We Still Don't Know If This Tribe Discovered In The '70s Was Real

When a "stone age tribe" files a libel suit against anthropologists, you know you're going to get some twisted history. Learn about the Tasaday tribe of the Philippines, and make your conclusions as to what extent they were an authentic culture or just seriously devoted actors.

The Tasaday

In 1971, President Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines and Manuel Elizalde, Marcos' adviser on Filipino national minorities, made an announcement that electrified the world. A tribe called the Tasaday had been discovered in the southern Philippines, about three hours journey from a small village. The tribe had first come to Elizalde's attention when a hunter, wandering far into the wilderness, had spotted people dressed in leaves. The hunter had reported the sighting, and Elizalde had investigated. Elizalde and Marcos rushed to make sure the Tasaday weren't exploited. Marcos declared a 19,000-acre space to be reserved for the Tasaday's exclusive use, while Elizalde created a force to guard the area and made sure no one ventured in.


Some people were allowed into the Tasaday's territory. Journalists and anthropologists were given limited visitation rights, and Elizalde allowed celebrities like Charles Lindbergh to come in and pose with the Tasaday people to garner good publicity. But the Tasaday were perfectly capable of generating their own publicity. At a time when the world was worried about lax sexual morals, violence in Vietnam, and environmental degradation, the Tasaday were strictly (and blissfully) monogamous, lived as peaceful gatherers who didn't even hunt, and dwelt in natural caves. They were peaceful, loving, and kind.

The Doubts Begin

They were also, according to some anthropologists, starving to death. When a team of anthropologists came in to analyze the Tasaday diet, they found that the fruits, berries, yams, and tadpoles the tribe harvested could only supply about a third of their caloric needs. The anthropologists were banned from the area shortly after they declared their intention to investigate further. As strife in the Philippines increased, access to the Tasaday decreased. For a period of years, no one visited them at all.


In 1986, after Marcos had been deposed, a Swiss reporter hiked out to the area where the Tasaday lived. He found empty caves, and people nearby living in houses, in western clothing. When he asked them about the Tasaday, they claimed that Elizalde had told them to play at being an undiscovered tribe, putting on leaves and living in caves, in exchange for money, goods, and protection from local infighting. A group of anthropologists, who came to the Tasaday's territory shortly after the reporter, found western clothing underneath the Tasaday's leaf clothing. The members of the Tasaday appeared to have hurriedly put leaves on over their clothes.

Elizalde, after hearing the stories of the reporter and the scientists, flew members of the Tasaday tribe to Manila, and filed a lawsuit against local anthropologists who claimed the Tasaday were a hoax. The new president of the Philippines declared the Tasaday a real "stone age" tribe. The scientific community was not convinced.


The Secondary Doubts


If the Tasaday were just local people living in the area, they had a few peculiar traits. They spoke a dialect that was, when analyzed, markedly different from the local language of Cotabato Manobo. Linguists estimated that the Tasaday dialect had split off from the local language over 150 years ago. The Tasaday also welcomed an anthropologist and stayed "in character" with him for about 10 months, which seems a long time for a hoax to continue.

As for the 1986 statement from the Tasaday, which claimed that Elizalde had bribed them to play the part of a stone age tribe, different members of the Tasaday made different statements at different times. Over the years, some said the 1986 renunciation was coerced by the reporter's translator. Others said that the statements given at the libel trial in Manila were forced. There are multiple confessions over multiple years, all of which conflict with each other, and all of which come through translators.


The consensus today seems to be that the Tasaday were, to a large extent, geographically and culturally isolated. But they were probably not the undiscovered, "stone age" tribe that they were made out to be.

Top Image: Rod Gasmin.

[Via The Stone Age Tasaday, Manuel Elizalde, Bogus Science.]


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