What happened to Michael Rockefeller after his boat capsized near Papua New Guinea?

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The Dutch colonial authorities in what is now Indonesia had restricted access to the remote region because of its potential as a site for growing cash crops. The isolation led Dutch officials to declare it “no go” territory, and the area was virtually closed to outsiders.

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Asmat on the Lorentz River, photographed during the third South New Guinea expedition in 1912-13. © Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

This isolation also made it the perfect place for a young, adventurous American to disappear without a trace. And that’s exactly what happened when Nelson Rockefeller’s son disappeared while on an expedition through the region.

The strange disappearance of Michael Rockefeller

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Michael C. Rockefeller (1934-1961) adjusting his camera in New Guinea, Papuan men in background. He disappeared while swimming © Everett Collection Historical / Alamy

Michael Clark Rockefeller was the third son and fifth child of the US Vice President Nelson Rockefeller. He was also the great-grandson of John Davison Rockefeller Sr. who was one of the co-founders of Standard Oil. Michael, a graduate of Harvard, was on a trip to Papua, New Guinea in Indonesia. He went there to collect some primitive art and take photographs of the people of the Asmat Tribe.

On November 17, 1961, Rockefeller and René Wassing (a Dutch anthropologist) were about three miles from the shore when their boat capsized. According to some reports, Rockefeller drowned after he tried to swim to shore from his capsized boat. While others explain that he somehow managed to swim to shore, but that was his last sighting. Even after a two-week-long search that included helicopters, ships, airplanes, and thousands of people, Rockefeller could not be found. It was the biggest hunt ever launched in the South Pacific.

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Nelson Rockefeller, governor of New York, holds a press conference in Merauke about the disappearance of his son Michael Rockefeller © Image Credit: Gouvernements Voorlichtingsdienst Nederlands New Guinea | Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 4.0)

Since 23-year-old Michael Rockefeller disappeared at the remotest corners of the planet, rumours swirled about his fate. It gave rise to many conspiracy theories including the one where he was supposedly killed and eaten by cannibals seeking revenge on white men for a Dutch attack on their village. Michael Rockefeller was declared legally dead three years after his disappearance, in 1964. But the story doesn’t end here.

The mystery man in the footage

Nearly 8 years later, a footage was found, where among the massed ranks of dark-skinned headhunter tribesmen heading around the bend of a New Guinea river, a naked and bearded white-skinned man could be seen. His face is partly covered in war paint as he paddles furiously.

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The impressive scene was filmed in 1969 close to the spot where, eight years earlier, a scion of the Rockefeller dynasty — the richest, most powerful family in U.S. history — had gone missing, sparking the biggest hunt ever launched in the South Pacific. © Image Source: YouTube

The appearance of a white face among a throng of Papuan cannibals would be astonishing at the best of times. But in the circumstances in which this footage was shot, it is potentially very intriguing yet mind-boggling.

Tantalisingly, the strangely unearthed film footage of the mysterious white canoeist suggests an astonishing possibility. Instead of being killed and eaten, did the Harvard-educated American reject his civilized past and join a tribe of cannibals? Sceptics say if the cannibal tribe found him, they would have eaten him.

Final words

The mystery of Rockefeller’s disappearance has intrigued people for decades, and there is still no definitive answer. However, the theory that he joined a cannibal tribe provides an interesting lens through which to view his story. Whatever happened to Michael Rockefeller, his disappearance remains one of the most fascinating mysteries of our time. What do you think happened to Michael Rockefeller?