Tasaday - Some Little-Known Facts

While the above is a plausible but still hypothetical description of Tasaday history, there are some facts that have recently emerged concerning the pre-1970 Tasaday that indicate that the journalists, if not the early scientists, exaggerated the "primitiveness" of the Tasaday and led the public to assume that they were more isolated than they actually were. These eight facts, which no anthropologist disputes, are listed below. Explanation and documentation for these may be found in the 1991 volume by Headland that is listed in the bibliography at the end of this article.

  1. The Tasaday were not wearing leaves when discovered in 1971, as the public was led to believe. They were wearing commercial cloth. They were asked at that time by Elizalde to discard their cloth and to "wear their traditional" coverings. Thereafter, published films and photographs always showed them either naked or wearing orchid leaves.
  2. The Tasaday had trade goods before they were discovered in 1971; they were not isolated, out of contact with the modern world, or Paleolithic. Besides cloth, they had, for example, brass, metal-tipped arrows, bows made from cultivated (not wild) bamboo, iron bush knives, imported baskets, glass beads, and tin cans.
  3. Farming peoples in nearby towns were eating meat from wild game that had been killed and smoke-dried by Tasaday before 1971. This was probably an important trade item the Tasaday exchanged for the goods above. Wild meat is a main trade product exchanged for cultivated foods by tropical forest hunter-gatherers all over the world.
  4. The South Cotabato rain forest lacks sufficient wild plant foods to sustain a pure foraging group. The evidence is strong for this. Although the Tasaday ate wild fruits, roots, palm pith, etc., these are so widely scattered and difficult to harvest that foragers could not depend on such resources to provide adequate carbohydrate needs unless they also had access to some cultivated starch foods.
  5. No one ever observed the Tasaday subsisting on wild foods. It was assumed a priori that their diet was based solely on nondomestic foods, and the original dozen scientists never learned otherwise during their fieldwork periods there in the 1970s. But from June 1971 they ate rice, often two and sometimes three times per day, during the periods when the scientists were there. What is significant is that the rice was often given to them secretly by the PANAMIN staff. The scientists, not knowing this, thought the Tasaday were fulfilling their nutritional needs from wild foods. It was not until later that a few of them discovered that rice was being smuggled to the Tasaday.
  6. The Tasaday stone tools displayed in Manila and shown in photographs were not genuine tools. The Tasaday were said to have had three simple stone tools in 1971, but these were reportedly taken to Manila by Elizalde, where they strangely disappeared. They were never photographed, and no one has seen them since. The stone tools subsequently published in photographs and displayed in the PANAMIN Museum in Manila were made by Manobo Tasaday at the request of PANAMIN personnel for the benefit of newspaper correspondents. The Tasaday may have used some stone in their technology, but they did not use stone tools in the sophisticated way that humans did during the Upper Paleolithic period.
  7. The Tasaday do not speak a separate language or an unintelligible dialect. They speak a dialect of the nearby Cotabato Manobo language. About 85 percent of Tasaday words are identical to Manobo. The percentage of shared cognates would, of course, be much higher. In 1989, Tasaday conversations tape-recorded in 1972 were played by linguist Clay Johnston in several Manobo villages. The Manobo had no trouble understanding them, although they did notice that the "tune" (i.e., the accent) was different. It is important to note, however, that all the linguists who reviewed the Tasaday language data agree that the Tasaday speak a separate dialect of Manobo. Their speech is not identical with Manobo speech. This suggests that the Tasaday have lived geographically separate from Manobo people for at least 100 to 150 years. The Tasaday speak a dialect of Cotabato Manobo, one of more than twenty languages making up the Manobo Subgroup of the Southern Philippine Austronesian Language Family.
  8. The bamboo in which the Tasaday cooked their food was cultivated bamboo ( Dinochloa spp.), not wild bamboo. This bamboo could not have come from the rain forest. They either planted it themselves or got it from Manobo farmers. Since the Tasaday were using a cultivar for their cooking vessels, they could not have been as ignorant of agriculture as was originally claimed.

The above eight points do not prove that the Tasaday were "a hoax"; in fact, the linguistic data (point 7) support the no-hoax theory. These points do indicate that they were not as isolated and "primitive" as first reported. The media circus surrounding the story was more the fault of the news reporters and PANAMIN officials than that of the original dozen scientists, who were much more conservative in their analyses. Discoveries of lost Stone-Age cavemen make for great press coverage, but poor science.

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