Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Michael Rockefeller

Last Wild Place

New Guinea, north of Australia
New Guinea, north of Australia

Even today, New Guinea is regarded as one of the last great unexplored places on earth. But it held a special fascination in the first half of last century, after explorers and missionaries came out of its jungles with shocking stories about the headhunting and cannibalism among tribes there.

The Dutch and the English, colonial rulers of New Guinea during much of the 19th and 20 centuries, outlawed headhunting. But remote tribes lived hundreds of miles — through impenetrable jungles — from the nearest police posts, and the practice persisted in those places.

Only rarely were non-natives targets of headhunters. But one case, in 1901, influenced New Guinea's worldwide reputation for decades.

James Chalmers, a Scottish missionary, had dedicated his life to the Christian conversion of aboriginal people there.

He was posted to New Guinea in 1877 by the London Missionary Society and spent 24 years establishing religious outposts in places where Westerners had never visited.

On April 4, 1901, Chalmers and a young assistant were visiting a New Guinean island when they were clubbed, beheaded and eaten by unfriendly tribesmen. The murders made international headlines and tainted New Guinea as a land of bloodthirsty savages.

James Chalmers
James Chalmers

Researchers would later learn that most headhunting was not mere bloodlust. It was a ceremonial act meant to intimidate rivals and establish hierarchy.

In battles, certain rivals were decapitated. The trophy heads were hauled back to home villages, where they were cleaved open and the brains consumed.

Some New Guinean headhunters, including a coastal group known as the Asmats, stripped trophy heads to the bone, bleached them in the sun, then covered the skulls with painted depictions of the battle at which the victim fell.

Whatever its purpose, the act of dining on another human being and decorating his remains left a foul taste in the mouth of the rest of the world, and New Guinea was isolated as a result.

The size and climate of the huge island did not help. A tropical rain forest, it has relentless heat and humidity and swarming insects. The coast is lined with mangrove swamps that are difficult to navigate, and the interior jungles are dark and largely impassable.

Of course, any number of Westerners have managed to venture there, beginning nearly 500 years ago.

The island, due north of Australia, got its name from a Spanish explorer who saw a resemblance between the natives there and those of the Guinea, West Africa.

The island, slightly larger than Texas, has been divided in half for nearly 200 years. Holland ruled the western half, which became known as Dutch New Guinea, and England and later Australia ruled the eastern half, known as Papua New Guinea. (It was dubbed by a Portuguese explorer Ilhas dos Papuas, or Island of the Frizzy-Haired People.)

Significant populations of Westerners occupied the cities of Hollandia, in Dutch New Guinea, and Port Moresby, in Papua. But interior sections, particularly along the mile-high mountainous spine of the entire island, and the southwestern coastal mangrove regions were visited only rarely.

The tribes of New Guinea were the subject of numerous anthropological missions after World War II. Many tribes were considered to be unsullied by contact with the modern world, and scientists at the world's research universities  were clamoring to document these Stone Age cultures.

Michael Rockefeller was drawn into one of those projects purely by serendipity. A combination of coincidence, financial wherewithal and personal motivation led him to journey to the other side of the world.

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