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Tasaday: The Stone-Age Tribe That Never Was

It was the biggest hoax of the century that fooled the world.
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In 1971, the Philippines shocked the world when a surviving prehistoric tribe was reportedly found in the rainforests of Mindanao. 

National media outlets from around the world feasted on the discovery. Some of the headlines read: “Primitive Stone-Age Tribe Discovered in the Philippines.” “Stone-Age Tribe in the Philippines is Imperiled.” “Lost Tribe of Tree-Swinging People Discovered in the Philippines.”

The news had all the hallmarks of exaggeration: The Tasaday spoke no known languages, dressed in animal fur, lived in a cave for centuries, and had no contact from the outside world until then.

The New York Times ran a story about the Tasaday, describing how they were such savages they had no word for the sea because they have never seen it. 

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“These people, who probably number fewer than 100, were discovered by modern man only last summer. They are food gatherers and hunters with no knowledge of agriculture and no way of working metal. There is no word in their language for the sea, or for another people,” wrote the New York Times

To this day, the stone-age Tasaday tribe remains the biggest government hoax ever uncovered. But how and why did the Philippines fabricate such a story?

How the Tasaday Hoax Came to Be

The Tasaday hoax started with Manuel Elizalde, Jr., who headed Panamin, a government agency created in 1968 to protect cultural minorities. Panamin stood for Presidential Assistant on National Minorities.

In July 1971, Elizalde announced he discovered a primitive cultural minority living in the jungles surrounding Lake Sebu in Mindanao. A local hunter named Dafal allegedly had sporadic encounters with the primitive tribe while hunting for food. 

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‘They have no words for weapons, hostility, or war.’

According to the official story peddled by the government, a hunter named Dafal encountered the Tasaday while trapping in South Cotabato in Mindanao. Dafal described them as “living the lives of cavemen” and “unaware that there were other people on the planet”. 

Dafal allegedly accompanied Elizalde to the location of the tribe. Elizalde, in turn, announced the discovery and painted a highly romanticized picture of a Garden of Eden with stone-age tribesmen living in isolation for more than 1,000 years. 

“They have no words for weapons, hostility, or war,” said Elizalde. “They didn’t even realize there was a country. They didn’t realize there was a sea. They did not even know what rice was.” 

The Tasadays were marketed as ‘noble savages’ whose technology did not evolve beyond primitive tools. Elizalde depicted them as gentle, nature-loving people. No less than the National Geographic picked up this propaganda when it named its feature story, “The Gentle Tasaday: A Stone Age People in the Philippine Rain Forest.”

Visits to the Tasaday Banned

In 1972, President Ferdinand Marcos declared 182 square kilometers of land surrounding the Tasaday cave as Tasaday ancestral land. 

But in the same year, one scientist named Carol Maloney told news outlets about his skepticism on the Tasaday, particularly their diet. According to Maloney, there were anomalies in the diet and language of the Tasaday, and the claim that they had lived in isolation for 1,000 years was doubtful. 

But as international media focused its sights on the huge discovery, Elizalde thought it wise to limit the visitations to the tribe’s territory. In 1976, Marcos prohibited access to the Tasaday lands. Panamin guards were stationed around the site and barred people from interacting with the Tasaday. It was seen as an attempt to avoid further scrutiny by scientists and media. 

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Some suspected the Tasaday propaganda was part of a plot by Elizalde to grab land. Visits to the site would only resume in 1986, after the fall of Marcos. 

How the Tasaday Hoax Was Discovered

It came from the mouths of the tribesmen themselves: “He forced us to live in caves,” recounted one of the men who were interviewed after the 1986 EDSA Revolution. 

It was also discovered that one of the stone-age tribesmen of Tasaday had relatives living in the nearby town. 

Swiss journalist Oswald Iten did some digging, and he was shocked about what he found out. 

“We didn’t live in caves, only near them, until we met Elizalde. He forced us to live in the caves so we’d become better cavemen,” a Tasaday man told Iten. 

According to Iten’s sources, the Tasaday lived in the mountainside and were farmers, until Elizadle came into the picture. 

“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,” said one of the Tasadays interviewed by Iten. 

“He gave us money to pose as Tasaday and promised us security from counterinsurgency and tribal fighting.”

In 1988, members of the Tasaday tribe flew to Manila to file a case against journalists who labeled Elizalde’s discovery as “fake.” They eventually won the case, with the court declaring them as a legitimate stone-age tribe. 

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Many anthropologists today believe the Tasaday as a stone-age tribe was a hoax, but they concede that the people as an indigenous tribe are authentic. Anthropologist Thomas Headland believes the truth is a mixture of both. 

“The Tasaday were a hoax when viewed as a group of paid actors that paraded around the forest wearing leaves, but they were authentic if they were viewed as a forest-dwelling group of people caught in the midst of the media,” Headland concluded in his 2009 story titled "The Tasaday Controversy: Assessing The Evidence."

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Mario Alvaro Limos
Features Editor, Esquire Philippines
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