Review of Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller’s Tragic Quest for Primitive Art by Carl Hoffman


Savage Harvest is controlled chaos. I really wanted to give between four and five stars to Carl Hoffman’s extensive biographical investigation into Michael Rockefeller’s death in a remote Asmat village located in New Guinea. However, like Chaos: Charles Manson, the Cia, and the Secret History of the Sixties by Tom O’Neill, which dealt with the Tate-LaBianca murders, Savage Harvest covered so many issues that at times I needed bread crumbs to find my way back to the primary thread of what happened to Michael Rockefeller. The sheer amount of issues and subjects covered in Savage Harvest could fill tomes, and still how Michael Rockefeller died would remain unprovable, lost in the jungle of Asmat culture though Hoffman’s thesis that Rockefeller made it to the shore only to be killed and then eaten seems to be the most plausible.

Among other issues, Hoffman explores the intricate, secretive, and spirit-based Asmat tribal warfare culture, its first contact with non-indigenous peoples, the collecting of primitive art, the colonization by the Dutch, the independence of Indonesia, the Indonesian (and others) governance of the Asmat villages, the visits of Michael Rockefeller and those who came before and after him, the investigation into his death, the role of the Catholic Church in covering up the results of the investigations, and to a lesser extent, the Rockefeller family’s efforts and views (and their understandable beliefs as to how Michael died).

Contributing to Michael Rockefeller’s death was his lack of knowledge of and inexperience with with the Asmat world and culture. It was (and remains so) a world of deeply held and interwoven beliefs in spirits and placating those spirits for a variety of reasons. The spirits might be recently deceased family members, outsiders, or part of the larger cosmos. The Asmats sought to placate, if not ensure the happiness of, the spirits because they believed that spirits would and had brought disease, trouble, destruction and death when they were not placated. The spirits could also prevent the recently deceased from entering Sarfan, a heaven-like place. Avenging of a death was critical to a recently deceased being able to enter Sarfan and could extend for years and involve and result in the death of those with no connection to the death that was being avenged. These were the circumstances that Michael Rockefeller found himself in at the time of his death.

Hoffman’s investigation was thorough where so many past investigations failed, refused to go and that is a good thing. Savage Harvest is also a lesson to those who would impose their values on a primitive culture The imposition of values, which are different in degree and nature so as to be alien to the primitive culture, and whether conservative, liberal, mainstream, or alternative, is what led to wrong-headed presumptions of Michael Rockefeller and those who came after him seeking to learn what happened to him.

Still, Hoffman’s writing is excellent and Savage Harvest is worth the read.