At first, the Tasaday were just a rumor. In the rainforests of Mindanao, the second largest island in the southern region of the Philippines, hunters came across animal remains and the harvesting of caryota palms for starch. Sometimes, in the very depths of the forest, they caught glimpses of men and women with long hair, naked apart from insubstantial garments made of leaves. One hunter, known for exaggeration and for going deeper into the forest than anyone else, brought back stories of the tribe to Manila; to the house of Manuel Elizalde.
It was 1971—one year before martial law. A close collaborator of then-President Ferdinand Marcos, Elizalde was the head of the Private Assistance for National Minorities (PANAMIN), a government agency. He was also the heir to one of the richest Spanish families in the Philippines, and PANAMIN was often used as a vehicle for his personal pleasure. His family mansion was usually filled with tribespeople who worked as servants and provided entertainment at his parties with other rich Manileños. Intrigued by the rumors, Elizalde planned an expedition to the region where the “wild” people were said to live. The venturous hunter claimed that the people lived in total isolation—they had no agriculture, no metal tools, and spoke a unique language. He called them the Tasaday.
The encounter between Elizalde and the Tasaday resulted in what has been called the “anthropological find” as well as “ethnographic hoax” of the century.1Robin Hemley, Invented Eden: The Elusive, Disputed History of the Tasaday (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), 98. He described them as the “lost tribe” and adopted them as his pet project. Under his watchful eye, the Tasaday were on the cover of National Geographic, featured in news broadcasts around the world, and visited by celebrities, reporters, and anthropologists. To Americans, by then weary of the Vietnam War, they were a vision of an ancestral world where humankind coexisted in peace. To the Marcos government, they offered an opportunity to link his regime to the “common man” and foster a collective Filipino identity in support of totalitarian rule. To Elizalde, they provided power, land, and international media attention. The Tasaday—named after a mountain that rose above the hidden enclave where they lived—were a mirror, a fantasy, and, according to some, a complete hoax.
In her novel Dream Jungle, Jessica Hagedorn provides a fictionalized account of the encounter between the Tasaday, whom she calls the Taobo, and Elizalde, whom she renames Zamora López de Legazpi, after Miguel López de Legazpi, the Spanish official who established the first colonial settlement in the Philippines. “How to explain that moment when Zamora López de Legazpi first laid eyes on them?”2Jessica Hagedorn, Dream Jungle (New York: Viking, 2003), 5. writes Hagedorn. “He had walked into a dream. Someone else’s dream… but now stolen and claimed by Zamora. The landscape of that dream—vast, ominous, shimmering blues and greens—was simply part of the loot.” A great chronicler of the dark dream of postcolonial Philippines, Hagedorn captures Legazpi’s greedy gaze, his romanticization of the scene. It is an accurate depiction of the real Elizalde, who spoke of the Tasaday as if they were colonial spoils: “[T]heir history as a people begins with our visit on June 7, 1971,” he said,3Hemley, 23. echoing the Orientalist logic that situates its subjects in a frozen past that is only broken upon the colonizer’s arrival.
From the start, there were discrepancies in the story of the Tasaday. As Robin Hemley notes in his fascinating account of the Tasaday, Invented Eden, the National Geographic story headlined “First Glimpse of a Stone Age Tribe,” contained photographs of what appeared to be carefully constructed primitive scenes: a naked woman toying with a monkey’s skull; another, seated in the crook of a cave, covered in dust and dirt, gazing into the distance as she breastfeeds her child; a man playing a kubing, a jaw harp, made from bamboo and metal (a detail that would later be held as evidence of a possible hoax). Initial news reports on the tribe claimed that they had no word for “weapon” or “war,” although they had bows and arrows and would sometimes threaten to shoot outsiders, as reported by anthropologists brought by Elizalde on initial trips.
It was also assumed that they lived in rudimentary conditions in an area of small caves, but as time went on it was revealed that they had other dwellings in the jungle that they kept hidden from Elizalde and his entourage of reporters, PANAMIN workers, and anthropologists. A hasty genealogy of the Tasaday uncovered another strange inconsistency: one boy photographed in the original survey had suddenly disappeared, and the tribe was reluctant to offer a plausible explanation. Skeptics in the Philippines and abroad claimed that Elizalde forced the Tasaday to dress only in leaves, even though they had cloth garments, and remove anything from their caves that disrupted their “tribal image.” Outsiders often brought gifts in offering to the tribe, but it is said that Elizalde would make them hide the objects when journalists were in attendance. Now that the Tasaday were in contact with the “modern world,” they had access to steel and rice, but Elizalde made them hide those too, choosing to present them as unsullied by outside influence.
Despite such discrepancies, it was too good of a story to linger on the doubts. Elizalde was more aware of this than anyone. He took control of the Tasaday, confining them to the perimeters of his own making, and nobody could cross those bounds without his permission. He visited frequently, fashioning himself as their keeper, and the tribe grew to worship him, calling him Momo’ Dakel, after a mythic god that their ancestors claimed would visit them someday. In the spring of 1972, a few months before declaring martial law, Marcos signed a proclamation that decreed the Tasaday’s land a protected nature reserve. On Elizalde’s invitation, famed aviator Charles Lindbergh and Italian actress Gina Lollobrigida visited the Tasaday, as did scientists and reporters, notably John Nance from the Associated Press who went on to write a well-known book, The Gentle Tasaday, and a documentary crew from NBC News. During a visit from U.S. President Gerald Ford, two members of a nearby tribe, the T’Boli, represented the Tasaday in a state parade. The Tasaday were famous in the Philippines and recognized internationally, but in 1976, Marcos signed another law, which “protected” the tribe and other communities from unauthorized entry.4Hemley, 85. Wary of outsiders scrutinizing the country under martial law, no one received authorization. For nearly a decade, the Tasaday were, again, on their own.