Reviews

 

 

Book Title Invented Eden - The Elusive, Disputed History of the Tasaday
Author Robin Hemley
Language English
Copyright 2003
Publisher Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
ISBN 0374177163
My Rating 4 stars (out of 5)


This book tells the story of the biggest anthropological controversy of the twentieth century.  In 1971 a primitive tribe known as the Tasaday was discovered on the island of Mindanao in the southern Philippines.  Overnight the Tasaday became a media sensation and they became the living embodiment of the noble savage archetype.  They were featured on the cover of National Geographic magazine and several American television broadcasts.  A decade later a Swiss journalist visited the region only to find that the caves that the Tasaday supposedly lived in were abandoned.  It was announced that the Tasaday were a hoax.  What is the true story of the Tasaday?  The author follows a complex story of deceit and corruption only to find that the Tasaday have been abused both by the people who supported their authenticity and by those who did not.

The story begins in 1968.  In December of that year President Marcos appointed a young Filipino named Manuel Elizalde (Manda for short) as Presidential Assistant on NAtional MINorities (PANAMIN).  Elizalde was born into a wealthy family which owned several businesses in the Philippines.  He received a privileged upbringing and his father sent him to Harvard University to study.  After graduating he returned to the Philippines where he acquired an interest in the ethnic minorities of the Philippines.  After receiving his appointment by Marcos, Elizalde sought to build an organization whose goal was to help the various ethnic minorities across the Philippines.  PANAMIN was both a government organization and a private charity with Elizalde heading both branches.

Right from the start controversy swirled around PANAMIN.  Rumors about Elizalde soon began to spread.  The PANAMIN headquarters were located at Elizalde's fashionable mansion in Quezon City.  Elizalde kept the mansion well stocked with tribes people of various ethnic groups.  It was rumored that Elizalde kept a group of young women imported from the various tribal regions, more or less as a harem.  He soon began to develop a long list of enemies including the Catholic Church and the various mining and logging interests which sought to do business on tribal land.

In 1970 rumors began to reach Elizalde concerning a group of newly discovered primitives living in the rainforests of Mindanao.  A local hunter named Dafal claimed to have met this primitive tribe and he called them the Tasaday because they lived close to Mount Tasaday in South Cotabato province.  According to Dafal the Tasaday were completely primitive when he first met them.  They had no agriculture, no cloth, and no metal tools when he first contacted them.  Dafal's story piqued Elizalde's interest.  This just might be his ticket to fame and fortune.  Elizalde persuaded Dafal to contact the Tasaday and arrange a meeting.  A clearing in the rainforest was soon made which was big enough for a helicopter to land in.  On June 7, 1971 a helicopter touched down in the clearing.  It was carrying Elizalde and several PANAMIN staffers.  There to meet them were four men of the Tasaday tribe.

Elizalde had brought an interpreter along who spoke the language Manobo.  The Manobo tribe live in South Cotabato province and number approximately 50,000.  There are also approximately 150,000 members of the T'boli tribe in the same general area.  The interpreter could communicate with the Tasaday but not very well.  This one fact would later be forgotten in the controversy to come, but it would become important much later.  Elizalde gave the Tasaday some rice, a food that they were totally unfamiliar with.  The Tasaday talked about a sickness they called fugu which they had some memories of.  Elizalde speculated that they were talking about a cholera epidemic.  Perhaps they had fled into the forest to escape such an epidemic.  Elizalde promised to return to meet the Tasaday and then he and his associates left in the helicopter.  What effect the helicopter had on the Tasaday that first time we can only speculate about.  It must have been quite profound.

Elizalde got on the telephone and contacted Dr. Robert Fox, an American, who was the preeminent anthropologist then residing in the Philippines.  Elizalde told him that he had discovered a "lost tribe".  Fox replied that there was no such thing as a "lost tribe", just a tribe that had never been contacted before by the outside world.  Anyway, Fox agreed to fly down to study the Tasaday for himself.  Before Fox arrived Elizalde had already arranged for a film crew of the National Geographic magazine to film the newly discovered tribe.  Thus, right from the beginning, show business took precedence over science in the Tasaday affair.

