The Tasaday Mystery Solved

Robin Hemley, author of Invented Eden: The Elusive, Disputed History of the Tasaday is currently in Manila helping the BBC with a feature film about the controversial Tasaday of Mindanao which made me dig up my review of the book and check out the one overlooked piece of data that convinces me that the Tasaday’s own history of themselves is genuine.

Here’s the review. with some updating:

Not since the Piltdown Man hoax in England have so many solid reputations been destroyed by a scientific issue as the Tasaday controversy in the Philippines. Invented Eden is an effective antidote for those who believe the gentle people discovered in a South Cotabato backwater in 1971 were a Stone Age tribe isolated from mainstream humanity for millennia. It is also an effective antidote to those who want to believe that the whole sorry affair was simply a confidence trick.

Hemley, an English professor at the University of Utah when he wrote the book and currently a professor at Iowa University is better known as a fiction writer, which may be why so much of Invented Eden reads like a particularly complex detective story, one that takes the reader on a twisting journey in which each firm foothold seems to crumble to dust the moment it is touched. He captures the flavour of the Philippines and its cultures with exactitude, a country and people of enormous extremes in which a multitude of greys stand bodyguard to every truth.

Writing with passion and fondness, Hemley begins with the initial reports of the discovery of the Tasaday in 1971. They attracted the attention of Manda Elizalde, a complex, wealthy Forbes Park brat with a bad attitude, a squad of goons, and possibly a touch of insanity, who ran PANAMIN, at first a private foundation and later an agency under the Marcos government charged with helping the country’s tribal minorities. It also caught the attention of John Nance, an Associated Press photographer whose experiences amid the horrors of Vietnam led him to a desk job at AP’s Manila office.

For Nance, the Tasaday were the antithesis of the hatred of Vietnam, it became an article of faith, a hope for mankind. It would also become the cross upon which his integrity and honesty would be crucified. As for Manda Elizalde, his agenda was, and remains, far from clear.

The Tasaday seemed to be too good to be true. Sure enough, claims that the whole thing was a hoax quickly surfaced, followed again by a media feeding frenzy that largely ignored the agendas of the hoax proponents. For many of them, the Tasaday were not an undiscovered Eden but a symbol of the corrupt and murderous Marcos regime. For others, the presence of a real Tasaday tribe blocked their ambitions to log out the Tasaday reserve, so the Tasaday must be a hoax.

Hemley digs through the mass of documents, reports, interviews and artifacts like an enthusiastic terrier seeking out an elusive ferret. The ferret in this case being the truth about the Tasaday. He also explores the language we use to describe ourselves and others and how that language is coloured by preconceptions and agendas and the desire on one hand to believe that truth is a fixed value and on the other that truth is a variable as liquid as mercury.

Hemley sets off to meet the Tasaday himself and gathers evidence that they are, indeed, suspect, but the pendulum begins to swing the other way on a return visit years later, as the truth again plays hide-and-seek.

The Tasaday became a mirror, a mirage, and a metaphor that demand a more than casual examination of their complex truths and the false Eden they inhabited. So does Hemley’s Invented Eden.

I remember the early reports on television of the discovery of a ‘stone-age’ tribe living in the forests of Mindanao and the subsequent documentary about them. Somehow, it didn’t feel ‘right’. Sure enough, soon came a documewentary claiming it was a hoax, The Tribe That Never Was. Over the years I dipped in and out of the story until I read Hemley’s book and realised that there was more to the story than the often-polemical tracts about the Tasaday.

Elizalde died in 1997. Posthumously, a myth was created that he “…died in Costa Rica addicted to drugs and impoverished”. He actually died in Manila of leukemia.

Whatever the psychology of the participants, the questions remains: Were the Tasaday manufactured out of whole cloth or did they pre-exist their ‘discovery’ in the 1960s?

What do the Tasaday say of their own history?

They say they went into isolation to escape a disease they called ‘fugu’. The symptoms they describe fit smallpox. Faced with a similar situation 14th century Great Plague in Europe, which killed 75 million people, many small communities did much the same.

They say they separated themselves some six generations before the 1970s. That would work out at around 150 years.

They used stone tools, were able to make them, and wore leaf clothing (And more modern clothing at times). Stone tools require quite a sophisticate knowledge and experience, as indeed, does making leaf ‘breech-cloths’. Archaeological digs elsewhere show that different technologies were use by different groups at the same time. Archaeological digs show the ‘bronze’ culture co-existed with a ‘stone’ culture almost side-by-side in the Philippines. Significantly, leaf-clothes were seen in Sarangani Bay in the 1800s.

In other words, there is nothing unlikely about the existence of a stone-tool using, leaf-wearing culture, being in Cotabato around the time the Tasaday say they separated themselves.

In 1993 Thomas Headland wrote: “Today anthropologists agree that the widely-hailed story that these people were Stone Age cavemen living in isolation for hundreds of years is patently false. In that sense, it was a hoax. On the other hand, however, the non-hoax element is that there was a small community of people called Tasaday that really exists and who were living as a separate–but not isolated–group of hunters and food gatherers in the rain forest of the southern Philippines. While there are still some uncertainties about just how the Tasaday lived before they were ‘discovered’ in 1971, we may at least conclude today that these 26 people were neither uncontacted Stone-Age cave dwellers nor farmers brought into the forest and paid to imitate a crude lifestyle of archaic prehistoric Man.

The evidence we have [in 1993] suggests that the Tasaday were a group of hunter-gatherers. But rather than being ultra-primitives, they lived during the first half of the twentieth century much like other hunter-gatherer groups in Southeast Asia. They thus had iron tools and did not use stone axes; they wore cotton cloth; and they lived in simple thatch huts, although they may have slept in caves occasionally when on overnight trips, just as do other Asian hunter-gatherers. They certainly ate wild foods, but also cultivated foods such as rice and root crops that they got through trading.

The Tasaday did live separate–but neither alone nor isolated–from Manobo farming groups. They visited and traded with outsiders, and especially with the farmers living in the village just two-and-a-half miles from the Tasaday cave. And they were once farmers themselves, a century ago, descendants of Manobo farmers who separated from an agricultural village sometime in the 19th century, and moved deeper into the rain forest near where they live today”.

That is a pretty fair assessment, and finding a date for that separation would certainly help cap the controversy and solve much of the mystery of the Tasaday.

And there is a date – 1871. That year, according to Spanish health records, smallpox swept through Cotabato, the same disease the Tasaday said they were escaping with the the time period they said they had separated themselves.

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