At the south end of the vast first floor of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, in a room with big glass windows looking out on Central Park, stand nine extraordinary carved poles, tall and elaborate and imposing. Each more than 18 feet tall, they are composed of male figures standing on one another’s shoulders, entwined with crocodiles, birds, praying mantises; the top figure brandishes an enormous, spectacularly rendered phallus.

These “bisj” poles, according to the museum’s Web site, were made by the Asmat people of Papua New Guinea and were central to their funeral rites — and to their culture of cannibalism and revenge killing. Now part of the Michael C. Rockefeller Collection, displayed in the Michael C. Rockefeller Wing of the museum, they were collected by the Michael C. Rockefeller Expedition in 1961. All that’s missing is Rockefeller himself, who famously disappeared on that same expedition. In November of that year, the 23-year-old son of New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller left his expedition partner on their overturned catamaran in the Arafura Sea, hoping to swim to shore to get help. He was never seen again. Or was he?

The mystery of Rockefeller’s disappearance made international news and continued to pique curiosity for decades after he was formally declared dead in 1964, presumably of drowning. Yet the story ossified, and even the Rockefeller family did not seem terribly interested in probing any deeper. In his terrific and often gruesome new book, “Savage Harvest,” travel journalist Carl Hoffman, who lives in Washington, reopens the case, traveling to Papua New Guinea and coming back with a riveting tale. What’s surprising about this book is not the revelation of Rockefeller’s fate but rather the author’s portrayal of a unique cultural encounter, between the scion of the most powerful family on Earth and a group of people who did not care at all about his money, power and influence. Otherness does not get any more radical than this.

In a sense, Rockefeller’s was the very last of the great 19th-century collecting expeditions, wherein some rugged but well-funded (and invariably white and male) explorer would venture to a “primitive” locale and relieve the inhabitants of their art treasures and/or wildlife. This is why the bust of Nefertiti resides in Berlin. Following his father’s lead, young Rockefeller became fascinated with so-called “primitive” art, which was then enjoying a mid-20th-century vogue. Nelson Rockefeller had helped establish the Museum of Primitive Art in New York, near the Museum of Modern Art, and after graduating from Harvard, Michael set off for Papua New Guinea to help add to its collections. His art-hunting, Hoffman shows, led inevitably to his death.

Then as now, the Asmat region of Papua New Guinea was one of the least-developed areas on the planet. Its people were largely hunter-gatherers who had little contact with the outside world, apart from a few hardy missionaries and Dutch colonial officials (at the time, that part of Indonesian Papua was still under Dutch rule). Not all of the interactions had been positive, either: A few years before Rockefeller arrived, a trigger-happy Dutch officer massacred several Asmat in a village called Otsjanep — an incident that looms large over the narrative.

’Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller's Tragic Quest for Primitive Art’ by Carl Hoffman (William Morrow)

The Asmat remained among the last pure hunter-gatherers on Earth, with no crops or long-lasting food supply apart from the sawdust-like sago, which they gathered from the forest and ate mixed with bits of whatever fish or meat they could kill. Yet they were far from primitive: Their language has 17 tenses, and they inhabit an amazingly complex world of spirits and symbols, animals and ancestors, that must be kept in balance.

One of the ways they did this, even at the time of Rockefeller’s visit, was by revenge killing and cannibalism. Though cannibalism was frowned on by the Catholic Church and the Dutch government, which asserted that the practice had been eliminated, it was in fact very real — and very important in Asmat spiritual life. It was the basis of the symbols carved into their canoes, and drums, and shields, and bisj poles — the very objects Rockefeller was so keen to purchase. “As Michael Rockefeller wandered through Asmat, the headhunting and the killing and eating were still widely practiced,” Hoffman writes. “Every piece of art was rooted in it, and every Asmat he met in the remoter villages had consumed human flesh.”

Hoffman soon realizes that Rockefeller had no idea of the significance of his actions. Far from mere aesthetic objects, the artifacts he sought were spiritually alive, in the Asmat consciousness. “For the Western collector, the Asmat shield is a thing of beauty,” Hoffman writes; “for the Asmat, it is a thing of supernatural power. An Asmat might look at a shield and drop with fear.”

Rockefeller was paying for these items with trinkets. The funerary bisj poles, which he acquired for the sum of a lump of tobacco and an axe, each, were even more significant, essential for guiding the dead into the next world. “He had no understanding that by trading in bisj poles he was trading in the souls of men, souls that could make you sick, that could kill you.”

Part adventurer and part sleuth, Hoffman doggedly traces the threads of the story and brings them together, digging up old documents and tracking down retired missionaries and colonial patrol officers. He goes deep into an area that is still basically off the map and where Western consumer goods are all but nonexistent. “My hair stood on end,” he confesses. While most metropolitan journalists would have hightailed it back to the nearest Grey Goose martini, Hoffman returns to spend several weeks living among the very clans that probably caused Rockefeller’s death, seeking a deeper understanding of their culture and worldview.

In the end, he concludes that Rockefeller had unwittingly stepped into a situation that was already tense and unbalanced, in the aftermath of the Dutch massacre and inter-village violence. His presence — and his money — destabilized it even further. The only way it could be brought back into harmony, in the Asmat view, was via his death. But Hoffman also realizes that there is much more that he does not know about them and cannot ever know. In the course of solving one mystery, he reveals the existence of another, far deeper one.

Bill Gifford is a contributing editor for Outside magazine.


A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller’s Tragic Quest for Primitive Art

By Carl Hoffman

Morrow. 322 pp. $26.99