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Hoax Or Something Else? The "Stone Age" People Living In The Jungle Of Mindanao Island

The Tasaday were found using "Stone Age" tools. But what exactly was going on?

James Felton

James Felton

Senior Staff Writer

clockSep 16 2022, 07:33 UTC
The Tasaday group, posing in a field for a camera in modern clothes.
The Tasaday, as photographed decades after their discovery. Image credit: Susanne Haerpfer/Wikimedia Commons

In the 1970s and '80s, a group of people living in the jungles of Mindanao Island in the Philippines caught the attention of both the media and anthropologists. The first time was for their discovery, and the second for alleged fraud.

The Tasaday people were first "discovered" in 1971. Reports claimed that 26 people were living in caves, wearing little clothing, using Stone Age tools, and speaking their own distinctive language. With no contact with or knowledge of the outside world, the group acted as hunter-gatherers, unaware of how to farm on their own.

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"Although their economy is essentially and traditionally based on food-collecting, they have since 1966 learned to trap several kinds of animals," a report on the group in 1972 read. "Preliminary linguistic evidence suggests the Tasaday have been isolated from their nearest non-forest neighbors for 600 years or more. This conclusion, like the report in general, is tentative."

It was reported as a huge discovery, and the tribe were written about worldwide. National Geographic produced a documentary on the group. The next year, Manuel Elizalde Jr – a wealthy politician who also happened to have led the discovery team – set up camps from which the Tasaday could be observed. Politicians, celebrities, and journalists were allowed to visit the camp to watch the Tasaday go about their "Stone Age" lives. But scientists, anthropologists, and social scientists were not. 

Before the camp was closed later that year, only a few anthropologists – carefully chosen by Elizalde Jr – were allowed to get close to these newly-discovered people. At the end of that year, Filipino President Ferdinand Marcos banned visitors to the Tasaday's home, putting the whole area off limits until after he was deposed in 1986.

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After people were allowed to visit again, claims of a hoax began to circulate.

In 1986, a Swiss journalist who claimed to have visited the Tasaday reported that locals had told him that the group was a hoax: "a mixed group of Manobos and Tbolis motivated by promises of land and money to act the part of cave-dwelling, stonetool-using primitives whenever Elizalde required them to do so." Soon there were claims at an anthropology conference that some of the Tasaday were college educated, and were blood relatives of people living outside the Tasaday area, though this too is a dubious claim with little evidence.

Neverthless, suspicions of duplicity abounded, largely centered around Elizalde, who profited from the discovery from money he had secured to support the group.

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"Given that they were discovered by Elizalde, that Elizalde led the journalists in situ, and that Ferdinand Marcos, after having declared martial law in 1972, promulgated a decree (Presidential Decree No. 1032) that made the Tasaday territory a reservation on which no one could enter without prior permission – a permission that, to my knowledge, was never accorded to any foreign anthropologist – it becomes all too obvious that the Philippine government encouraged, if not engineered, their rise to fame,"  anthropologist Jean-Paul Dumont wrote.   

Both stories – that they had been isolated for hundreds of years, or that they were perpetrating a hoax – had their downsides, with a probable explanation that they were a group that had been almost completely isolated from the rest of the world, but not for as long as was made out by Elizalde. Evidence for this was found in the language they used, which had similarities to local languages of 150 years prior, suggesting a rough date for a potential split.

"The language that they spoke did seem to be distinct from the surrounding areas, suggesting some sort of isolation from the linguistic evidence presently available, I conclude that the Tasaday may have been living in near isolation from other groups, as they have consistently asserted, but that the isolation may have lasted for only a few generations, possibly no more than 150 years," linguist Lawrence Reid wrote of the Tasaday in 1992. 

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"Otherwise, greater differences would be apparent between the Tasaday speech variety and that of its closest relatives."

In 1988, President Corazan Aquino pronounced the Tasaday people an authentic minority group, part of the Lumad group of Indegenous people in the southern Phillipines, but plenty of scholars remain skeptical, and consider we're no closer to conclusive evidence if the whole thing was a hoax or not.


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