Michael Rockefeller was the youngest child of New York Governor (and eventual Vice-President) Nelson Rockefeller. Michael was a graduate of Harvard University, earning a Bachelor’s Degree in history and economics. After a brief stint in the US Army, Michael joined an expedition from Harvard’s Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology to study the Dani tribe of western New Guinea. The leader of the exploration was documentary film maker Robert Gardner. Michael served as sound recorder for the film in production. However, Michael and a friend left the group to head south. They sought to explore another tribe, the Asmati. Upon completion of the Dani documentary, Michael Rockefeller returned to southern New Guinea to pursue his studies of the Asmati people.
In November 1961, Michael and anthropologist René Wassing were three miles from shore when their 40-foot canoe capsized. Their native guides swam for help but never returned. Michael and his colleague drifted until Michael could no longer be patient. The pair swam the estimated twelve miles to shore where René was rescued. Michael, however, had disappeared.
Investigation and speculation concluded that Michael was attacked, killed and eaten by a local tribe of Asmati people. Cannibalism was still practiced by the trube in 1961. It is believed this was an act of revenge, as Dutch troops had recently slaughtered some Asmati tribal leaders.
Michael Rockefeller was 23 years old.