AK Rockefeller was raised with his two brothers and two sisters in the Asmat region of West Papua. He grew up in a tree house and had little to do with anything outside his village. He had a particular talent for wood carving, and sought to honor his own ancestors with his art.
As he developed this craft, he became more interested in his father’s stories of his own strange past, and began to study under his father more intently. He learned English, and learned about his famous grandparents, and his even more famous great grandfather, John D. Rockefeller. He vowed to someday explore that other world of his ancestors.
Eventually AK also would grasp the immense fortune that his father left behind.
Michael C. Rockefeller was the son of NY State Governor and Vice President, Nelson D. Rockefeller. After graduating from Harvard University and serving briefly in the US Army, Michael tagged along on an expedition for Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology to study the Dani tribe in West Papua. During the expedition, Michael became interested in the Asmat tribe.
“It’s the desire to do something adventurous, at a time when frontiers, in the real sense of the word, are disappearing.”
– Michael C. Rockefeller
Michael returned to West Papua to trade for Asmat traditional art, and, more quietly, to assess the possible presence of valuable natural resources in the region.
On November 17, 1961, en route to a remote Asmat settlement with a Dutch anthropologist and two guides, Michael’s pontoon boat capsized 3 miles out at sea. Having waited for some time for their two guides to return with help, Michael decided to attempt the swim to shore himself, and left, never to be seen again. Rene Wassing, the anthropologist, was picked up the next day.
The Rockefeller family went to great lengths to find Michael or at least determine his fate, but they were unsuccessful. Michael was eventually declared legally dead in 1964.
Michael Rockefeller’s disappearance has long been fertile ground for speculation, and there are many questions about what really happened. Did he swim to shore? Was he captured by cannibals? Did he simply drown, or did he in fact survive? And, if he survived, might he have decided to stay there, turning his back on the greatest fortune ever accumulated?
As it happened, he did stay! He reached shore, exhausted and dehydrated, and collapsed there. Asmat tradition honors the spirit of a mythical orphan by sometimes allowing an adult with no remaining family members to be adopted by a new family. Before he expired, Michael was found by local tribesmen who brought him back to their village and restored his health.
Enchanted by his new surroundings and friends, so far away from the unbearable responsibility of obscene wealth, Michael decided to stay. He eventually also married and had several children, the youngest of which was AK Rockefeller.