Tasadays, 1972 | National Geographic

In the early 1970s, a wave of anthropologists, archaeologists and others who descended on Mindanao, in the southern Philippines. Rainforests there were places that for centuries were rarely entered by outsiders. The Philippines government had discovered the 24 people — who called themselves Tasadays, after their sacred mountain. They were hunter-gatherers who never ventured far from their cave dwellings, had no knowledge of agriculture and went around naked or in scant clothing fashioned from orchid leaves. They knew nothing of animal domestication, wore waist-length hair, and had no words for weapon or war.

There were skeptics from the beginning. Among other things, their caves lacked the middens, or trash heaps, that would have been expected of peoples living there for centuries. And many scholars were uncomfortable with the group behind the discovery, Presidential Assistance on National Minorities (PANAMIN), which was led by Manuel Elizalde, a Harvard-educated playboy scion of one of the Philippines’ wealthiest families. PANAMIN supervised all the outsiders’ visits. A neighboring tribe also claimed that Elizalde paid them to take off their clothes and pose as Tasadays for visitors.

Still, the initial wave of social scientists who visited the Tasadays were convinced they were who they claimed. A book, ”The Gentle Tasaday: A Stone Age People in the Philippine Rain Forest,” followed, as did a whopping 32-page feature in The National Geographic. That August 1972 issue of the magazine featured on its cover a photograph by photojournalist John Launois of a Tasaday boy climbing vines. Celebrity visitors trekked up into the forests including Gina Lollobrigida and the 70-year-old aviator Charles Lindbergh (who later wrote a foreword for The Gentle Tasaday book).

In 1974, Elizalde, citing a need to protect the Tasadays from exploitation and the harmful effects of too much contact with the outside world, blocked any further visits. Elizalde also managed to lobby his friend, dictator Ferdinand Marcos to declare a 46,000-acre preserve around the Tasaday off limits to outsiders. After Marcos was toppled from power in 1986, a journalist named Oswald ten went to the rainforest, but found the caves empty. He finally located the Tasaday living nearby in simple huts and clad in jeans and T-shirts. According to Iten, the Tasaday told him they were local farmers who had been paid to act like cavemen. They laughed at their pictures in Geographic. Then, a little later, other reporters found the people again wearing leaves. One anthropologist referred to them as “rainforest clock-punchers” who dwelled in caves by day and returned to their families at night.

By then Elizalde had fled the Philippines after falling out with the Marcoses. He lived out the rest of Marcos years in Costa Rica with more than a dozen young Filipino girls, before being expelled by Costa Rica back to the Philippines.

Some social scientists still believe the Tasadays had indeed lived for a few centuries in complete isolation, but since their ‘discovery,’ the Tasadays have merged into neighboring tribes and picked up many new habits and tools that they can no longer be studied as unique primitives. Perhaps in a reflection of their rapid acculturalization, in 1988, members of the tribe sued anthropologists who called them fakers.

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