'Savage Harvest,' by Carl Hoffman

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In “Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism and Michael Rockefeller’s Tragic Quest for Primitive Art,” the adventure-travel writer Carl Hoffman delivers the promised goods, and more. For beyond the exotic and violent story it tells, Mr. Hoffman’s book also offers insight on the limits of human commonality.

By Carl Hoffman
William Morrow ($26.99)

In 1961, at the age of 23, Michael Rockefeller (John D.’s great-grandson) traveled to the southwest coast of Dutch New Guinea. His goal was to obtain elaborately carved bisj poles for the Museum of Primitive Art, which was founded by his father, Nelson.

Although the Asmat tribal region was as isolated and “primitive” a place as could be found on the globe, and its inhabitants were reputedly headhunters and cannibals, Mr. Hoffman makes it clear that Rockefeller never doubted he’d succeed. The recent Harvard graduate had the self-confidence of someone who had never known failure and had no idea how privileged he was.

Just because something is “primitive,” Mr. Hoffman stresses, doesn’t mean it’s not complicated. Flashing back and forth through time, Mr. Hoffman describes the matrix of histories and rivalries and resentments into which Rockefeller inserted himself.

The Asmat were indeed enthusiastic headhunters and cannibals. But the Dutch, fearing international pressure to give up their colony to the Indonesians, wanted to stamp out this practice. A Dutch official had killed several men in a 1958 raid on the village of Otsjanep.

Add to this the perennial warfare between Asmat villages (resulting in, Mr. Hoffman points out, an annual rate of violent mortality three times that of Washington, D.C., in its “Murder City” days), and Rockefeller was stepping into something beyond his understanding.

The very artifacts Rockefeller sought, in fact, are intimately connected with violence and cannibalism. A bisj pole, carved from a single mangrove trunk and sometimes 20 feet long, commemorates a murdered person, and the pole itself is an exhortation to vengeance.

Mr. Hoffman nicely explains the place of the bisj poles in Asmat cosmology and society. Rockefeller, it seems, tragically missed the point in treating these as aesthetic objects. (The actual poles Rockefeller did manage to obtain are now on display in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.)

What one would expect to happen, happened. Sailing along the coast in a homemade catamaran, Rockefeller hit rough seas and capsized. Strapping empty jerrycans to his belt like water wings, Rockefeller foolhardily tried to swim the 10 miles to shore. He was never found, even after the New Guinean government, the Dutch navy and air force, and the resources of the Rockefellers joined in the search.

Mr. Hoffman travels to New Guinea in 2012, determined to solve the mystery. Did Rockefeller drown? Did he “go native” and disappear into the jungle? Or did something more sinister happen?

Relying on the memories of missionaries and villagers who were in the area — particularly Otsjanep — at the time, Hoffman concludes that Rockefeller almost certainly made it to shore.

Unfortunately for the young art collector, there he encountered several canoes full of Otsjanep men who saw the ritual murder and eating of Rockefeller as a way to rebalance the spirit forces that had been off-kilter since the 1958 raid.

Mr. Hoffman is never able to coax an admission out of the Otsjanep men, but he is certain that Rockefeller met his end gruesomely, not in the calm oblivion of drowning.

It would be hard to imagine two people more different than Michael Rockefeller and an Asmat villager, and Rockefeller exhibits the colonialist mentality just as much, if less harmfully, than do the Dutch themselves.

He projects his own understanding of the world upon them. He imagines they would respond as he would, that they would be motivated by gain, that they are at core individuals, in the Western sense.

But, as Mr. Hoffman shows, the very precepts of human society are profoundly different among the Asmat. The relative importance of the individual and the collective, the nature of time, the relationship between the material and the spiritual world: the West and the Asmat have incompatible understandings of these.

Importantly, Mr. Hoffman doesn’t seek to comprehensively explain the Asmat worldview, but just to suggest that these differences led to the misunderstandings that catalyzed the 1958 massacre and, ultimately, Rockefeller’s death.

Even as he tries his best to be culturally sensitive, though, Mr. Hoffman exhibits precisely the colonialist mentality he condemns. He carefully explains why the Asmat should not be considered “savage,” and how classifying art as “primitive” implies that it is simplistic and lacks complexity. Yet at times he uses those terms in surprisingly unexamined ways in this otherwise nuanced and fascinating book.

Greg Barnhisel is an associate professor of English at Duquesne University.

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