Tasaday - Orientation

In 1971 the news story broke of the discovery of a band of cave-dwelling people called "Tasaday," who were said to be living in a secluded area of rain forest in the Philippines. The discovery team was led by Manuel Elizalde Jr., the Filipino politician who headed PANAMIN (Presidential Assistant on National Minorities), the government agency then in charge of all Philippine tribal peoples. These twenty-six Tasaday individuals were reported to be following a Stone-Age life-style, surviving solely on wild foods, and wearing leaves for clothing. They reportedly knew nothing of the outside world, nor of the large village of agriculturalists located just a three-hour walk from their cave home. They knew neither how to hunt nor how to grow food, and ate only what they could forage: roots, wild bananas, grubs, berries, and crabs and frogs fished by hand from small streams. News reports said that they had no pottery, cloth, metal, art, houses, weapons, dogs, or domestic plants. The cave site where they are said to have lived is located in dense rain forest in South Cotabato Province in southern Mindanao, at 6° 18′ N and 124°33′ E, at an elevation of 1,200 meters.

The story gained worldwide attention mainly through the National Geographic Society, both from the publication of their famous cover story on the Tasaday (in National Geographic in 1972), and from their Tasaday film shown repeatedly on television stations worldwide in 1972-73. The fame of the Tasaday spread farther with the publication in 1975 of the book The Gentle Tasaday by American reporter John Nance. Politicians, movie stars, journalists, and film makers were flown in by PANAMIN helicopters to visit the Tasaday for short periods in 1972 and 1973. About a dozen scientists were invited by PANAMIN to visit the site, though only one, ethnobotanist Douglas Yen, was able to stay for more than a few days. (Yen was there for 41 days.) Most of these scientists published short articles in local Philippines publications. Then, in 1974, all contact with the Tasaday was stopped by the PANAMIN authorities. A blanket of silence fell over the Tasaday for thirteen years, until the termination of the Marcos government.

Then, just a month after the fall of Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos in February 1986, sensational reports on the Tasaday again hit the international press, this time saying the whole story was a hoax. Although rumors had quietly circulated in the Philippines academic community for years that the Tasaday were not all they had been made out to be, independent researchers and reporters alike had always been forbidden by Elizalde, PANAMIN, and the Marcos government from investigating these stories or visiting the Tasaday. In the chaotic month following Marcos's downfall, foreign journalists were able to slip into the area. The first was Swiss journalist Oswald Iten. In March of 1986 he found the Tasaday living in houses and wearing regular clothes. But a week later the German magazine Stern sent in their reporters. They photographed the same Tasaday man that Iten had photographed, this time wearing leaves, but with a pair of cloth underpants showing underneath the leaves. In the following months, most of the hundreds of news articles in the worldwide press argued that the Tasaday story was a complete fabrication.

For the public, the issue by the end of the 1980s had been simplistically reduced to two polar alternatives: were the Tasaday (in 1971) a group of primitive isolated foragers living off wild foods alone and unaware of the outside world, or were they rain-forest phonies? As Asiaweek stated in November 1988, the Tasaday discovery is either "one of the major anthropological events of the century," or "the hoax of the decade."

Actually, neither of these extreme views is correct. As anthropologists have analyzed the issues, a consensus perhaps halfway between these viewpoints has developed. The nohoax theorists had by 1991 moved away from the viewpoint that the Tasaday had lived completely isolated in a cave for hundreds of years, that they had a stone-tool technology, that they are windows into the Pleistocene epoch. Some of those anthropologists at the other extreme—those who claimed a hoax—have also retreated from their position that these people were "paid performers" brought in from outside to fake a primitive life-style before scientists and media cameras.

While the thirty or so scholars involved in the controversy in the late 1980s still disagree sharply on many of the details, almost all of them agree that the Tasaday were not following a Paleolithic foraging subsistence. They still disagree as to whether or not the Tasaday were living without iron tools, independently of cultivated foods, and with no interaction with farming peoples. But no scholar argues that they were a Stone Age people. On the other side, no anthropologist today claims that the Tasaday never existed. All seem to agree that they are a genuine minority tribal people who have always lived in South Cotabato in the general vicinity in which they were found in the early 1970s. Disagreement continues, among anthropologists especially, as to whether these twenty-six people (increased to about seventy in 1986) were a separate ethnic population, or merely a group from a nearby Manobo farming village who were asked by PANAMIN officials to live at the cave site whenever visitors were flown in.

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