It’s pretty easy to hoax people. We all want to be deceived, but only up to a point. Some hoaxes are fun and pleasant, others malicious and unpleasant. We’d like a way to tell the difference (Robert Carroll).

Jan 18, 2015

Tasaday People: Noble Savages who never Existed

The Tasaday were a hoax when viewed as a group of paid actors that paraded around the forest wearing leaves.
.... they were authentic if they were viewed as a forest-dwelling group of people caught in the midst of the media.

Thomas Headland, Ethnologist

In 1971, Philippine government minister Manuel Elizalde thrilled the world by saying he had discovered a Stone Age tribe called the Tasaday living in isolation on the island of Mindanao. However, when anthropologists tried to study the tribe, President Ferdinand Marcos declared the area off-limits. After he was deposed in 1986, journalists discovered the Tasaday living just like modern people and they revealed that Elizalde had pressured them into pretending they were primitives. It turned out Elizalde had also fled the Philippines in 1983 with millions of dollars he had stolen from a foundation set up for the Tasaday.

Tasaday Tribe

The Tasaday tribe is an indigenous people of Mindanao, island South of Philippines. They are considered belonging in the Lumad group together with the other indigenous people found in the same island. This group of people were believed to be living in the caves of the Philippine rain forest, secluding themselves to the others, and are not aware of their surroundings. They were wearing only orchid leaves and have their diet with fruits, fishes and insects. This tribe was called Stone Age Tribe because of their way of living, which resembles that of the Stone Age people from the past, and, of course, they use stone tools.

Tasaday language is distinct from that of their neighboring tribes - Manobo in the east and Tboli in the west. They even do not have in their dialect the words war, hate, enemy, conflict and the like. However, in the mid-1980s, according to Linguistics Anthropologist Carol Malony their language was 80% similar to Manobos'.

As of 2008, their population was only 216.


A hunter named Dafal first discovered the tribe while trapping with his father on the island of Mindanao in the Philippines. They were "living the lives of cave men" and they were "unaware that there were other people on the planet."

He returned, leading Philipino official Manuel Elizalde, Jr, where they were met by 26 of the Tasaday.

Manuel Elizalde, former director of Panamin (the Filipino government's agency for routing aid to minorities), and Ferdinand Marcos' Special Assistant for Oversight of Minorities, claimed: "They didn't realize there was a country; they didn't realize there was a sea" beyond Mindanao; "they did not even know what [rice] was."
"They have no words for weapons, hostility or war"; for most of history, the secular story goes, "we lived as the Tasaday," in caves, using stone tools, and hunting and gathering. "Could the Tasaday have been alone in their caves for ten thousand years? It was a tantalizing idea."

Further, "they couldn't have come along at a better time." An "interest in primal mankind" came out of the 1960s hippie movement. According to anthropologist Alan Barnard, "People thought the Tasaday were primal," thus satisfying the expectations that such cultures must have existed, if not now, at least in the distant past.

But finding a primal culture in the present was much more exciting than theorizing about the past. "National Geographic magazine devoted 32 pages" to the Tasaday who were "instant celebrities." One month later, NBC news correspondent Jack Reynolds introduced Tasaday to a "national television audience."
Because of the discovery of these very primitive people, then president Marcos set aside 19000 acres of surrounding dense forestlands as a reserve. Access was restricted and all visitors had to be escorted by Elizalde.

Reasonable Doubts

"The image of the Tasaday was firmly fixed," but in August, 1972, ethnobotanist Douglas Yen visited the Tasaday to study how they used plants in their culture. Yen's analysis of the Tasaday diet showed "low levels of carbohydrates and proteins." Evidently the Tasaday did not lead the easy life initially depicted in news reports but had to search long and hard for sustenance. In addition, the Tasaday claimed never to have met the nearby Blit or T'boli tribes, "but maybe their ancestors had." Yen checked on this possibility, finding that the Tasaday had no agriculture and used a smaller variety of plants than would normally be expected for a culture situated in the tropics for millennia.

In September, 1972, linguistic anthropologist Carol Molony accompanied Yen in a visit to the Tasaday. Molony and Yen planned to "learn about their past from their language," but 80% of the Tasaday vocabulary was like the Manobo language, so "the idea that the Tasaday had been lost in their caves" for thousands of years "disappeared." The Tasaday language, it was decided, must have split from the Manobo about 1200 AD. They were "not originally cave men at all, it seemed," but they "had become them."

Now Elizalde put limits on visits and prevented certain questions from being asked of them. "Meanwhile, there always seemed to be time for the press and their helicopters." In 1974, Elizalde prohibited all visits.

