773 words • 3~4 min read

The Gentle Tasaday: An anthropological hoax

In 1971, a group of people known as the Tasaday were discovered on a remote island of the Phillipines known as Mindanao. They wore leafy loincloths and subsisted off what the forest could provide, possessing no knowledge of tobacco, corn, rice, or domesticated animals. They spoke a new dialect of Malay-Philipino language that included no word for outsiders, war, weapon, or enemy, giving them the title ‘The Gentle Tasaday’. The family unit was nuclear and the community has no formal organization or government outside of some loose food-sharing networks.

Today, Tasaday life is way different and matches more modern tribal life in the Phillipines, as documented on their website. The question is, however, whether this modernization was normal development post-contact or whether there was a hoax involved.

Picture taken in 1972, found on http://oregonstate.edu/instruct/anth210/tashyp.html

A hunter named Dafal first discovered the tribe while trapping with his father. He returned, leading Philipino official Manuel Elizalde, Jr, where they were met by 26 of the Tasaday. As a result of the discovery of these very primitive people, then president Marcos set aside 19000 acres of surrounding dense forest lands as a reserve. Access was restricted and all visitors had to be escorted by Elizalde.

After governance shifted under a new president, a Swiss team came to visit by themselves and discovered the Tasaday living in huts wearing t-shirts and blue jeans. They had apparently come from two other local tribes that had been connected to modern amenities for years, which they continued to trade with for cultivated food and more modern tools. They had been asked by Elizalde and other officials to remove their clothing and given fake stone tools to make them look more primitive. In addition, their language was really a dialect of Cotabato Manobo, spoken by most surrounding people.

Elizalde fled the Phillipines with $35 million of nonprofit money raised for the Tasaday. He died in Costa Rica addicted to drugs and impoverished. At least on the part of Elizalde, there was a hoax perpetrated.

On a more philosophical level, the Tasaday raised many questions about anthropological methods. Here’s the two big ones:

– How does one account for the masking effects of a tyrannical government and restricted access? In this case, that is what allowed Elizalde to dupe the scientists.

– What happens when a tribe asks for technology or an easy cure is available for a disease they’re suffering from? Does the anthropologist’s ethic lie in decreasing suffering or leaving their study culture as unperturbed as possible?

~Bluegrass Blue Crab

sources: 1987 NY Times article from right after hoax discovery, Time article from 1971 contact, and a follow-up 2002 BBC report, OSU website that admits both sides could be true