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The Tasaday People

Over at the Presurfer, I found a link to a list at Business Insider called 10 scientific hoaxes that rocked the world. Interesting. The Cardiff Giant was there, and Piltdown Man, and some more recent science scandals, and the Tasaday people. What? The Tasaday were an isolated “stone age” tribe in the Philippines that was discovered in 1971. They knew nothing of agriculture or the outside world. As a 12-year-old National Geographic fan, I was fascinated with the story. But I lost track and never heard the updates years later. The list said,

The find: a "small stone age tribe" called the Tasaday tribe. A Philippine government minister named Manuel Elizalde claimed to have found the tribe living in complete isolation on the island of Mindanao. The tribe "spoke a strange language, gathered wild food, used stone tools, lived in caves in the jungle, wore leaves for clothes, and settled matters by gentle persuasion," the Guardian reports.

The president at the time declared the island a reserve, banning anthropologists from visiting the site and studying the tribe further.

The fallout: In 1986, the president was forced out of office, and two journalists snuck into the land, only to find that the Tasaday tribe lived in houses, wore regular clothes, and had only temporarily adopted the primitive, stone age lifestyle at the urging of the Elizalde.

Was that true? I checked Wikipedia, and while the entry acknowledges the questions about a hoax, the overall entry appears to accept them as a distinct tribe. The 1993 NOVA episode on the Tasaday does the same. But what about more recent news? The Museum of Hoaxes, which Business Insider cites as a source, has more on the Tasaday story. The longer story documents the initial discovery of a "stone age" tribe; the unveiling of the Tasaday as a "hoax," which included confessions from tribespeople; the evidence for a "reverse hoax," in which the Tasaday were paid to admit being fakes, mostly for political reasons; and a view of the truth somewhere between the extremes.

To sum up: The Tasaday weren't a true stone-age tribe. But nor were they farmers coerced into playing a stone-age tribe. Instead, they were very poor people living close to Nature in the Philippine jungle who became swept up in and manipulated by global events beyond their control. This version of events isn't as compelling as the versions that made headlines in 1971 and 1986, but it is a good illustration of how the truth is often far messier and more complicated than it appears at first glance.

The entire article at The Museum of Hoaxes is worth a read, not only because of the Tasaday themselves, but also as a look at the competing forces of science, journalism, and politics that blew their story out of proportion in all directions.

(Image credit: Susanne Haerpfer)

I remember hearing about the Tasaday before and after 1986. Before 1986, when Marcos was still president, the Tasadays were hailed as a "lost tribe" in our Civics textbooks. After 1986, when Marcos was kicked out of power, there was almost no mention of the Tasadays except to say that perhaps it was a hoax.

If the Tasadays were a poor people forced to live on the edge of nature, then they are similar to other indigenous groups in the Philippines, like the Aetas.
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