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The Tasaday Tribe Hoax

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In the Philippines, deforestation is a major problem. There is virtually no virgin forest left. But in one of these few remaining forests on the island of Mindanao, a shocking anthropological discovery was made.

Mindanao is a very diverse island. An American missionary describes it thus:

Mindanao has the tallest mountain in the Philippines and lots of other mountainous areas, plateaux, lowland plains, beautiful beaches, lots of rain, major hydroelectric power plants, fertile volcanic soil, huge banana, pineapple, and other plantations. It is also diverse with people.

The Discovery of the Tasaday

On 7 June, 1971, in the dense rain forest of South Cotabato Province on Mindanao, Manuel Elizalde Jr, a local Filipino official, made initial contact with a group of 26 people called the Tasaday. Elizalde was led there by a frontier tribesman named Dafal. Dafal claimed to have met the Tasaday years earlier while hunting with his father. He said he had later given them bits of cloth and metal for helping him watch his traps and providing him with choice fruit from the forest.

The Tasaday Lifestyle

The interesting thing about these people was that they apparently had no knowledge of agriculture or any other technology beyond the Paleolithic Stone Age, making them the most primitive surviving culture on Earth! Through observation and language translation by local tribal people, Elizalde learned much about the Tasaday way of life.

They made their home in deep caves in the dense jungle, fitting the vulgar expression, 'cavemen'. Since they were ignorant of both farming and animal domestication, their diet consisted of gathered food, wild yams, palms, crabs, tadpoles, and such. They wore very little clothing, what they did wear was made of leaves. Their tools were made of stone. The adults, seven men and six women, had waistlength hair which they put in ponytails. The men were, on average, about 5'5", the women slightly less and both the men and women were thin, muscular, and smudged with dirt.

Another interesting facet of the Tasaday was their incredibly gentle nature. They had no words for 'weapon', 'war', or 'enemy'.

Protecting the Tasaday

In an effort to protect the tribe, President Marcos declared 19,000 hectares surrounding the Tasaday off limits, and shortly afterward declared martial law on the Philippines. Soldiers were posted outside the caves, and anyone who wanted to see the Tasaday had to first be approved and escorted by Elizalde. Few scientists actually got to see them. Then National Geographic introduced the world to the Tasaday first doing several magazine articles on them, then a CBS documentary.

Within a month of the documentary's debut, Elizalde created a PANAMIN US Foundation, drawing in such celebrity incorporators as Charles Lindbergh and John Rockerfeller IV. Back at the caves, the Tasaday seemed to view Elizalde as a god, even giving him a special name, Mono Dakel de Weta Tasaday, which means 'Great Man, God of the Tasaday'. One Tasaday man explained this notion, saying 'our ancestors told us never to leave this place of ours. They told us the god of our people would come. These words have been proven true by the coming of Elizalde.'

The Tasaday themselves were not without skeptics, though. One scientist claimed he saw people sneaking rice into the caves. There were other reports that the Tasaday had been seen wearing modern clothing and smoking cigarettes. But these accusations were largely ignored, and the tight restrictions on those studying the Tasaday made it difficult for any real investigation to take place.

It wouldn't be long before everyone knew the incredible truth however.


In 1986, nearly 15 years after the Tasaday were first discovered, everything changed. General Marcos' tyrannous regime was ousted and a new, freer, democratic government took its place.

A Swiss writer and anthropologist named Oswald Iten took advantage of the opportunity to study the Tasaday without the former government's restrictions. He brought Joey Lozano, a journalist from South Cotabato, with him on his expedition. Strangely, when they reached the caves, they found them deserted. A search of the surrounding area led to the discovery of the same 'Stone Age' people a short distance away living in modest huts, wearing T-shirts and blue jeans.

