Speared, gutted, roasted on a fire... then eaten by cannibals. How the great-grandson of the world's richest man met his end; RIDDLE OF THE VANISHED ROCKEFELLER IS SOLVED.
As heir to one of America's richest dynasties, Michael Rockefeller should have lived out his days sipping champagne at society parties. But in 1961 he disappeared and for more than half a century his fate has remained a mystery.
Now after painstaking worldwide research, writer Carl Hoffman says he is sure he knows what happened.
On a savage coast thousand of miles from his lavish New York home, the 23-year-old Harvard graduate, greatgrandson of the world's richest man was butchered and eaten by cannibals.
Says Hoffman: "Even though he was the son of incredible wealth and power, at that moment he was probably the least powerful person on earth."
Michael had gone with anthropologist Rene Wessing to study the culture of the head-hunting Asmat people in the former Dutch colony of New Guinea when their catamaran capsized on November 21 1961.
They were 10 miles offshore and after waiting in vain for a passing ship, Michael decided to swim for it. Wassing was later rescued but Michael had vanished.
For more than half a century the Rockefellers insisted he had drowned, but rumours circulated that he had been eaten by wild animals. Some even said he'd made it to the shore and gone native.
But Hoffman's research offers compelling evidence that he was killed and eaten by the Asmat. After studying the accounts of priests and a Dutch patrolman in in the Netherlands archives and interviewing tribesmen related to the killers, he has built up a gruesome picture.
His new book Savage Harvest describes how Michael survived the shark and crocodile-infested sea only to be attacked, beheaded and devoured by tribesmen.
Describing the warrior who began the onslaught he writes: "He howled and arched his back and drove his spear into the white man's floating ribs. Michael screamed, groaned a deep, inhuman sound. With one blow of an axe in the back of his neck, Michael Rockefeller was dead."
After hacking off his head the cannibals chanted while smearing his blood on their own bodies then expertly carved the wealthy American into pieces.
Following an established ritual, they broke his ribs with an axe, ripped out his entrails and cut off his arms and legs.
"Pieces of meat were placed in the fire... they pulled the charred legs and arms out of the fire, tore the meat off the bones and mixed it with crumbly light grey sago for everyone to eat," says Hoffman.
The head was a prized trophy and the brains, scooped out of a hole in the skull, were a delicacy reserved for the tribal elders. "There really are no alternative explanations," says Hoffman. "You'd have to go to great lengths and come up with much more convoluted explanations to account for them not killing him. If you look at all the evidence and details and if you understand Asmat cultural practices it all fits together. All the proof is in documents which anyone can see."
The tribe had met Michael just days earlier. Their village of Otsjanep, was one of 13 he visited with Rene Wessing and local guides while exploring a civilisation p g isolated for 40,000 years until 20 years earlier. The brutal act of murder when they caught him alone was revenge for an attack by Dutch colonists. Michael was in the wrong place at the wrong time says the author.
One tribal leader boasted how he had killed "an important witch doctor", a white man, that he had headhunted him and taken his magical powers.
Catholic missionaries were trying to stamp out head-hunting and cannibalism but in 1961 Asmat warriors still ate human flesh, swapped wives and drank urine in ancient bonding rituals.
The Dutch authorities did not want a spotlight shone on this behaviour. "The fact that he was murdered by these cannibals was inconvenient," says Hoffman. "The Dutch and the Catholic church there had to cover it up."
Michael's disappearance shocked and mystified America because the Rockefellers, giants of industry, banking and politics, were treated like royalty.
The family were behind the creation of New York's UN building, the Museum of Modern Art and World Trade Center.
Michael was the great-grandson of oil tycoon John D Rockefeller and his father Nelson, later US vice-president under Gerald Ford, was governor of New York at the time of his disappearance.
In fact Michael was in New Guinea in the first place to bring back artefacts for the New York Museum of Primitive Art which his father had founded in 1957.
"People who are incredibly rich and powerful are supposed to be in control of their destiny," says Hoffman. "When something happens that shows them to be human like the rest of us there is something fascinating about that."
After his disappearance Michael's father and his twin sister, Mary, now 75, went to New Guinea to launch a search. But no body or even a scrap of his clothing was ever discovered, though a gasoline can, similar to the one Michael used during his swim to shore, was later picked up by the Dutch navy.
"The family haven't ever entertained any possibilities of what happened to Michael other than him drowning," says Hoffman. "I have been in contact with Mary in the last six weeks. She didn't say much but she did state again that for them it's a private matter. There's no concrete forensics and no body was ever recovered so we can never say with complete certainty what happened. But no one can claim I'm making this up. My research is watertight. Besides, you couldn't make this story up - the truth is literally stranger than fiction."
Meanwhile, the Asmat tribe are still living in the same area in the south west of Indonesian New Guinea. And they gave up cannibalism many years ago.
RESEARCH Author Hoffman
HUNT Asmat people, above, were questioned at the time
EXPEDITION Michael in New Guinea only days earlier
SURVIVED Dutch anthropologist Wasser
LIKE ROYALTY Michael, back right, with his wealthy Rockefellers in 1958
FEARSOME Powerful Asmat warrior uses skull for a pillow