Drowning? Eaten By Cannibals? Government Cover-up? | What Really Happened To Michael Rockefeller? (Warning: Graphic Post)


(Center: Michael Rockefeller during filming a documentary in Papua New Guinea. Picture credit: Answers Africa

I've written about some pretty heavy cases here on my blog but the shocking story of what happened to Michael Rockefeller has to be one of the most disturbing I've covered to date. I had to put a little warning in the title so that readers would be prepared for what's to come in this post....it ain't pretty. 

I decided to delve into this story for my 72nd true crime post because it's one of those stories that has floated around for years with all types of theories. In this post I try to shed light on the truth of what actually took place from the people who witnessed what happened and from the author, Carl Hoffman (who had actually re-traced Michael's steps in an attempt to get to the truth and what he discovered was truly shocking). 

Before I did my research I only knew bits and pieces of this story, some people say Michael had drowned, some said that he had been eaten by a cannibalistic tribe. I've been focusing on this story all week and what I found is not for the faint hearted so please be aware when reading beyond this point, I will try to be as sensitive as possible but I also want to state the facts.

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So let's get into the story....

(Michael Rockefeller. Picture credit: Business Insider)

So who was Michael Rockefeller? Well Michael was born on the 18th of May 1938 and was the son of New York Governor and future U.S Vice President Nelson Rockefeller. The late Nelson Rockefeller who passed away in 1979 was known as one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in America. The Rockefeller family have always been known as a successful and wealthy family.

Michael, who also had a twin sister, was in line to inherit some of his father's fortune in the event of his death. He was one of those people who was born into a life of privilege but was a bit of a rebel and wanted to make a name for himself. As soon as he graduated from Harvard University he wanted to see more of the world and find out about other cultures, he was a very adventurous person.

When the opportunity to go to New Guinea arrived for him to take part in the creation of a documentary on the Asmat tribe, he jumped at the chance and his role was to be a sound technician. He was accompanied by an anthropologist who the Dutch government (the area was a Dutch colony at that time) assigned to him. 

(The Rockefeller Family. Michael, back row, first right. Picture credit: Smithsonian)

Some of the few pictures that have been uncovered from this time have shown that Michael was obviously enjoying his adventure and work whilst observing a different culture and way of life. However, this was a place that was not used to western ways and they were not used to outsiders. 

Despite this new adventure all seemed to be going well until Michael and his colleague got stranded on a boat crossing the mouth of a river. The engine completely switched off and the boat itself flipped over. They both managed to survive and held on for 24 hours but Michael was said to have become impatient and wanted to chance getting some help from a nearby shore.

Despite his colleague's protests not to take any chances, Michael tied two empty gasoline cans to his waist and told his colleague ''I think I can make it'' and jumped off the boat. 

And that's where the 'official' story ends, with Michael jumping into the water, never to be seen or heard from again. 

The story was front page news and a massive search which took over two weeks was carried out and nobody found a thing. Michael just seemed to have vanished into thin air.  Eventually the story that he had drowned was accepted as fact and his family did their best to try and go about their daily lives but the rumours began to surface. 

Just a year after Michael's reported death, word was going around that 23 year old Michael had been captured by a local tribe, murdered and eaten. 

Some people dismissed the rumours as sickening, others took them as fact but nobody really knew for sure what happened.

Years later, the truth came out and it was both horrifying and heartbreaking, 

According to people who were witnesses, related to the culprits and hundreds of private documents that were hidden to the public, it turned out that Michael had, indeed been murdered and taken ashore and eaten by local tribesmen.

Two of the private documents were from local priests who described in detail what happened to Michael. Again, please be aware that these details are quite shocking.

Michael Rockefeller and his colleague were stranded on the boat and Michael jumped off to try and get some help. As he proceeded to swim to the nearest shore, some tribesmen spotted him and drove a spear into his ribs. When they dragged his body to the shore they cut across his face from his nose to the nape of his neck and pulled the skin off and cooked the remains of his head and eaten them. 

The Asmat tribe were known for cannibalism and would eat brains of animals mixed with worms either raw or cooked. They were no stranger to eating human flesh and believed that whoever they ate would become them and they would take their power. They would also have sex with each other as well as drink each others urine. It all sounds very sickening but as I mentioned before, these people were not civilised 

During the gruesome ritual, Michael's ribs were broken with an axe ;/and his organs were pulled out and the tribe spread his blood all over their bodies whilst they danced and chanted. 

It's shocking to find that all of this was covered up by the Dutch government because they were trying to paint Papua New Guinea in a good light and then this horrific event happened which to them was an embarrassment, to have had the son of one of the most richest and powerful men in the world, murdered and eaten by the locals was something they didn't want known, it was better for them to make out that Michael's death was an accidental drowning.

Officials declared Michael dead and no trace of him was ever found, not that you would expect there to be after what had really been done to him. 

It's a horrible story and the stuff of nightmares. 

It's probably not appropriate to say but one can't help but wonder if the horror movie (which was banned in several countries) Cannibal Holocaust was inspired by these events. 

I hope you got through the post ok and I salute you if you did. I would advise you to check out the book Savage Harvest by Carl Hoffman. Carl goes into depth about the story in his book, he spent time tracing Michael's footsteps and talked to witnesses who had not spoken publicly for fifty years. When it comes to this case, Carl is the person who knows all of the facts and information. 

I hope this cleared up some of the mystery for you if you always wondered, as sad and horrible as it is.

RIP Michael 

Further reading & sources:

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  1. Oh my my !!! All along, I was thinking of Cannibal Holocaust, the most shocking movies ever. All Michael Rockefeller want is to filmed a documentary on the Asmat tribe. Absolutely shockign but even worse, the Dutch government that covered the case. Gruesome and disgusting. I can't believe it. So disturbing. I knew the movie but I didn't know the full story. Thank you so much to let us know. RIP Michael.

  2. I must read the book ! I'll check on Amazon to get a copy. Another book to my collection Xxx

  3. Another incredible true crime case! Hard to imagine such things happening... cannibalism... government cover-ups... but there it is... one of the hardest things for western civilization to come to terms with is the ways some of the tribes in the old world lived. They would commit things that were completely savage and frightening that most people would never dare nor dream of venturing into those parts of the world. Such a truly tragic ending to what could of been a very promising and incredible person. A truly brilliant story and I loved it! ❤❤❤

  4. Thank you so much for the comments and taking time to read the post. I really appreciate it x