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The Last Cannibal Tribe: Dani People Killed & Ate Billionaire's Heir


Aug. 11, 2020

These are the remote Indonesia people accused of murdering and eating American heir Michael Rockefeller sixty years ago before they renounced cannibalism and turned to Christianity. The images offer a rare glimpse of the Grand Valley Dani people, an ethnic group located in a remote part of western New Guinea in Indonesia.  
Their ancestors are at the centre of the mystery of the 1961 disappearance of 23-year-old Rockefeller, whose great-grandfather was the co-founder of Standard Oil and established one of America's wealthiest dynasties, who travelled to New Guinea to photograph the Dani people and collect their art.
Rockefeller disappeared after a trading canoe that he was travelling in down the cannibal coast of New Guinea capsized while he was collecting the wooden carvings for his father's recently opened Museum of Primitive Art. Several miles off shore, heavy seas swamped his craft. After a night adrift, Rockefeller set out to swim for the distant shore, leaving his companion René Wessing with the fateful words: 'I think I can make it…' He was never seen again. Rockefeller's death was eventually ruled a drowning, but there have long been questions about the official version of events.
A book published in 2014 by Carl Hoffman claims that there is 'clear and abundant' evidence that Rockefeller made it to shore and was killed and ceremonially eaten by the Asmat tribesmen. Rockefeller had also been studying the Dani before he vanished and the two closely-linked tribes inhabit the same region of Indonesia. Hoffman carried out extensive research in the Netherlands as well as New Guinea researching his book Savage Harvest.
He claims that once Rockefeller made it to shore, the men of the Asmats, a notoriously violent New Guinea tribe, tortured, beheaded and ate Rockefeller in a ritualistic cannibal killing because the Dutch had killed five of their own elite Asmats.
The Dani tribe, another cannibal tribe in western New Guinea, were not discovered until 1938 when they were sighted from an airplane by American zoologist Richard Archbold on an expedition. They are seen in these photographs wearing traditional silver body paint, pig rib nose rings and penis sheaths. One photograph captures a smiling Dani tribe leader covered in silver bodypaint made from ash and pig fat, with a pig rib hooked through his nose - and holding a cigarette.
Another image showed the tribe practising war formations and spear throwing at the Baliem festival, held every August, which unites and celebrates the 25,000 population of the Dani people with other local tribes in the highlands.
One of their customs seen in the photos is the wearing of an unusual piece of underwear worn by males - the Koteka - which is commonly referred to as a penis sheath. 
The tribe were cannibals until three decades ago, when Christian missionaries stopped the practice, and now the tribe only eat meat on special occasions. They only eat pigs for very important ceremonies such as birth, or marriage. 
'I wanted to visit them because they were one of the last tribes to ever be discovered on earth, just 82 years ago, they live in over five-thousand-feet of forest, so were quite hard to find,' said Roberto, a photographer.
'I was shocked to learn that the men are polygamous, but because of financial struggles many men do not have more than two wives. Also grieving women who lose the men in their family do cut off the tips of their fingers because it is believed that women do not feel pain as much as men. They were also cannibals until the 1990s because they believed if they ate their enemy, they could gain their power.But they are losing traditions thanks to globalisation and the Indonesian government.'
'The men are losing traditions of penis sheaths by switching them for trousers. Meanwhile the women are also covering up with more clothes, but they still do not have any mobile phones or automobiles. They do use some gifts they are given; one was playing an acoustic guitar. I brought them sugar and cigarettes and they welcomed me in return. Overall it was an unforgettable experience, the cute children were so happy to be playing with nothing, and the men were sceptical at first but there was a lot of respect. Unfortunately I didn't interact with the women much to avoid to upsetting men due to their culture.'
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