The Filipino ‘Stone Age’ Tribe Of Dubious Origins

By Debra Kelly on Sunday, January 25, 2015
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“What one needs to do at every moment of one’s life is to put an end to the old world and to begin a new world.” —Nikolai Berdyaev

In A Nutshell

In 1971, the world was introduced to the Tasaday, a presumably Stone Age tribe of peaceful people living in the wilderness of the Philippines. Later, when the tribe was revisited, it was found they had adapted to modern life extraordinarily well. Many claimed the whole thing was obviously a hoax, while others say that they were a group of people isolated from modern life, and still others claimed that they were the real deal. We’re still not sure.

The Whole Bushel

In 1971, headlines were made by the discovery of a group of people living in the remote, untouched wilds of the Philippines. They were called the Tasaday, named for the mountain that cast its shadow over their strange, prehistoric existence. According to the man who discovered them, a millionaire (who was pretty bizarre in his own right) named Manuel Elizalde, the group of 26 people had been untouched by any kind of recent history. More than that, though, they were living in the Stone Age. They used stone tools, lived in caves, and wore only your basic leaf attire.

At the time, Elizalde was the acting adviser on Filipino national minorities for the president, Ferdinand Marcos. The response to the discovery was a fairly responsible one, and included a declaration that nearly 20,000 acres were to be reserved for the group, and they were to be left alone and unmolested to preserve their way of life. There were a handful of journalists and photographers that were allowed in to document their lives, and the results were stunning.

At a glance, the people were peaceful, with no real knowledge of violence. They were living in monogamous pairs, they were living off the land, and they were happy. They seemed the perfect community, untainted by the evils of the world—and this was a cynical world, just witness to the horrors of the Vietnam War and the changing morality that went along with the 1960s and 1970s.

All seemed relatively well, until some of the anthropologists that had visited the tribe began to raise their doubts about their ability to support themselves. They didn’t hunt, living off the land, which they didn’t farm. The trouble-making anthropologists were quickly removed, and the Tasaday were returned to their idyllic lifestyle.

In 1986, the tribe was revisited. They were found to be indulging in very post-Stone-Age pastimes like smoking and wearing decidedly modern clothes. After a brief attempt to try to cover up their more modern ways, some of the so-called tribe admitted that the whole thing was a hoax.

And in the meantime, the whole thing looked pretty clear-cut—especially considering that Elizalde had already disappeared, with not only a newly acquired harem but somewhere around $35 million.

But that’s not all there is to the story.

Some anthropologists looked at the tribe not as a hoax, but bought into the insistence that they were exactly what they had been advertised, just a shining example of how well people were able to adapt to new circumstances. They were the poster children for an evolving society who were learning to use modern tools and practice modern ways. It was a given that they were going to be doing things like wearing clothes, it was said, because clearly, clothes are better than leaves and people (no matter who they are) will gravitate toward better things.

The Tasaday still have their supporters, though. Over the years, it’s been claimed that the tribe’s admissions that they were coerced or bribed into putting on their Stone Age performance were faked or mistranslated. Linguists that have taken a look at their language have found that their dialect is incredibly different from any other, guessing that it had branched off from nearby dialects about 150 years ago. While that’s not Stone Age, it seemed to suggest that the tribe was more isolated than critics thought.

Decades after the supposed discovery of the Stone Age tribe, it’s still not known if they were really what was claimed (doubtful), if they were a full-blown hoax (perhaps) or if they were something else entirely (most likely).

Show Me The Proof

io9: We Still Don’t Know If This Tribe Discovered In The ’70s Was Real
First Contact: The Story of the Tasaday
New York Times: The Tasaday Revisited
LiveScience: A Savage Hoax