On June 16, 1971 Dr. Fox arrived and began his studies.  The Tasaday tribe, as it existed then, consisted of twenty-four individuals (ten adults and fourteen children).  The largest family consisted of the husband Bilengan, his wife Etut, and their four sons.  One of the Tasaday who stood out was Belayem who was a young male in his twenties who was looking for a wife.  Which brings up an interesting point.  If you are a young man in a tribe of only twenty-four people, how do you go about finding a wife?  Belayem eventually solved this problem by marrying a local Manobo woman from the nearby town of Blit.  There were two competing theories concerning the origin of the Tasaday.  The first was that the Tasaday had broken off from the Manobo tribe relatively recently (i.e., a few centuries ago).  The second was that the Tasaday and the Manobo had shared a common ancestor several thousand years ago.  Dr. Fox tended to favor the second theory although what his reasoning on this issue was, is not entirely clear.

Now a new character entered onto the scene, one who would profoundly shape the world's impression of the Tasaday.  John Nance was an Associated Press photographer who had extensive experience covering the Vietnam War.  In July 1971 Nance obtained permission from Elizalde to visit the tribe.  He hitched a ride with Jack Reynolds, a reporter for NBC television.  They arrived to find the Tasaday sitting around a campfire.  Gone were their pieces of cloth they had worn during their first meeting with Elizalde.  Elizalde had told them to dress the way they had before they had met Dafal.  Now they wore bits of leaf tied together to form a G-string.  Via the interpreter, Nance posed the following question to Belayem: "What are your feelings about all the new things and new people you have seen?"  The answer: "It is like lightning.  It has come to us without warning."

From that moment on, Nance was hooked.  He would go on to write the book The Gentle Tasaday (published in 1975).  This book, more than any other source, would come to color the public's perception of the Tasaday.  It portrayed the life of the Tasaday tribe as idyllic.  There was no war.  There was no poverty.  Everyone in the tribe shared their material wealth.  The Tasaday lived simple lives close to nature.  In short, the Tasaday lived the life that Adam and Eve had lived in the Garden of Eden before they were kicked out into the harsh world by an angry God.

The Tasaday viewed Elizalde as being almost godlike.  They called him Momo Dakel Diwata Tasaday (translated as Big Uncle Benefactor of the Tasaday).  Elizalde did everything in his power to publicize the new tribe.  By the end of July 1971 the new tribe, which had been discovered only a month before, had been visited by two TV crews and several dozen reporters from various countries.  Elizalde functioned as the gatekeeper for the Tasaday.  He controlled who was allowed access to them and when.  All of the publicity had the intended effect as far as Elizalde was concerned.  Only a few months after the discovery of the tribe, Elizalde became a Senatorial candidate for the party of President Marcos.

The next year (1972) the Tasaday revealed that they lived in caves.  Elizalde and company decided to pay them a visit at their cave complex.  On March 23, 1972 Elizalde and his associates (including Nance) arrived by helicopter at the site of the caves.  They jumped onto a landing platform which had been set up high in the trees.  After seeing the Tasaday living in caves the picture was now complete.  These were truly cavemen who used stone tools.  They were still living in the Stone Age.  Hopes were high concerning all the things we could learn from such living cavemen.  Pictures from this visit appeared in the August 1972 edition of National Geographic magazine entitled Stone Age Men of the Philippines.  I can still remember this particular issue.  I was twelve years old at the time and I was thrilled to learn that there were cavemen still living in the world.  I remember the article portrayed the Tasaday as the world's most primitive tribe.

Even in the early days there were a few skeptics who questioned the assertions being made about this new tribe.  There was only one way to be really sure.  A team of anthropologists would have to visit the Tasaday and conduct an in-depth study.  In May 1972 Dr. David Baradas, the best known Filipino anthropologist at that time, arrived to do just that.  The Tasaday had been busy in the meantime.  They had constructed new sleeping platforms inside the caves.  Some seeds of doubt began to creep in.  If the Tasaday had indeed been living in the caves for thousands of years, why was it only now that they decided to build sleeping platforms?  Something didn't fit but it was hard to pinpoint what it was.  Even more shocking was the discovery that the local T'boli people had begun distributing rice to the Tasaday and that this was what they were living off of.  Why would people who were competent hunter-gatherers need to be given rice to survive?