Finally in 1986, the Marcos regime collapsed, and visits were possible again. A Swiss journalist went to the old Tasaday site. The Tasaday told him that "they were really from the T'boli and Blit people, and [the ABC news program] 20/20 exposed the hoax [in a program] `The Tribe That Never Was'."

20/20 producer Judith Moses said that the Tasaday were warned when visitors were coming so they could pretend to be primitive. According to rumors in the Philippine press, the Tasaday hoax was part of a plot by Marcos and Elizalde to strip tribal peoples of their lands. On the other hand, Elizalde accused loggers of lying about the Tasaday being fake, so the loggers could resume the harvesting of timber which had been stopped when the Tasaday were discovered. However, the Elizalde family was one of the richest in the Philippines, with investments in land and logging.

In 1988, Elizalde brought the Tasaday to Manila to prove their authenticity in court. Was he saving face, or was he sincere? Fourteen scientists in the early 1970s who saw the Tasaday never suggested that they were a hoax.

In 1989, Yen and Molony continued to insist that the Tasaday are genuine. Yet the Tasaday claimed to be ignorant of other tribes only a three hour walk away.

In 1988, at the World Congress of Anthropology, Gerald Berreman noted that observers meeting the Tasaday "went" with "an idee fixe" in love with the concept of the noble savage. Their caves had no remains of food, "an impossibility" for a tribe living in the caves for thousands of years. They had no fishing technology, they had to catch fish by hand, and they had no "carrying" technology -- no nets or baskets, and no rituals or folklore. These deficiencies are not "anthropologically believable" and are "not authentic." The Tasaday seem to have been invented by Elizalde "perhaps just for glory."

In Berreman's view, "The evidence leaves no doubt in my mind that the entire Tasaday episode has been a deliberate deception, a hoax ... Vulnerable villagers ... were induced to cavort, clad in leaves, as cave-dwellers before outsiders during brief, preannounced visits."

Duke University professor Martin Lewis summarized the Tasaday episode by writing: "Most glaring is the case of the Tasaday … famed for both their gentle ways and their total freedom from corrupting exterior contact. The discovery of this stone-age remnant now appears to have been an outright fraud.

The Tasaday site had no traces of old stone tools either. "[W]here did the stone tools go? If they had been using them for hundreds of years, wouldn't there be at least a few left lying around? None were reported found." The Tasaday had no agricultural foods at all, a condition very much unexpected for a people living in the wild for centuries or millennia. "Were [the Tasaday] simply lying" about their primitivity? Yet Molony saw the lack of agricultural foods as evidence that the Tasaday are genuine.

According to Molony, "they would have to carefully exclude from their speech" all the "rich complex" of agricultural metaphors present in all languages, if in fact they really were modern farmers. And children would need to have been accomplices in this hoax, watching their vocabulary, too -- "even more impossible," Molony asserted.

Yen claimed that the Tasaday children could not even identify a rice plant he showed them; their "surprise could not have been faked." Were Molony and Yen victims of evolutionary expectations of primitivity that caused them to overlook tell-tale clues they should have noticed? Or are their assertions valid?

On the other hand, "[I]f the T'bolis lived so close to their Tasaday neighbors," how could they not have known of them? ... [T]he Tasaday story remains a perplexing one. ... They told NBC they were real ... they told ABC they were fake ... They've told Philippine television they were real ... and British television they were fake."

Final Assessment

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. However, 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.

The Tasaday Controversy: Assessing the Evidence" is the title of a book by anthropologist Thomas
Headland. According to Headland, the Tasaday were not paid performers, but there were gross exaggerations because scientists were "excited" about what they were finding. Headland pointed out that ideas about hunter/gatherers have changed since the late 1960s. In 1968, anthropologists decided that hunter/gatherers, though primitive, "lived a very affluent lifestyle," and it was then that the Tasaday were discovered.

According to Headland, "for some reason they broke off" from the Manobo people in the nineteenth century, possibly because they were hiding from slave traders or fleeing a plague of disease. Headland also proposed that the Tasaday in fact occasionally traded with their farming neighbors down the river.
Despite sporadic contact, "Perhaps by 1971, the Tasaday really did believe they were the only human beings on the planet." By 1989, intermarriage with the Manobo had increased the number of Tasaday to 62 people.

Were the Tasaday a deliberate hoax engineered by Elizalde, or is Headland's milder judgment correct? Regardless of the answer, one sobering fact remains. The false premise that there must be primitive evolving races conditioned scientists to "see" what they believed. The Tasaday were seen as an ancient Stone Age people, when they were no such thing.

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