rockefeller had been killed after having been plucked from the sea. But why? In a daring ethnographic turn, Hoffman spent months among the descendants of killers, lending specific weight to the old clashing-of-worlds trope and addressing questions of why people go to war, commit cannibalism and other tangled matters. He never loses sight of his goal, but Hoffman is also sympathetic to the plight of the Asmat people, who themselves were changed by the events of 53 years ago: "The world had been one way when Michael Rockefeller came to Asmat, another by the time he was dead." A searching, discomfiting journey yields an elegant, memorable report.
Andrew McCarthy
“With urgency boarding on obsession, Carl Hoffman retraces Rockefeller’s perilous footsteps. The result is a hypnotic journey into otherness, a wild detective story amid cannibals and headhunters. A thrilling, one-of-a-kind tale -I couldn’t stop reading.”
Brendan I. Keorner
“A tremendous accomplishment-easily one of the best books I read this year. Carl Hoffman’s acute eye for detail is something to envy. And that closing passage will stick with me for a long, long time.”
Scott Wallace
“Not only has Carl Hoffman helped solve one of the great mysteries of the last 50 years, he has also written a page turner. An instant classic.”
Wall Street Journal
“A gripping whodunit. . . . a powerful book that succeeds in solving a half-century-old mystery.”
Washington Post
“Terrific . . . What’s surprising about this book is not the revelation of Rockefeller’s fate but rather the author’s portrayal of a unique cultural encounter.”
The Globe and Mail
“Hoffman is an intelligent writer…. [the]best kind of non-fiction writing.”
Newsweek
“Compelling. Intoxicating. Sensational. Savage Harvest is a great read, as long as you’re not eating lunch.”
Tim Sohn
“A gripping read … he’s erected a solid foundation of reporting that goes far beyond what the rest of us did and is likely to make this the definitive account.”
Chicago Tribune
“Richly detailed …. nail-biting exposé…Savage Harvest fascinates for the mystery it aims to solve as well as its portrait of an isolated but changing way of life.”
New York Times Book Review
“[Hoffman’s] reporting takes hold, drawing a vivid portrait of the world of the Asmat people, hunter-gatherers who lived in isolation until the mid-20th century. Gripping.”
Library Journal
04/15/2014
What really happened to Michael Rockefeller, son of former New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, when he disappeared on an art-collecting expedition in the Asmat tribal region of Dutch New Guinea (now called Papua and a part of Indonesia) in 1961? That is the question posed by Hoffman, a journalist and contributing editor at National Geographic Traveler magazine in this absorbing account of his search to unravel the true facts of the case. Hoffman has done impressive and meticulous investigation on the disappearance in the Dutch governmental and Catholic Church archives, through interviews with Dutch priests and government officials who were in the Asmat region at the time that Rockefeller went missing, and by making two trips in 2012 to the lowland region of southern Papua where the Asmat tribe still lives. There the author stayed in a local village for a month. Although Rockefeller's official cause of death was listed as drowning after his boat overturned, Hoffman makes a very strong case for the shocking conclusion that Rockefeller may actually have been killed and eaten by Asmat tribesmen after he swam to shore. No trace of him has ever been found, but substantive circumstantial evidence exists in local lore and in the material and interviews that are presented. Like the Asmat people, whose history comes alive through oral tradition, Hoffman is an excellent storyteller. VERDICT This enthralling real-life mystery will appeal to general readers with interests in history, anthropology, and exploration.—Elizabeth Salt, Otterbein Univ. Lib., Westerville, OH

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780062116154
Publisher:
HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
03/18/2014
Pages:
336
Sales rank:
228,582
Product dimensions:
6.20(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.30(d)

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