The Lost Tribe That Wasn’t

In the 1970s, the Philippines were in trouble. Or, to be more accurate, their despotic leader, Ferdinand Marcos, was in trouble. He had mismanaged the finances of the country so badly that many Filipinos could not even afford the basic necessities of life. World opinion was starting to turn against him, and he desperately needed a distraction. Imagine his luck, then, when a previously uncontacted Stone Age tribe was suddenly discovered on the Philippine island of Mindanao.

The lost tribe, called the Tasaday, were discovered by a pal of Marcos’ named Manuel Elizalde, who was the Secretary for National Minorities under Marcos. Elizalde had supposedly been informed of the tribe’s existence by a hunter who had stumbled upon them in the forest. He immediately flew out to the jungles of Mindanao to meet the lost tribe and wasted no time turning them into a media sensation.

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It didn’t take long for reporters, scholars, and celebrities to start arriving in the Philippines to meet the gentle Tasaday people for themselves. The supposedly cave-dwelling people who wore only loin cloths were the main subject of an issue of a 1972 National Geographic magazine, and a bestselling book was written about them. They were said to be such a peaceful people that they did not even have a word for “enemy.”

But trouble was brewing, and a major controversy came with it.

Elizalde tightly controlled access to the tribe. Soon after their discovery and the stir it caused, Marcos declared martial law. It suddenly became difficult to access the Tasaday. In 1976, Marcos completely prohibited anyone outside the government from visiting them.

When Marcos was eventually overthrown in 1986, a Swiss journalist named Oswald Iten decided to try to make contact with the forgotten Tasaday tribe once more. What he found uncovered one of the greatest hoaxes of the modern era.

When he located the tribe, they were living in regular huts, not caves. They were dressed in modern clothing, instead of the primitive loincloths they had previously worn. When Iten questioned them, they admitted that they had never lived in caves. Elizalde had forced them off their farms and made them live in the caves so they would be more convincing as a pre-contact Stone Age tribe. He promised them money and protection if they went along with the ruse for a period of time, but neither form of aid ever materialized.

In retrospect, many people now saw inconsistencies in the original Tasaday story. They did not understand how they had avoided contact with the modern world for thousands of years when they were only a few miles from a normal village. Many of their utensils looked as if they had been cut with steel knives, but they supposedly had never seen steel. Things just didn’t add up upon further inspection.

After Iten’s interview, the world decided they had been tricked by Marcos. Documentaries about the hoax were made, and the fake tribe was widely ridiculed.

The Tasaday tried to retract their statement that they were part of a hoax. They even won recognition for the government of Corazon Aquino as a Stone Age tribe in 1988. To this day, no one is sure what the whole truth is regarding the Tasaday, other than the fact that they were not truly a Paleolithic pre-contact tribe. A short documentary about them, which was made in 2009, showed them as they are now. They are simple farmers, who are poor and poorly educated. They never received any help from the government for their participation in the ruse.

Manuel Elizalde, the man who perpetrated the hoax, left the Philippines with millions of dollars that did not belong to him. He died in 1997 at age 60, having never been punished for his role in exploiting the Tasaday or stealing the money.

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