Deconstructing the Tasaday Tribe
Some say this tribe of "gentle savages", discovered in 1971, was just a hoax. The truth isn't quite so simple.
by Brian Dunning
October 27, 2015
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Also available in Italian
Dafal was a semi-nomadic trapper in the southern part of the Philippine island of Mindanao. Throughout the 1960s, he had sporadic contact with a group of some two dozen people living in stone-age conditions, who knew Dafal as the only other person in the world. He brought them steel knives, and taught them better hunting techniques. Eventually Dafal alerted the Philippine government, who sent their special representative in charge of national minority groups, Manuel Elizalde, Jr. The people Elizalde found amazed him. They were completely isolated and knew nothing of the outside world. What followed was a media explosion. The Tasaday, an undiscovered stone-age tribe, became worldwide celebrities almost overnight.
That was in 1971. Fifteen years later, the Tasaday story was turned on its head when Swiss and German journalists caught them wearing modern clothes and living in wooden huts, hurriedly changing for the camera. But most damningly, the Tasaday told the film crews that Elizalde had paid them back in 1971 to take their clothes off and pretend to be a stone age tribe. A 1988 anthropology conference brought the question to the firing line, and mountains of evidence were produced, seemingly proving that the entire thing had been a hoax, probably orchestrated by the wealthy Elizalde, who (it was claimed) hoped to create a protected reserve to secure mining and timber rights for himself.
The original 1971 scientists were flabbergasted, incredulous that they could have been duped. Neither side would budge. The question was left as an open rift with anything but a consensus. The rift gaped for years; and by then, the Tasaday had integrated substantially with neighboring tribes and new research was no longer possible. And then, little by little, the old evidence was re-examined. The language was studied in closer detail. And today, a theory for the enigmatic Tasaday has emerged that seems to be what probably happened. And it may come as a surprise to many.
A note on pronunciation. From watching the films and videos, one learns that the Western scientists and media people tend to say ta-SAH-dye, while the locals and the translators tend to say TASS-a-dye. It seems to me the latter is more likely correct, so that's what I'm going to use here.
Language, in fact, turns out to be key to this mystery. Linguists established that the Tasaday tongue was a unique dialect of a local language called Cotabato Manobo. And it's here we introduce a branch of linguistic science I had not heard of before: glottochronology. It's a way of measuring the age of a language, by counting the number of changes that accumulate over time, compared to the language from which it broke off. Glottochronology gives us a way to estimate how long ago that separation took place. Teodoro Llamzon, one of the 1971 linguists, came up with an estimate of 800 years. And so 800 years became the generally accepted and reported amount of time that the Tasaday had been isolated. This remained the theory for fifteen years. In all, fourteen scientists studied the Tasaday first-hand in the 1970s — including ethnobotanists, linguists, archaeologists, and anthropologists — and none had any doubts of their authenticity.
And then, journalist Oswald Iten caught the Tasaday with their pants on, so to speak. Two Tasaday, through a translator named Galang, told a 20/20 film crew they were actually hired from two local tribes, the Blit Manobo and the T'boli, and paid to act like cave dwellers. Things quickly unraveled. Scientists who had always been skeptical came out of the woodwork. It was at the International Congress on Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences in Zagreb in 1988 where everything hit the fan. In one camp were the 1971 scientists, and authors such as John Nance who had written The Gentle Tasaday; and in the other were TV producers such as 20/20's Judith Moses who had just completed The Tribe that Never Was, plus a raft of scientists of various disciplines who pointed to all kinds of holes in the Tasaday canon. Charges of deceit and gullibility nearly overwhelmed the congress. In this environment, cooler heads prevailed and stood to present the proof that the Tasaday were a hoax in black and white. Listen to some of the arguments presented at the congress:
- Where they lived was only a three hour walk from agricultural communities; yet they claimed not to be aware of their existence.
- The cave where they lived was unlike any cave dwelling known to archaeology, in that it was clean swept and contained no trash or evidence of habitation or food preparation.
- They claimed to be gatherers, yet possessed no baskets or other carrying technology, relying only on their hands.
- They had no hunting or fishing technology of any kind, again relying only on their hands.
- Unlike any other culture known, they had no rituals, no religion, no folklore, no chief, no experts or specialists or shaman.
- Significantly, they had not suffered any outbreak of disease from their 1971 contact, which would surely have been the case if they had indeed been isolated for centuries.
Gerald Berreman, an anthropologist and ethicist who was a champion of the hoax explanation, presented these objections as proof that the Tasaday story was simply full of too many holes. He had not studied them in person, but found that the picture that had been drawn of their culture was too implausible scientifically, and was likely gilded up by Elizalde for the benefit of Westerners who were, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, culturally obsessed with the hippie movement and a return to nature, craving a lifestyle that rejected technology and civilization. Berreman's presentation was thorough, convincing, and devastating.
Berreman's particular style of attack against the authenticity of the Tasaday had one important effect on the field: it cleared away all the ideological baggage. For what he said was pregnant with truth: Nance's book, plus an iconic National Geographic article, and the public embracing of the Tasaday had always been colored with shades of the Gentle Primitive who had no words for enemy or war. Had we been so obsessed with what we wanted the Tasaday to be, that we lost sight of what the evidence showed they actually were?
