Saturday, May 3, 2014

Savage Harvest by Carl Hoffman

Imagine being one of the wealthiest, most influential families in the world.  Then imagine your child being caught up in a life or death situation that you have no control over; where your money and influence have no effect.  That was the case in 1961 when the twenty three year old son of Nelson Rockerfeller, Michael Rockerfeller, was reported missing in the remote island of New Guinea.

Nelson had recently been elected governor of New York, and would later serve as Vice President of the United States.  Michael had been raised in luxury and with parents who believed in giving back to the world and the arts.  The family was opening a museum of native art in New York, and Michael was fascinated with the area and the native carvings found there.  He had gone to the area to locate and purchase art for the museum and to document the life of the tribes who still lived almost as those in the Stone Age had.

On November 21, 1961, Michael and an acquaintance took off in a small boat.  The boat floundered and stalled out after a day, and the men didn't know what to do.  The acquaintance insisted they should stay with the boat as that was their best chance.  But Michael felt he could swim to shore, which was probably three or four miles distant and took off.  He was never seen again.

Rockerfeller's body was never found.  Some felt that he drowned on his attempt, but there was a darker rumor.  That rumor had Michael encountering a group of tribesmen who killed him, then ate the body and kept parts for various ceremonies.  The tribesmen at that time had very limited exposure to the modern world and were still involved in intricate ceremonies that made sense of the world to them.  These ceremonies involved ritual cannibalism, vengeance killings and strength gained through the consumption of humans. 

The author, Carl Hoffman, went to New Guinea to see if he could track down the truth decades later.  He found that much of the investigation by the government was kept secret for political reasons, not wanting to be the focus of the death of such a powerful man as the country was attempting to forge their independence.  Hoffman was able to find witnesses that had been involved in the investigation all those years ago and who were willing to tell him what they had discovered.

This book is a fascinating look at another world that is far removed, both geographically and culturally from the world the reader is familiar with.   Was Michael Rockerfeller's last sight hunters dressed as those in the picture seen here?  Readers who are parents can relate to the horror of having a beloved son's death be such a mystery and the horror of what may have happened.  This book is recommended for readers of history and anthropology. 

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