Baradas and his team began to understand more and more of the Tasaday language which was very similar to the Manobo language.  Soon they could communicate directly with the Tasaday without any of the PANAMIN interpreters being needed.  They began asking a lot of questions that the Tasaday didn't like.  This was an unacceptable situation as far as Elizalde and PANAMIN were concerned.  The scientists might learn something about the Tasaday that would blow the whole game out of the water.  A few nights later gunshots rang out in the camp.  Baradas and his team scrambled out of their tents and attempted to hide.  Someone was in the camp shooting off a gun.  It was no longer safe to work in the area.  The next day Baradas and his team promptly evacuated, which of course, was Elizalde's intention.

Shortly after Elizalde's first trip to the caves, President Marcos issued a decree setting aside 45,000 acres as the Tasaday Reserve.  The land was to be preserved for the Tasaday tribe and the nearby Manobo tribe.  No mining or logging could be done inside the reserve.  On September 21, 1972 Marcos declared martial law and, all of a sudden, the Philippines was not such an attractive place to visit for foreigners.  Interest in the Tasaday began to diminish, partly because of martial law and partly because Elizalde would not allow any serious sustained anthropological study to proceed.  Hardly anyone visited the tribe after 1974.  On September 22, 1976 Marcos issued a decree banning unauthorized entry onto the Tasaday Reserve.  The Tasaday had fulfilled their mission as far as Elizalde was concerned.  They had catapulted him to the top of the Filipino political scene.  Now they could be discarded.  Nobody could visit the Tasaday without permission and nobody would be given permission.

Fast forward to 1986.  Oswald Iten, a Swiss reporter, arrived in the Philippines shortly before the EDSA Revolution.  The Marcos regime soon collapsed.  Any decrees banning visitation to the Tasaday Reserve were now nullified.  Iten hooked up with Joey Lozano, a Filipino reporter, and the two of them decided to visit the Tasaday caves.  After arriving in Mindanao the two of them arrived at Tubak which was a town just outside the Tasaday Reserve.  The headman at Tubak was a fellow named Datu Galang.  When Galang was asked about the Tasaday he informed them that Elizalde had forced some of the local T'boli people to undress, go to the caves, and pretend to be cavemen.  This was the first proof that the Tasaday tribe was the anthropological hoax of the century.  The next day Iten and his group met up with some of the alleged members of the Tasaday tribe.  They were dressed in western clothes.  They confirmed the story that they weren't really Tasaday after all, just some local Manobos and T'bolis pretending to be cavemen.  Iten and Lozano then proceeded onto the caves only to find them abandoned.  No cavemen were living in them.  This was the final confirmation.  The case appeared to be settled.  The Tasaday had been a hoax perpetrated by Elizalde.

But where was Elizalde?  In 1983 shortly after the assassination of Ninoy Aquino, Elizalde fled the country eventually settling in Costa Rica.  The reasons behind his fleeing the country are not exactly clear, but perhaps he had angered the Marcos administration in some way.  The organization which he had headed, PANAMIN, abruptly collapsed and there were rumors that Elizalde had embezzled millions of pesos from PANAMIN funds.  Iten promptly returned to Switzerland where he broke the story about the great Tasaday hoax.  Soon other reporters visited the caves only to find them populated once again by leaf-wearing cavemen.  This was more proof that the whole thing had been a hoax.  When the Tasaday weren't expecting anyone they dressed in western clothes.  But when TV cameras were rolling they appeared in full caveman regalia.

