Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Tasaday Hoax

The Tasaday are an indigenous people of the Philippine island of Mindanao. They are considered to belong to the Lumad group along with the other indigenous inhabitants of the island. They attracted wide media attention in 1971 when they were first "discovered" by Western scientists who reported that they were living at a "stone age" level of technology and had been completely isolated from the rest of Philippine society. They later attracted attention in the 1980s when it was reported that their discovery had in fact been an elaborate hoax, and doubt was raised both about their status as isolated from other societies and even about the reality of their existence as a separate ethnic group. The question of to which degree the Tasaday evidence published in the seventies reflect reality is still being discussed. The Tasaday do speak a language that is distinct from the language of neighboring tribes and which has been described by linguists as having probably split from the adjacent Manobo languages 200 years ago.

On June 7, 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 Dafal1. 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 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, and what they did wear was made of leaves, and 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 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."

Elizalde brought the Tasaday to the attention of PANAMIN. With a small group including Elizalde's bodyguard, helicopter pilot, a doctor, a 19-year-old Yale student named Edith Terry, and local tribespeople for interpreting attempts, Elizalde met the Tasaday in an arranged clearing at the edge of the forest in June 1971.
In March 1972, another meeting occurred between the Tasaday, Elizalde, and members of the press and media including the Associated Press and the National Geographic Society, this time at the Tasaday's secluded cave home site. This meeting was popularly reported in the August 1972 issue of National Geographic by Kenneth MacLeish, which featured on its cover a photograph of a Tasaday boy climbing vines.
Since these first meetings and reports, the group was subject to a great deal of further publicity, including a National Geographic documentary, "The Last Tribes of Mindanao" (shown December 1, 1972). The Tasaday became so popular as to attract such famed visitors as Charles A. Lindbergh and Gina Lollobrigida.
In 1986, nearly 15 years after the Tasaday were first discovered, everything changed. General Marcos's tyrannous regime was ousted and a new, freer, democratic government took its place.
A Swiss writer and Anthropologist named Oswald Iten took advantange 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 realized 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 publicized 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 Levi's 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 an 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 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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