Search for Michael Rockefeller in New Guinea Part 6

About the search for Michael Rockefeller, son of New York mayor Nelson Rockefeller, history of his mysterious disappearance.


The place had a sinister reputation for general violence as well as cannibalism. A French movie team chose it as the location for their epic New Guinea film The Sky Above, the Mud Below, because there they were able to get shots of warriors sleeping with their heads pillowed on human skulls.

Yet during our search operation the Dutch authorities had paid very little attention to Otsjanep--despite the fact that it lay in the area where Michael could have reached shore. Later on they actually barred strangers from the vicinity. Why?

The more I learned about this village the more puzzling the whole matter became. For Michael Rockefeller and his team had done most of their initial research right there! If the Otsjanep tribesmen wished to kill them, they must have missed a dozen earlier opportunities to do so.

Hospitality is a sacred institution among the Asmats. Your worst enemy becomes an honored guest as long as he dwells in your village. Thus the Rockefeller team was sacrosanct just as long as they remained in Otsjanep. As soon as it left, any of them became fair game.

It was Michael's tragic bad luck that he should have reached land just at a point where a fishing party of his former hosts was hunting for sea turtles. They were not a war party, but their long barbed fishing spears were just as deadly for humans.

According to one story, one of the warriors speared the American while he was still in the water. Then the others joined in and dragged their wounded victim ashore to finish him off. They took the head, cooked and ate parts of the body, and buried the remains.

This account, I learned, was based mainly on the boasting of an Otsjanep fight chief named Ajik or Ajim. While the search operation was going on, the men involved kept very quiet about their deed. But as soon as things calmed down, Ajik went around proclaiming how he had killed an "important wizard" of the whites and taken his head, thereby inheriting some of his powers. Simultaneously two other warriors spread the same story, also claiming to be the killers and now possessors of some of Rockefeller's "magic." In evidence one of them, called Fin, allegedly showed Michael's spectacles to his audience.

I could only surmise the reason why the Dutch authorities failed to search Otsjanep. Possibly because the incident of the trigger-happy patrol that had opened fire on a throng of villagers earlier might then have come to light. More probably because the searchers might have had to fight their way in. Either way it would have made a pretty bad impression on the representatives of the international media.

This undoubtedly was what lay behind officialdom's insistence on Rockefeller's death by drowning. They had to cling to that theory in order to avoid having to raid Otsjanep by force. It also accounted for the fact that neither Ajik nor Fin nor any of the other boasters were ever arrested or even interrogated.

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