The world of anthropology was roiled by an elaborate bit of deceit that began on July 16th, 1971. That evening, an amazing discovery was announced on NBC’s Nightly News: “The outside world, after maybe a thousand years, has discovered a small tribe of people living in a remote jungle in the Philippines. Until now, the outside world didn’t know they existed… and they didn’t know the outside world existed. Their way of living is approximately that of the Stone Age.” The discovery of the Tasaday was announced by Manuel Elizalde, head of the Philippine government agency in charge of protecting cultural minorities, and crony of dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
As Elizalde described it, he discovered the Tasaday after he received a tip from a local hunter about encounters with primitive tribesmen deep in the jungles of Mindanao. Elizalde tracked down the tip, and was astonished to find that the tribe had been isolated for over a thousand years, with no contact with the outside world. As the discoverer of the Tasaday put it: “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 were also complete pacifists: “They have no words for weapons, hostility, or war“.
Overnight, the Tasaday went from unknown to globally famous. Their pictures appeared on the covers of magazines, including National Geographic. Clips of the tribe were featured on news programs, numerous documentaries were made about the stone age denizens of the jungle, and a bestselling book, The Gentle Tasaday, was written about them. Celebrities flocked to visit and be photographed with them. However, when professional anthropologists sought to study them, the Tasaday and their region were abruptly declared off limits by Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos. It was only after his overthrow in 1986 that the truth came out, and it was revealed that the story of the stone age Tasaday was a fraud.
Once journalists and anthropologists gained access to the Tasaday, they discovered that, far from being primitive stone agers, they lived like modern people, not in caves, but in houses. They did not run around naked and barefoot, but wore shirts, jeans, flip flops and shoes. Interviews revealed that Elizalde had pressured them to pretend to be stone-age primitives. Elizalde profited greatly from that deceit. He had set up a charitable foundation which raised millions of dollars to protect the Tasaday, their “way of life”, and their jungle habitat from encroachment by the outside world. In 1983, he fled the Philippines, after he stole millions from the foundation.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading