Savage Harvest

A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller’s Tragic Quest for Primitive Art

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.

Reviews

“In his terrific … new book … journalist Carl Hoffman … reopens the case, traveling to New Guinea and coming back with a riveting tale. 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, between the scion of the most powerful family on Earth and a group of people who did not care at all about his money, power and influence. In the course of solving one mystery, he reveals the existence of another, far deeper one.”

“Savage Harvest is a gripping read…. Hoffman [has] erected a solid foundation of reporting that … is likely to make this the definitive account.”

Slate

“…. a taut thriller, … gripping ….”

The New York Times

“… an intelligent and significant piece of journalism.”

“Carl Hoffman, who with his 2010 book The Lunatic Express demonstrated himself to be a traveler of the greatest courage and determination, as well as a writer of skill, has now made a significant contribution to history. Savage Harvest [is] a narrative that is as exciting as it is instructive…. a remarkable testament to the revealed truth….”

Simon Winchester

“A searching, discomfiting journey yields an elegant, memorable report.”

--Kirkus, Starred Review

“By dint of grueling fieldwork, startling archival discoveries, revelatory visits with a Dutch missionary relieved to break his 50-year silence, profound insights, and muscular writing, Hoffman tells the unforgettable story of a soothing and politically expedient cover-up and a brutal and tragic collision of cultures.”

--Booklist, Starred Review

“Not only has Carl Hoffman helped solve one of the great mysteries of the last 50 years, he has also written a page turner that brings vividly to life the struggles an ancient culture under full-scale assault from the modern world. Hoffman’s power of observation is informed by a depth of empathy that is bound to make Savage Harvest an instant classic.”

--Scott Wallace, The Unconquered: In Search of the Amazon’s Last Uncontacted Tribes.

“A tremendous accomplishment–easily one of the best books I read this year. I was so wrapped up that I invented excuses not to hang out with my kids in order to keep moving forward with the tale. Carl Hoffman’s acute eye for detail is something to envy, as is his ability to stitch together an absorbing narrative about what is essentially an alien realm. And that closing passage, in which his outwardly genial hosts reveal their true fears, will stick with me for a long, long time.”

--Brendan I. Koerner, The Skies Belong To Us

“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. But it’s also a meditation on the need to connect and belong, an exploration into secrecy and the unknowable yearnings of the heart. A thrilling, one-of-a-kind tale –I couldn’t stop reading.”

--Andrew McCarthy, The Longest Way Home: One Man’s Quest for the Courage to Settle Down

“…an expertly told tale that is begging for a film adaptation…. While the truth of Rockefeller’s disappearance may never be known, Hoffman deserves much credit for this riveting, multilayered tale.”.”