19 may. 2011

The Tasaday of the Philippines

Name: Tasaday
Living Area: Mindanao Island, Philippines
Population: 24 (1971)
Language: Tasaday dialect of Manobo
The Tasaday (tɑˈsɑdɑj) 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.

Known by their: hoaxed isolation
The Tasaday were first contacted in June 1971 by Manuel Elizalde's team, by that time head of the PANAMIN, the Philippine government agency created in 1968 to protect the interests of cultural minorities.
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.
And AP photographer John Nance wrote a bestselling book about them titled The Gentle Tasaday. What most captivated the world about the Tasaday was their peacefulness. It was said they knew no words for enemy or conflict. They seemed to be an uncorrupted version of Man, living in a rain-forest Garden of Eden. Their gentleness was especially striking in 1971 when images of violence and horror were coming daily out of Vietnam.
In April 1972, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos declared 19,000 acres (182 km²) of land surrounding the Tasaday's ancestral caves as the Tasaday/Manobo Blit Preserve. By this time, eleven anthropologists had studied the Tasaday in the field, but none for more than six weeks, and in 1976, Marcos closed the preserve to all visitors.
One of the reasons for the closing was a number of suspicions that arose. Apparently, their dead were left in the forest under a layer of leaves, yet no bones, compost, or the like were found. Secondly, although the Tasaday had claimed to be living in the jungle at their cave shelter full time, there was no garbage or sign of human waste. Elizalde claimed that among the 24 remaining Tasaday, there was no wife-sharing, adultery, or divorce. Their diet was claimed to be all forage, i.e., wild fruit, palm pith, forest yams, tadpoles, grubs, and roots. The calories in such a diet are less than the amount needed for survival, so they should have been paper thin. The apparent yams that they survived on were experiencing a shortage around the area where they lived. When dietitians and health advisors suggested further research, they were promptly banned from the Tasaday's home.
After President Marcos was deposed in 1986, Swiss anthropologist and journalist Oswald Iten, accompanied by Joey Lozano (a journalist from South Cotabato) and Datu Galang Tikaw (a member of the T'boli tribe to serve as chief translator, though he did not speak Tasaday), made an unauthorized investigation to the Tasaday caves where they spent about two hours with six Tasaday.
Upon returning from the forest, Iten and Lozano reported the caves deserted and further claimed the Tasaday were simply members of known local tribes who put on the appearance of living a Stone Age lifestyle under pressure from Elizalde. He said that: "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."
Iten found the Tasaday’s caves empty and the tribe members living in huts nearby, dressed in jeans and t-shirts, living a simple, but certainly not primitive, lifestyle. Upon questioning them (using Lozano as a translator), two of the Tasaday admitted to Iten that they weren’t really a stone-age tribe and never had been. They claimed that Elizalde had pressured them into posing as one. “We didnt live in caves, only near them, until we met Elizalde,” they said. “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 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.”
Iten’s discovery sent shockwaves around the world — a fake stone-age tribe managed to surprise even the most jaded newspaper readers — and soon reporters were once again making the journey out into the Filipino rain forest to visit the Tasaday.
Adding an element of sad comedy to the unfolding story, a group of German journalists who arrived within days of Iten’s departure found the Tasaday back at their caves dressed in leaves. But upon closer inspection the Germans noticed cloth garments peeking out from beneath the Tasaday’s leaves, as if the Tasaday, caught unaware by Iten, had hastily decided to resume the act of being a stone-age tribe, but weren’t quite sophisticated enough to pull it off without outside coaching and so had simply pulled on leaves over their clothes.
Researchers, searching for evidence of a hoax, now realized there were many unanswered questions about the Tasaday. For instance, was it really believable that the Tasaday had been isolated for a thousand years given that they lived only a few miles away from a nearby village? Why did the Tasaday seem to be resistant to modern diseases? (Their isolation should have left them with little resistance.) Why had Elizalde so tightly controlled access to the tribe? And why did many of their instruments and utensils appear to have been cut with steel knives if they lacked all knowledge of steel?
Faced with questions like these, and armed with confessions from the Tasaday themselves, the media decided the matter was settled. The Tasaday were dismissed as a hoax, an outrageous publicity stunt dreamed up by Marcos and his cronies to put a gentle face on the country’s totalitarian government. This judgement was expressed in documentaries such as Scandal, the Lost Tribe and The Tribe That Never Was. And so the tribe became the laughing stock of the world. Iten dubbed them the Philippine equivalent of a Swiss yodeling society.

