A 1972 National Geographic article announced the discovery of a gentle, pristine Stone Age people in the Philippines: the Tasaday. Skeptics say that the Tasaday were a hoax perpetrated by the Marcos government, but are they right?
In 1971, strongman Ferdinand Marcos was dictator of the Philippines. His wealthy crony, Manuel Elizalde, Jr., was head of Panamin, a minority rights Watchdog agency. In a nation with 7107 Islands, 12 major regional languages, and hundreds of ethnic groups, such an agency had its work cut out for it.
The Philippines’ second largest island, Mindanao, is bigger than Maine, with lots of jungle. According to Elizalde, a western Mindanao tribesman put him in contact with the Tasaday. The tribe numbered only a couple dozen and lived amid primitive conditions. Their language bore relation to nearby tongues but lacked words for war and violence. They seemed to be living in gentle simplicity, marveling at Elizalde as a deity and protector. For his part, Elizalde clamped the full power of the Philippine State into place to shield his new found people. One of the few study groups permitted to examine the Tasaday was from National Geographic, which introduced the Tasaday to the world in 1972.
After Marcos fell from power in 1986, investigators studying the lives of the Tasaday revealed that it was all a fraud. According to reports, Elizalde had recruited the Tasaday from long-established local tribes and forced them to role-play a stone-age lifestyle. The Tasaday eventually became the “Tasaday Hoax.”
A couple of Tasaday told a sad story. They normally farmed nearby, living in huts rather than caves, but Elizalde made them wear a loincloth and do dog-and-pony shows for paying visitors. The poorer and more primitive they looked, the more money they would get. In one instance, a group of German journalists who set out to document the Tasaday found them dressed primitively, sort of. They were wearing leaves, but they had stuck them onto their clothing which was visible beneath the foliage. Scientific skepticism soon surfaced as well. How could they have remained that isolated for so long, even on Mindanao? Why didn’t modern disease now decimate them? Why did their tools show evidence of steel knife Manufacturing?
Elizalde didn’t back down easily. In an attempt to keep up the charade, he flew a few Tasady to Manila to sue the naysayers for libel. With Marcos ousted, however, Elizalde was less able to influence investigators or control what they had access to. Eminent linguist Lawrence Reed decided that the Tasaday were indeed an offshoot of a regional tribe, but one that had been living in the area for only a hundred and fifty years, not more than a thousand as was claimed. Likely as confused as everyone else at this point, previous tasa day whistleblowers now confessed that translators had bribed them to say the whole thing was a hoax.
Elizalde later fled, squandered his money, and died a drug addict. If he had indeed fabricated the history of the Tasaday, what was his motivation? It could have been a public relations ploy, because the Marcos government had a well-earned reputation for repression. A strong minority rights stance in defense of the Tasaday could be expected to buff some tarnish off the government’s image. Commerce likely played a role, for the Tasaday episode denied huge tracts of jungle to logging interests. Perhaps those interests hadn’t played ball with Marcos and or Elizalde.
Elizalde did not “discover” the Tasaday, but that doesn’t mean they were total fakes. What is clear is that they were pawns in a socio-political chess game far greater than the jungle of Mindanao.
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