The Strange Case of the Tasaday: Were They Primitive Hunter-Gatherers or Rain-Forest Phonies?

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The Strange Case of the Tasaday

A small tribe of hunter-gatherers known as the Tasaday (pronounced ta-SAH-dye), who dwell in densely forested mountains on the island of Mindanao in the Philippines, rocketed to international prominence in 1972. Media reports dubbed them to most primitive people on Earth, remarkably peaceful remnants of Stone Age life.

But in 1986, the Tasaday's pristine reputation was pummeled. Journalists reported the group was a carefully orchestrated hoax devised for political purposes, and several anthropologists agreed, arguing that devious government officials recruited the Tasaday from neighboring rain-forest communities.

The ensuing controversy begat two scientific symposia -- mainly featuring the arguments of those charging that the Tasaday are bogus -- at anthropological conferences in the Philippines and Yugoslavia. A special "invited session" with scientists on both sides of the debate is planned for the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association this November.

One thing on which everyone agrees is that the scientific data at hand are preliminary, and often interpreted quite differently. As frequently happens in studies of modern human groups or the remains of their ancestors, scientists know enough to generate plenty of heat and precious few rays of light.

Manuel Elizalde Jr. first steered the Tasaday into the spotlight in the early 1970s, when he served Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos as head of a government agency charged with protecting the rights of minority groups. In June 1971, Elizalde says, he visited the Blit Manobo, a tribe of Mindanao farmers. One of the Blit, named Dafal, told Elizalde he had run across a primitive tribe living in caves about a three-hour walk into the nearly rain forest. Over several years of periodic contacts, Dafal supposedly introduced the Tasaday to spears, bows and arrows, traps and hunting techniques.

Dafal arranged a meeting between Elizalde and several Tasaday, who decided he was the "great bringer of good fortune" described in tribal legend. Soon after, Elizalde brought them unprecedented attention from outsiders. In early 1972, he arranged for several journalists and 11 social scientists to helicopter into the rain forest and meet the primitive group.

Cameras recorded the 26 Tasaday individuals crouching in caves, wearing clothes made of orchid leaves, using tools of stone and bamboo, and eating wild roots, bananas, berries, grubs gathered from rotted logs, and crabs and frogs fished by hand from small streams. They had no pottery, no woven cloth, no metal, no art, no weapons, no domestic plants or animals and apparently no knowledge of theoutside world.

Later this year, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC ran a cover storyon the Tasaday. NBC Television paid Elizalde $50,000 to film the tribe. In 1975, Portland, Ore., journalist John Nance, one of the first people Elizalde escorted to the mountain caves, published The Gentle Tasaday: A Stone Age People in the Philippine Rain Forest (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York).

The Marcos government, citing the need to protect Tasaday land from logging companies hungry for timber, established in 1973 a tribal preserve of 46,300 acres of rain forest.

Media and scientific contacts with the world-famous Tasaday suddenly stopped in 1974 with the imposition of martial law in the Philippines, and did not supreme until the Marcos government toppled early in 1986.

In March 1986, a Swiss journalist made his way to the tribe's mountain caves. He saw Tasaday wearing colored T-shirts, sleeping on wooden beds and using metal knives. He pronounced them a hoax, merely members of two nearby tribes, the Tboli and Blit Manobo, whom Elizalde had paid to act like Stone Age primitives. The entire scheme, he wrote in a Zurich newspaper, was intended to make Marcos look like a friend of Philippine tribes while he arranged to exploit valuable mahogany stands on their preserves. …