The Revenge of the Tasaday
Despite the overthrow of Marcos, Elizalde continued to wield enough influence in the Philippines to mount a vigorous pro-Tasaday campaign. He led the defense of the Tasaday when the Philippine Congress investigated the hoax claims in 1987 (the Congress eventually decided the issue was best left to scientists, not politicians, to decide), and in 1988 he flew members of the Tasaday to Manila so that they could file a lawsuit against the Philippine professors who were calling them a hoax. This made the Tasaday the first stone-age tribe to ever sue for libel! These efforts paid off when, also in 1988, Philippine president Corazon Aquino declared that the Tasaday were a “legitimate Stone Age tribe.” (It’s rumored that one of Aquino’s speechwriters was a personal friend of Elizalde.)
Elizalde could exert political and legal pressure to defend the Tasaday, but these tactics had little effect on scientific opinion. But increasing numbers of scientists were won over to the pro-Tasaday side by the fieldwork of researchers such as Lawrence Reid of the University of Hawaii who lived with the Tasaday for extended periods throughout the 1990s.
Reid studied the Tasaday language and concluded that it was not fake or recently invented. He identified their language as a dialect of Cotabato Manobo (which was not the language spoken by the nearby farming community from which, according to the hoax theory, they had been recruited). However, Reid also concluded that the Tasaday had not been isolated for a thousand years. He speculated that they had splintered off from the Cotabato Manobo community approximately 150 to 200 years ago, perhaps fleeing into the jungle to escape an outbreak of disease.
Reid’s linguistic evidence was compelling, but there was one damning piece of evidence that supporters of the Tasaday still had to account for: the Tasaday’s own confession that they were a hoax. How to explain this away? This puzzle was answered when two members of the Tasaday admitted that, yes, they had made such a confession, but also insisted that they had been bribed by a translator to make the confession. And why would the translator have done such a thing? Friends of the Tasaday credited this to the anti-Marcos sentiment that ran high in the Philippines in 1986. There were many who were eager to tear down anything associated with Marcos, and since the Tasaday had been considered a showpiece of his regime, a means by which he projected an idyllic view of the Philippines to the outside world, they became a target of choice for Marcos’s detractors.
This became the version of the Tasaday story promoted by friends of the Tasaday. The Tasaday, they said, were a real tribe, but they had been the victims of the downfall of Marcos. In other words, the claim that they were a hoax was itself the real hoax! Enemies of Marcos had relentlessly smeared the Tasaday as a way to get back at Marcos. These enemies included loggers who were eager to gain access to the Tasaday rainforest, a desire that had been stymied when Marcos declared it a protected reserve. If the Tasaday were deemed a hoax, the tribe’s rights to the reserve would vanish, and the loggers could move in. So, as the friends of the Tasaday explained, there was a powerful financial incentive to make the world believe the Tasaday were a fake stone-age tribe.

To know more about them:
Allen W. Palmer. Primitives Among Us. Science Communication. March 1, 2000: 223-243.
John Nance. The Gentle Tasaday: A Stone Age People in the Philippine Rain Forest. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 1975.
Hemley, Robin. Invented Eden: The Elusive, Disputed History of the Tasaday. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2003.

© Text and image: Wikipedia, www.museumofhoaxes.com, National Geographic

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