The mysterious disappearance of Michael Rockefeller: was he eaten by cannibals?
The mysterious disappearance of Michael Rockefeller Harvard College

There have been fresh claims that Michael Rockefeller, scion of one of America's wealthiest families, was devoured by cannibals in New Guinea.

A new book, Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism and Michael Rockefeller's Tragic Quest for Primitive Art, by Carl Hoffman, posits fresh theories about the Harvard graduate's mysterious disappearance.

In 1961, Rockefeller embarked on an expedition to collect art for the Museum of Primitive Art in Manhattan, opened by his multi-millionaire father.

He was accompanied only by René Wassing, a Dutch anthropologist, and two local teenagers - but without an Asmat guide. His canoe capsized in November 1961, and he has long been presumed to have died while attempting to swim for the shore. He was declared legally dead in 1964.

However, Hoffman's investigation draws on testimony from Asmat tribesmen to describe what really happened to Rockefeller. According to passages from the book, the 23-year-old American swam to shore, but would have been speared in the chest before being killed by an axe blow to the back of the head.

He may also have been dismembered in what Hoffman calls an act of "sacred violence".

Eating bowls from Papua New Guinea
Eating bowls from Papua New Guinea Wikicommons

In gruesome detail, the writer notes: "Pieces of meat were placed in the fire to roast... they pulled the charred legs and arms out of the fire, tore the meat off the bones and mixed it with crumbly, whitish grey sago into long sticks for everyone to eat."

Eating the brains was the high point and delicacy for the New Guinea cannibals. Hoffman describes how a hole was made in the skull and that "only the senior men ate it."

According to Hoffman, the Dutch government had knowledge of the incident but instigated a cover-up, even after a priest wrote to the authorities naming the murderers, according to a report in the Sunday Times.

When Hoffman, a travel writer, visited the area, he was given a first-hand account from Asmat tribesmen. The villagers told him that Rockefeller's head — small, like a child's — was claimed by a villager to hang in his hut. The bones of the "white man" had been distributed throughout the tribe to sharpen into weapons.

The blood of victims was rubbed into 20-foot tall poles, carved by a tribe to honour the murdered among them.

Ironically, four of these poles, collected by Rockefeller on his fatal journey, stand in the Michael C Rockefeller wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Watch video of the search for Michael Rockefeller