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Celebrating the building of a new jeu, or men's house, in the village of Omadesep, Asmat. (Photograph by Carl Hoffman)
TravelTraveler Magazine

Kickstart An Age-Old Mystery

A week before Thanksgiving Day in 1961, Michael Rockefeller, scion of one the most powerful families in U.S. history, decided to swim for shore after his boat capsized off the southwest coast of Dutch New Guinea.

He was never seen again.

His father, Nelson Rockefeller, who was then Governor of New York, put his financial and political heft behind an extensive search party, but efforts to find his youngest son were fruitless. More than 50 years later, the official explanation remains that Michael Rockefeller drown in the Arafura Sea. But there have always been rumblings that belie this account.

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In the watery jungles of Asmat, there is one grass airstrip and no roads. (Photograph by Carl Hoffman)

Some say he abandoned the material world to live a more primitive existence in the jungle like a modern-day Kurtz. Some say he made it to shore only to be killed and eaten by the local Asmat in retaliation for a raid carried out by a Dutch patrol officer in which tribal elders were killed in a misguided effort to deter head hunting.

Michael, just 23, a budding anthropologist, had been on an expedition to obtain Asmat woodcarvings for the primitive art museum his father had founded years earlier in New York City to celebrate the arts of the indigenous cultures. He was excited. The trip gave him a chance to “do something adventurous,” Michael explained, “at a time when frontiers, in the real sense of the word, are disappearing.”

So what really happened to Michael Rockefeller?

National Geographic Traveler Contributing Editor Carl Hoffman is on a quest to find out the truth behind one of the biggest unsolved mysteries of the 20th century — and what it reveals about the world.

His journey started two years ago, when a decade-long fascination with the story earned him a book deal to write the definitive true story. Since then he’s been to Europe to interview Catholic missionaries and Dutch officials who came into contact with Michael in the jungle, and has spent two months in Indonesian Papua (the Dutch ceded control of the western side of New Guinea to Indonesia in 1962, a year after Michael’s disappearance) with the Asmat.

He’s made some amazing discoveries, and found that the story is even richer than he imagined.

It’s more than a cautionary tale about a vanished American son, Hoffman says. “It’s about a moment in time when the world was undergoing profound changes, about the end of colonialism, the rise of primitive art and the sacred world of the Asmat — a dramatic and riveting tale about change and collision.”

On the right track, but with much work yet to be done and a book deal that wouldn’t cover a return trip to New Guinea, Carl decided to do something that made him uncomfortable.

He decided to ask for help on, a crowd-funding website for creative projects — what the New York Times has dubbed “the people’s NEA.”

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Hoffman (left) with his Asmat guide and translator, Amates (center) in the village of Pirien. (Photograph by Carl Hoffman)

As of today, 71 people have contributed $6,861 — about 30 percent of Carl’s total goal of $23,500.

Sounds good, right? But there’s a catch: If Carl doesn’t meet his goal by the deadline, he’ll lose everything.

It’s an all-or-nothing deal, and with just a week to go, he needs all the help he can get.

Hoffman will use the money to return to Papua and continue his research. Because it’s such a remote and undeveloped place, getting there and back is incredibly expensive — not to mention the high cost of local transportation and a full-time translator. “There are layers here — mystical, brutal, enlightening — that need to be explored,” Hoffman says. “And I can only do that by going back and diving deeper into the world of the sacred.”

What do you get in return? For a donation of $1 or more, you get the chance to help solve one of the biggest unsolved missing persons cases in world history — and help keep a world-class investigative journalist sane. (For $10,000, Carl will take you with him to New Guinea to be a part of his team.)

“What I do is very, very isolating,” says Hoffman. “A book means months and months inside my own head, with my own notes. Suddenly I feel like I’m supported by a lot of people and resting on a lot of shoulders, many of whom I don’t know. It’s inspiring — and humbling.”

“So, please come with me,” he says, “virtually if not physically — to the jungles and rivers of Asmat, still one of the remotest places on Earth, to a world of 100-foot longhouses, an older universe barely touched by the outside, where men are cockatoos and fruit bats and wild boars and still travel with the tides in hand carved dugout canoes.”

Hoffman is the author of The Lunatic Express — what the Wall Street Journal called one of the ten best books of 2010 — and Hunting WarbirdsThe Last Warriors of the Spirit World: Michael Rockefeller’s Tragic Journey in the Land of the Asmat will be his third book.