Then, the same two Tasaday who had confessed the hoax to 20/20 recanted, and told a BBC film crew that Galang, the translator, had paid them in cigarettes to tell the hoax story to fool the 20/20 crew. People became less sure of what they thought they believed.
It was in this newly cleared field that the scientists began to take another more objective view of the evidence that had been gathered. Their simple tools, which seemed ridiculously flimsy and more like props to the hoax believers, turned out to be no flimsier and cruder than tools from similar cultures who used them for a short time for simple tasks. And once again, the language rose to the surface as a focus of the investigation. Hoax proponents had pointed out at least one flaw in the Tasaday language: that it contained several foreign words. The Tasaday could not have learned these words if they'd been isolated. But sociolinguist Carol Molony had discovered, in 1972, that they'd learned these words from Dafal. A similar deeper review of each anomaly found that plausible explanations like this consistently solved each puzzle.
Lawrence Reid is a linguist who has done substantial research into the Tasaday language since the controversy at the 1988 congress in Zagreb. What he determined is that the Tasaday dialect is indeed separate from the Manobo spoken elsewhere. It bears the markers of a genuine independent dialect, and it is not plausible for the Tasaday to have been hoaxing the original scientists. Experienced linguists are able to identify many patterns within a language that are not readily apparent even to native speakers; and by careful logging of conversations over many weeks with all the Tasaday, including children unsophisticated in the arts of deception, no slip-ups were caught that would have revealed they were faking a dialect. Ethnobotanist Douglas Yen had used similar techniques on the Tasaday children in the 1970s, and was easily able to tell which plants they knew and which they did not. The Tasaday were definitely not acquainted with cultivated crops.
Moreover, glottochronological techniques had improved in the intervening decades, and linguists were able to refine the statistical models. The new estimated date of separation for the Tasaday was only about 150 years before their rediscovery. Previously, sociologists had speculated that the reason the Tasaday originally split off from their village and retreated into a remote wilderness was to escape an epidemic of disease, or perhaps a tribal dispute of some kind. But the new date, indicating a split sometime in the 1800s, suggested an even darker possibility. It was a time in which both European and Asian slave raiders were actively hacking through the jungles and capturing tribesmen; sometimes whole villages. It is entirely possible that the Tasaday descended from people hiding for their very lives.
To a limited degree, Manuel Elizalde's involvement as a hoax perpetrator was a red herring. It is now clear that he encouraged exaggeration of the Tasaday's primitivity for the 1970s media; for example, they did typically wear manufactured fabric, but Elizalde persuaded them to take it off for the scientists and the original media. The Tasaday had, evidently, engaged in limited trade with Dafal and others, and probably had for the duration of their century-and-a-half history. Elizalde, as a millionaire crony of the corrupt dictator, was broadly distrusted, probably rightfully so; but there is no evidence that he profited from the Tasaday as the hoax proponents charged. His influence on the case appears to be little more than some camera-friendly embellishments.
As best we can tell, the Tasaday were part of the Blit Manobo until they fled sometime in the 1800s, probably with very good reason, and like many other groups did throughout the Philippines. They maintained a cautious relationship with selected friends as needed for basic trade items. As generations passed, the deliberate isolation that began as a necessity evolved into a way of life. Eventually the inevitable collision with modern society happened, and the descendants coped as best they could. Dafal may have told them one thing, Elizalde another, the film crews still another; but through it all, they simply did what they did, and coped like any of us would. If someone asked something strange of them, they did their best to oblige. That some in the West might consider their small society a kind of Utopian Eden was not something that entered their minds, nor did the fact that people were arguing over them in a conference room in Croatia. Today they live in elevated huts, in surplus Western clothes, smoking cigarettes and plowing their fields, happily intermarried with the Manobo, and probably marveling that anyone was ever interested in them at all. And so fades away the story of the Tasaday, and of a controversy they scarcely comprehended.
By Brian Dunning
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Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Deconstructing the Tasaday Tribe." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
27 Oct 2015. Web.
18 Oct 2017. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4490>
References & Further Reading
Berreman, G. "The Incredible Tasaday: Deconstructing the Myth of a Stone-Age People. Romanticizing the Stone Age." Cultural Survival Quarterly. 1 Apr. 1991, Volume 15, Number 1.
Boese, A. "The Stone-Age Tasaday." The Museum of Hoaxes. Alex Boese, 10 Sep. 2014. Web. 14 Oct. 2015. <http://hoaxes.org/archive/permalink/the_stone-age_tasaday>
Headland, T. The Tasaday Controversy: Assessing the Evidence. Washington, DC: American Anthropological Association, 1992. 216-218.
Nance, J. The Gentle Tasaday: A Stone Age People in the Philippine Rain Forest. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975.
NOVA. The Lost Tribe. WGBH Boston: Public Broadcasting Service, 1993.
Reid, L. Another Look at the Language of the Tasaday. Honolulu: Keynote lecture presented to the 3rd Annual Conference of the Southeast Asian Linguistic Society (SEALS III), 1993.
Scott, W. Slavery in the Spanish Philippines. Manila: De La Salle University Press, 1991.
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