The Tasaday: the fake people of the Philippines

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Friday, August 1, 2014


WHEN something is “made in China” it’s usually safe to assume that it’s fake. The Chinese produce things like fake toys, fake games, bootleg DVDs, and little things like that. But in the Philippines, we have an entire ethnic group of fake people.

When I say they’re fake, I don’t mean they’re robots or big cardboard cutouts that someone operates with some string like a giant puppet – no. The Tasaday are very much alive, but their cultural identity was 100 percent manufactured for them during the Marcos Era.

First, a little background: The Tasaday you heard about in school were described as a primitive, isolated people who were locked in the Stone Age that lived somewhere in Mindanao. They had no knowledge of agriculture, no real clothing, no metal tools, and no knowledge about people aside from themselves. The first explorers who “discovered” the Tasaday would have you believe that they thought that they were the only people in the world.

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The story goes that there was once a hunter from the Blit tribe that stumbled upon a new group of people who had previously lived in seclusion for thousands of years. He reported his study to one Manuel Elizalde, who was the head of PANAMIN (Presidential Arm for National Minorities), the government organization that was in charge of taking care of minorities throughout the Philippines.

After taking credit for their discovery, Elizalde promptly announced the existence of the tribe to then-president Marcos, who promptly invited foreign anthropologists and the National Geographic Society to come and study the new tribe.

The foreign anthropologists observed that the Tasaday spoke a language that was a dialect of Manobo, but it was very distinct. They also found that the people were using Stone Age technology and lived in a blissful natural existence. What was really astounding was that they were told the Tasaday knew only peace, and they had no words for “conflict” or “enemy.”

Soon, National Geographic made the Tasaday world famous by putting them on the cover of the August 1972 issue.

It wasn’t until after the Marcos government collapsed that the shocking reality of the Tasaday tribe was uncovered. A Swiss journalist, Oswald Iten, and his Filipino counterpart, Joey Lozano, trekked back to the Tasaday tribe and found their caves empty, with the people living in nearby huts wearing modern clothes like jeans and t-shirts. When they were questioned, they admitted that they never lived like cavemen – ever.

It was Elizalde who pressured them into acting like primitives, so they could be “protected” from tribal fighting and the insurgents like the NPA. Before Elizalde, the “tribe” were farmers who lived on the other side of the mountain.

As soon as news of Iten’s discovery hit the newspapers, journalists flocked back to the mountains to investigate Iten’s claims. A group of German journalists, funnily enough, found the Tasaday back in their caves, wearing what looked like shorts covered hastily with leaves. It seemed that they wished to perpetuate their status as a stone-age people, likely because they were reaping the benefits through Elizalde.

Now why would Elizalde do something like this? Well when he “discovered” the tribe, Elizalde had appointed himself as their caretaker, and moved to have the area where they lived turned into a natural reserve. Many suspected that he was using the Tasaday to make a large land grab.

Published in the Sun.Star Bacolod newspaper on August 01, 2014.

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