Iten and Lozano realised that the whole thing was a glorious hoax. Further research showed that the Tasaday actually came from two other tribes, tribes that had been part of the modern world for years. They publicised their findings through an ABC television documentary entitled The Tribe that Never Was. Millions of viewers were confronted with the images of Filipinos in T-shirts and Levis laughing at the pictures of themselves from National Geographic. One anthropologist called the Tasaday, 'rain forest clock punchers' who were 'cave people by day and went home to their families at night'.

In retrospect, the fraud seemed obvious. Why, some wondered, were the caves so clean? Even a Stone Age tribe would have had garbage, such as crab shells or scraps of food. And how did such a small tribe avoid inbreeding? Also, the Tasaday were a mere three hours walk from a modern village. It seemed odd that they would not have encountered this village while searching for food. And if that was not enough evidence of a hoax, anthropologist Thomas Headland conducted an investigation on the Tasaday and produced 'eight little known facts about the Tasaday'. These were:

  1. The Tasaday were found wearing commercially manufactured cloth. They were asked to remove their clothes and wear their 'traditional' garb.

  2. The Tasaday must have traded with other tribes. They had brass, metal tipped arrows, bows made of cultivated bamboo, glass beads, iron knives, and tin cans, just to name a few of the foreign items that Headland mentions.

  3. Nearby tribes ate meat from animals killed by the Tasaday, and gave them cultivated food in return.

  4. The South Cotabato rain forest lacks the amount of starch foods necessary to sustain the Tasaday. Headland writes,

    It has been generally assumed until recently that tropical rain forests are food-rich biomes for human foragers, and that prehistoric hunter-gatherers once lived completely independent of cultivated foods in such environments. An alternative hypothesis that such forests are actually food-poor for humans is proposed here. Specifically, that wild starch foods such as yams were so scarce and so hard to extract that human foragers could not have lived in such biomes without recourse to cultivated foods...
  5. The Tasaday were never directly observed subsisting on gathered food. Scientists simply assumed they did.

  6. The Tasaday bamboo tools were cultivated bamboo. Their bamboo was the Sun-loving type which cannot grow in the rain forest.

  7. The Tasaday stone tools were fake. They were made at the request of the officials in charge.

  8. In the Tasaday language, 85% of the words were identical to the Cotabato Manobo speech, which is spoken by most of the tribes in the area.

The Instigator

Now the question was, who organised this incredible hoax? All roads led to Elizalde. Some of the Tasaday came forth and admitted conspiring with him. One man gave this revealing account:

We didn't live in caves, only near them, until we met Elizalde... Elizalde forced us to live in the caves so that we'd be better cavemen. Before he came, we lived in huts on the other side of the mountain and we farmed. We took off our clothes because Elizalde told us to do so and promised us if we looked poor that we would get assistance. He gave us money to pose as Tasaday and promised us security from counter insurgency and tribal fighting.

It became evident that Elizalde had been manipulating the Tasaday for his own personal gain; when Marcos's dictatorship ended, Elizalde was the first crony to leave the Philippines, taking with him $35 million dollars from the non-profit PANAMIN organisation that he had started specifically for the Tasaday.

Elizalde ended up in Costa Rica. He squandered all the money, became addicted to drugs, and died impoverished in 1997. Instead of a hero, he is now known as the perpetrator of the greatest anthropological hoax since Piltdown Man.

Implications of the Tasaday Fiasco

The Tasaday Hoax led many anthropologists to reconsider how they deal with indigenous tribes. It is a situation full of dilemmas. Anthropologists are often faced with situations where members of the tribe they are studying die on a regular basis from easily curable diseases. But administering medicine may be the first step toward the loss of a culture. Many tribes actually express desire to become more technological. Anthropologists usually pressure them not to do so. One Brazilian indigenous tribal chief, after hearing such a recommendation, is quoted saying, 'Do they think we like not having any clothes? It may be the way of our ancestors, but the bugs bother us...' Should tribes like these be exposed to the modern world? There are no easy answers.

On a more clear-cut issue, the Tasaday hoax has shown that exaggeration by both the media and power-hungry politicians combined with the support of scientists who turn a blind eye can lead to exploitation of incredible magnitude.

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