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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

3.9 20
by Carl Hoffman, Joe Barrett (Read by)

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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 that he


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.

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.)
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.”
“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
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
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.

Product Details

Blackstone Audio, Inc.
Publication date:
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
5.20(w) x 5.70(h) x 1.10(d)

Meet the Author

Carl Hoffman has driven the Baja 1,000, ridden reindeer in Siberia, sailed an open dinghy 250
miles, and traveled to 65 countries. When he’s able to stay put for more than a few months at a time, he lives in Washington, DC, where his three children make fun of him on a pretty constant basis. He is a contributing editor at Wired, National Geographic Traveler, and Popular Mechanics, and his stories about travel, adventure, and technology have also appeared in Outside,
National Geographic Adventure, and Men’s Journal. He has won four Lowell
Thomas Awards from the Society of American Travel Writers and one North
American Travel Journalism Award. He is also the author of Hunting Warbirds: The Obsessive Quest for the Lost Aircraft of World
War II

Joe Barrett has appeared both on and off Broadway as well as in hundreds of radio and television commercials. He has earned multiple AudioFile Earphones Awards and has been nominated for the prestigious Audie Award. He has narrated books by such authors as Trevanian, Brian Freeman, Don Winslow, and James W. Huston.

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A Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism and Michael Rockefeller's Tragic Quest for Primitive Art 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 20 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Just completed this book in hardback. It was a fascinating read on many levels: the story of a murder, a tale of a unique culture, the view of primitive art, and an understanding of excepting other cultures and other people in the world - excepting people as equals. Another great book on the NOOK is "The Partisan" by William Jarvis. Both books deserve A+++++
McFriendly More than 1 year ago
Hoffman's interesting book does more than solve one of the 20th Century's most enduring mysteries, he lays out the reasons WHY it happened. Within minutes of completing a 10 mile swim after his boat flipped over, the hapless Michael Rockefeller was speared, beheaded and, yup, eaten by Papua New Guinea natives. Then the book discusses WHY - colonialism, tribal pride, culture clash and Rockefeller's singleminded quest for "primitive art" all came together in this tragedy. Overall the book is entertaining and highly informative although the author does go into a bit too much detail about various Dutch administrators and functionaries so one can get lost - but it's a minor quibble. This is one of those curious twists of fate - Rockefeller could have gone on to huge success in any field he wanted, but instead wound up a victim of horrific violence in one of the last untamed areas on earth. If you've ever been curious about this 50 year-old mystery, this is the book for you! Maybe Mr. Hoffman can find out what happened to Amelia Earhart next?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I remember when Michael Rockefeller disappeared & all the news coverage. There were conflicting stories, but no firm answers. The Dutch claimed that cannibalism had stopped - others saying that it hadn't. This book goes into depth about the Asmat people & culture. Rockefeller was very young & it seems that he did not appreciate fully the religious significance of the items he was trying to buy for his father's museum. He may not have known of the political tension between the Dutch colonialists & the Asmat. Carl Hoffman makes all this clear and even though he never finds Micheal's body, he does leave you with a strong idea of what happened & why. Be warned though, the book opens with a gruesome description of the cannibalistic ritual. And it was a religious ritual. Then he proceeds to investigate the mystery. And to me, it was fascinating.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
...about an unpalatable truth. When one goes to strange places to collect art and does not take the time to really get to know the people, one may find oneself invited to dinner. This is a delicious book with lots of good investigation in it. A must read.
Marla_Warren More than 1 year ago
Excellent research and writing--Hoffman makes a very strong case for his conclusion about Rockefeller's fate. Not just a book about a rich person who went exploring--Savage Harvest offers insight into cultural differences and how people perceive and react to them. What is interesting is how Hoffman, instead of just going to the area where Rockefeller disappeared, chose to comb through the Dutch Colonial archives. That's where he found the info to set him on the right path.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Hard to get through. The author inserts his own adventure often and that takes away from the story of Michael Rockefeller and what happened to him. Wouldn't recommend this.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Interesting and amazing to learn of the traditions of the Asmat tribe. Revenge was their way. Sadly, it was Michael who ended up giving his life for revenge - rather than being helped by those he thought would give him aid.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
extremely slow, finally finished it.
TulaneGirl More than 1 year ago
Savage Harvest answers no questions but provides great insight into the disappearance of Michael Rockefeller in Indonesia in the 1960's. The book jumps back and forth between present day and 1961 in Asmat, the region where Michael disappeared. It's a fascinating story of a man with too much privilege who collects primitive art and ventures into an area where the taking of art has a consequence. We may never know what really happened to Mr. Rockefeller but Mr. Hoffman provides compelling evidence to suspect the tales of murder and cannibalism might be true. 
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richard11 More than 1 year ago
A good read, lots of history. A very good insight a totally different way of life. Some times it seems a little tedious.
kyohin More than 1 year ago
To say this book is riveting would be putting it mildly. I remember all the publicity about Michael's disappearance and was glad to be able to read a well-researched book on the subject. I would recommend this book even for those who might feel squeamish about it.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Cant believe the author takes such an exciting topic and makes it read like a telephone book save your money zero stars
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It is uikly that michael rockefeller could haVE OIT It is unlikely that michael rockefeller woiuld survive a ten mile ocean swim with his glasses on, enjoyed reading about life among the amats and their culture, be