Thirty years ago, camera crews descended on jungles in the Philippines to document what appeared to be the last tribe of Stone Age people. Through the years, however, the Tasaday became the object of a suspected scam, an elaborate hoax for attention and profit. Host Steve Curwood speaks with Robin Hemley, author of "Invented Eden: The Elusive, Disputed History of the Tasaday."
CURWOOD: Gather a group of anthropologists together and chances are before too long there will be an argument or two about the origins of the Tasaday. The Tasaday are a tribe of Stone-Age people who live deep in the jungles of the Philippines. Or are they? The Tasaday were sold to the world as aboriginal when they were “discovered” by westerners in 1971. But later the tribe was branded as a hoax invented to garner attention. Author Robin Hemley has written a book that attempts to sort out the fact and fiction of this tale. It’s called “Invented Eden: The Elusive, Disputed History of the Tasaday.” Mr. Hemley says he first heard about the Tasaday when he was a teenager watching TV.
HEMLEY: When I was about 14, I saw this NBC documentary on the Tasaday.
NEWS ANCHOR: 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.
HEMLEY: This must have been 1972 or 1973, and it looked like this complete idyll that they were living in that was free of worry or want. And I saw this group and I thought, you know, I wanted to be a Tasaday.
CURWOOD: Now I remember back in the early seventies when this story burst onto the news. There was much excitement that these were truly aboriginal people. How were the Tasaday first discovered?
HEMLEY: Well, there was a hunter, named Dafal, from one of the local tribes, who had actually had contact with them for a number of years, probably. He and his father had visited the Tasaday in the rainforest and traded items with them, given them metal technology, some brass earrings and bolo knives and some cloth and so on. And this Marcos government minister visiting the area, Manda Elizalde - he was in charge of the ethnic minorities of the Philippines under the Marcos administration – he asked this guy Dafal, do you know any poor tribes or poor groups of people living in the area? And he said yes, well, I know this one group. And Elizalde said, well, I’d like to meet them. And so Dafal went to meet the Tasaday and he asked them to come see this guy Elizalde, who he said would do great things for them. So, a clearing was made in the jungle, and on June 7th 1971, Elizalde’s two helicopters landed in this clearing. And several frightened Tasaday men came out of the clearing, lead by Dafal, to meet them. And that’s how it all started.
CURWOOD: Describe for me what the first journalists saw, in that clearing, the first time the Tasaday were brought out for them.
HEMLEY: The journalists saw this incredible tableau of these people standing at the mouth of a cave dressed in leaves. And it was as if they were thrown back in time 10 thousand years. And they were stunned. So the National Geographic reporter wrote this sort of glowing article about these cave people in Mindanao. And that was something that a lot of people read, and it really gathered a lot of force about who these people where.
CURWOOD: Now, this chap, Manual Elizalde – or Manda, as you refer to him often in the book – gets very much involved in presenting these people to the world. What do you think were his motivations in publicizing the Tasaday?
HEMLEY: Well, Elizalde was a very strange character. He had a rather dubious background. He came from the fifth richest family in the Philippines, he had the reputation as a playboy, and everyone was very skeptical of his motives. As he got more and more involved in the Marcos administration, he kind of got co-opted by them, and he was able to use the Tasaday to give good publicity to the Marcos dictatorship at a time when they needed it.
CURWOOD: Robin, how did the suspicions of a hoax first begin?
HEMLEY: The suspicions really started in 1986, right after the overthrow of the Marcos regime, when a Swiss reporter named Oswald Iten , acting on a tip, hiked into the rainforest led by a Philippino reporter named Joey Lozano. And he was told through Lozano’s translators that the Tasaday were actually a group of Tbolis – that’s a local tribe - who were recruited by this guy Manda Elizalde to pose in caves, to wear leaves instead of cloth, to carry stone tools, and to basically pretend to be cave people.
CURWOOD: Tell me, what’s the fascination with the Tasaday?
HEMLEY: Well, when the Tasaday were, quote, discovered in 1971, they weren’t just considered a, quote, stone age people, but their purported gentleness was also quite fascinating to the public at large, and the media. Because this was at the time of the Vietnam War, and it was a very difficult time in terms of a lot of conflicts going on in the world. And here was this group of people who supposedly had no word for war, or enemy, or weapon. It was almost like this group of flower children had been discovered in the rain forest who were a kind of antidote to the warring nature of human beings. Then also in 1986 when the hoax story broke, it was a time very different from the early 1970s – a post Watergate time – when people were suspicious of government. And the hoax story really hit a chord in people at that time too, in a more cynical time.
CURWOOD: So where do you come down on this question? People tend to believe in the two extremes of alternatives for the Tasaday, that they are in fact a hoax, or were a hoax, or that they really are a somewhat Stone Age people.
HEMLEY: Well I believe that they were a group, basically, or poor Manobos, who had fled into the forest maybe 150 years ago to escape a smallpox epidemic. They hadn’t separated, you know, a thousand years ago, or ten thousand years ago as first reported. But they weren’t a hoax either. I mean a hoax is something that is calculated, and they weren’t this group of farmers who were recruited to pose in caves. In fact, what I found out through my research, which was really fascinating, was that some of the hoax proponents, in fact, had created a kind of alternate hoax. In order to prove their point they had created fake geneologies and done all kinds of things to prove the Tasaday were a hoax.
CURWOOD: Now there’s a law of physics that says you fundamentally change anything you observe. I’m wondering, how did the Tasaday themselves change as all this attention was given to them?
HEMLEY: Well, the Tasaday really, I think, were maybe, initially, a little baffled by all this attention but quickly became used to it. They became kind of Stone Age stars, if you will. And over time they became used to being visited by reporters every once in a while asking them whether they were fake or not. In fact, the word “fake” has entered their lexicon. They now use that word in saying, “Well, people call us fake. What does that mean? We don’t call other people fake.” Some of them have actually become quite cynical about this, or angry. One young man named Lobo, who became very famous – he was about 13 or 14 years old at the time of the discovery, and was even on the cover of National Geographic – he at this point is really angry, and really feels that promises were made by everyone to the Tasaday, and that very few people kept any promises to them.
CURWOOD: Robin Hemley is author of “Invented Eden: the Elusive, Disputed History of the Tasaday.” Robin, thanks so much for speaking with me today.
HEMLEY: Thank you very much, I enjoyed it.
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