The tribe that never was
The people that time forgot turned out to be part of a Filipino fraud, says Ann McGowan in the latest of her History Hoaxes series.
In 1971, a local Filipino official, Manuel Elizalde, made headlines across the world when he discovered a Stone Age tribe living in a remote area of rain forest in the Philippines.
In one of the last remaining rain forests of Mindanao, Elizalde was allegedly introduced to the Tasaday people by a frontier tribesman who claimed that he had met the tribe years earlier while hunting with his father.
According to Elizalde, the Tasaday never had contact with the outside world, no knowledge of agriculture or any other technology beyond the Palaeolithic Stone Age. Their clothing was made from leaves, and their homes were nestled deep inside caves. They were a peaceful community living in complete harmony, and their language was said to contain no words for hatred, war or any type of violence.
It was a sensational discovery and Elizalde appointed himself their protector, ensuring they were sheltered from the modern world and especially from the media. However, when the media demanded a visit, President Marcos declared an area of 19,000 hectares surrounding the tribe to be off-limits, and soldiers were posted around the camp to deter any unwelcome visitors.
Anyone requesting a visit had first to be approved and then escorted by Elizalde. Very few scientists ever got to see or study the Tasaday, and the imposed restrictions ensured that any realistic and independent investigation of their lifestyle was greatly curtailed. The magazine National Geographic, in a series of six articles, was the first publication to introduce them in pictures to the world.
In 1972 martial law was declared in the Philippines, and while it lasted, all contact with the Tasaday was lost for 14 years until the Marcos government was overthrown. It was then that a Swiss journalist, Oswald Iten trekked into the forest in an effort to locate the tribe. When he arrived at the camp he was surprised to find it deserted, and after a search of the surrounding areas, discovered the Tasaday people living a short distance away in modest huts and wearing modern clothes; tee shirts and jeans.
Clearly, the original story was a massive hoax, and after some coaxing the Tasaday admitted to Iten that Elizalde has pressurized them into acting as a primitive tribe, with the promise of money and security from counter insurgency and tribal wars. They also admitted that they had actually come from two other tribes that had been part of the modern world for years.
Later when ABC televised the documentary “The tribe that never was” viewers were angered by the images of casually dressed Filipinos laughing and discussing pictures of themselves portrayed in the pages of National Geographic.
As soon as the government was overthrown Elizalde was one of the first of its members to leave the Philippines and flee to Costa Rica. It soon became evident that he created the hoax as a political stunt for the Marcos government, who were using the tribe to promote tourism, but what the government didn’t know at the time was that Elizalde was also running the hoax for his own personal gains.