Now the controversy erupted into a full-blown storm.  In August 1986 a conference concerning the Tasaday was hastily organized at the University of the Philippines in Manila.  The conference was dominated by hoax proponents and John Nance was one of the few people there who still expounded the authenticity of the Tasaday.  Tempers flared when certain conference participants implied that Nance had been part of the hoax.  The hoax proponents even mapped out the real identities of the supposed Tasaday.  They were all local Manobo or T'boli people.  Many of the people living in the local towns claimed that the Tasaday were their neighbors who they had known all their lives.  The evidence was overwhelming and it eventually ruined the career of Nance who was associated with the Tasaday.  Soon an investigation was begun by the Congress of the Philippines.  One of the Tasaday, a woman named Dula, testified that she was really a T'boli woman who had been coerced by Elizalde into pretending to be a cavewoman.

What could be clearer than direct testimony by one of the participants of the hoax?  Well, things were about to get murky.  That year Elizalde returned to the country and he was fighting mad.  He viewed the hoax proponents as people who were out to destroy his reputation.  A month after Dula testified that she was a hoaxer, she reappeared in front of the same Congressional panel but this time her story was radically different.  She testified that she was a true Tasaday, that she had testified falsely before because she had been intimidated by some of the hoax proponents.  But was she telling the truth this time or was she telling the truth previously?  When a witness tells two contradictory stories the stories must cancel each other out.  One must look elsewhere for the truth.

During the 1980's and early 1990's the controversy ebbed and flowed with conflicting testimony and much confusion.  Part of the problem all along had been in the use of testimony by various individuals filtered through several interpreters.  For example, Oswald Iten would ask a question in English.  Joey Lozano would translate it into Ilonggo.  Datu Galang would then translate it into Manobo, which the Tasaday spoke.  The answer would come back in Manobo translated to Ilonggo translated to English.  Two translations were needed for every question.  If either of the two translators had an agenda of his own then the answers you got back would be flawed.  Both Lozano and Galang had an axe to grind.  They wanted it to appear that the Tasaday were fakes.  But why?  The author suggests that both of them may have had ties to logging interests.  If they could prove that the Tasaday tribe was a hoax then the 45,000 acres of land that had been set aside in their name would have to be rescinded.

In 1993 Elizalde sent the original audio tapes of the Tasaday (which had been recorded in 1972) to Dr. Lawrence Reid, a world renowned expert in Austronesian languages.  Inexplicably, the tapes had never been analyzed by a competent linguist before now.  If the Tasaday were indeed local T'boli tribes people posing as cavemen, as the hoax proponents suggested, then their recorded conversations on the tapes would be a dead giveaway.  So Reid carefully analyzed the tapes and not a word of T'boli could be heard anywhere on them.  The language was definitely Manobo but it was sufficiently different to indicate that the Tasaday had been separated from the main Manobo tribe for some period of time.  Reid visited the Tasaday in the mid 90's in order to find out more about their language.  His final conclusion was that the Tasaday were not fakes.  But neither were they the primordial cavemen that Elizalde had painted them out to be.  Their ancestors had been agriculturalists and in the very recent past too.  Reid estimated that they had broken off from the main Manobo tribe as little as 100 to 150 years ago.

So the Tasaday were rehabilitated (at least in the opinion of the author) although some people to this day continue to believe that they are fakes.  Their reservation is still intact, at least in theory.  They are among the poorest people in the entire Philippines but they have regained some of their dignity that they lost due to the hoax accusations.  The author himself visited the Tasaday in 1999 and he found that, unlike in the early 1970's, the Tasaday are no longer very trusting of outsiders.  They were promised many things by Elizalde and by numerous outsiders.  According to the Tasaday, the only outsider who kept his promises was John Nance who continues to provide financial support for them to this day.  Many others have enriched themselves at their expense including Elizalde, Iten, and a host of journalists.

I enjoyed this book very much.  It reads like a detective novel.  Just when you think you know the ending, a new twist to the plot arrives and you go careening off in a whole new direction.  This story is actually more about the gullibility, prejudice, and stupidity of the supposedly modern people who encountered the Tasaday than it is about the Tasaday themselves.  This is a perfect example of how politics distorts what should be a purely scientific investigation.  I would highly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in the Philippines.  I give it four stars.