Captured on a small cine-camera as it plays across the ranks of 17 approaching cannibal war canoes, the image is fleeting but unmistakable. Among the massed ranks of dark-skinned headhunter tribesmen heading around the bend of a New Guinea river is a naked and bearded white-skinned man, his face partly covered in war paint as he paddles furiously. The appearance of a white face among a throng of Papuan cannibals would be astonishing at the best of times. But in the circumstances in which this footage was shot, it is potentially mind-boggling.
A ‘white tribesman’ was seen with a a group of Papuan cannibals in 1969, eight years after Michael Rockefeller mysteriously disappeared in a similar area For the impressive scene was filmed in 1969 close to the spot where, eight years earlier, a scion of the Rockefeller dynasty — the richest, most powerful family in U.S. history — had gone missing, sparking the biggest hunt ever launched in the South Pacific.
Since 23-year-old Michael Rockefeller disappeared during a trip to collect primitive art from one of the remotest corners of the planet, rumours swirled about his fate.
The official explanation advanced by the former colony’s Dutch rulers was that he drowned after he tried to swim to shore from his capsized boat.
Others insisted he met a more horrible fate — killed and eaten by cannibals seeking revenge on white men for a Dutch attack on their village.
Now, a documentary made by Fraser Heston, son of actor Charlton Heston, has thrown the focus on this extraordinary story once more. And, tantalisingly, newly unearthed film footage of the mysterious white canoeist suggests an astonishing possibility. Instead of being killed and eaten, did the Harvard-educated American reject his civilised past and join a tribe of cannibals?