Eight Little-Known Facts About the Tasaday
By Thomas N. Headland (in 1992)

The following points are taken from the concluding chapter of the author's book The Tasaday Controversy: Assessing the Evidence (published by the American Anthropological Association in 1992, pages 216-218). While some of the issues in the controversy remain unresolved [in 1992], a number of facts did emerge during our investigation concerning the pre-1971 Tasaday history. These indicate that the journalists, if not the early scientists, exaggerated the primitiveness of the Tasaday and led the public to assume that they were more isolated than they actually were. There are eight facts, as I choose to call them, that come to the surface in the chapters of the 1992 book which few anthropologists dispute, and I summarize them in the text below.

  1. The Tasaday were not wearing leaves when discovered in 1971, as the public was led to believe. They were wearing commercially manufactured cloth. They were asked at that time by Manuel Elizalde, Jr., the Panamin director, to discard the cloth and to 'wear their traditional' coverings. Thereafter, published films and photographs always showed them either naked or wearing orchid leaves.
  2. The Tasaday had trade goods before they were discovered in 1971, which indicates that they were not isolated, out of contact with the modern world, or paleolithic. Besides cloth, they had, for example, brass, metal-tipped arrows, bows made from cultivated bamboo (not wild bamboo), iron bush knives, imported baskets, glass beads, and tin cans.
  3. Farming peoples in nearby towns were eating meat from wild game that had been killed and smoke-dried by Tasaday before 1971 (MacLeish 1972:237). [References cited here are found in the bibliography of the book.]. This was probably an important trade item the Tasaday exchanged for the goods mentioned above. Wild meat is a common trade product exchanged for cultivated foods from farmers by tropical forest hunter-gatherers all over the world.
  4. The South Cotabato rain forest lacks sufficient wild plant foods to sustain a pure foraging group. The evidence strongly supports this. The Tasaday ate a wide variety of wild fruits, roots, palm pith, etc. But these are so widely scattered and difficult to harvest that it is unlikely that foragers could depend on such resources to provide adequate carbohydrate needs unless they also had access to some cultivated starch foods.
  5. No one ever observed the Tasaday subsisting from wild foods. It was assumed a priori, and reported in the earliest reports (Elizalde with Fox 1971a; MacLeish 1972; Fernandez and Lynch 1972) that their diet was based solely on nondomestic foods; and because of the tight restrictions put on some of the original dozen scientists by the Panamin staff, those scientists never learned otherwise during their fieldwork periods there in 1972. But from June 1971 the Tasaday ate rice, often two and sometimes three times per day, even during the periods when the scientists were there. What is significant is that the rice was often given to them by the Panamin staff without the knowledge of the scientists. The scientists, not knowing this, thought the Tasaday were fulfilling their nutritional needs from wild foods. It was only later that a few of them discovered that rice was secretly being provided for the Tasaday by Panamin employees.
  6. The Tasaday bamboo utensils were of cultivated bamboo, not wild bamboo. Such utensils include the bamboo tubes in which they cooked their food, their bamboo hunting bows, and their bamboo jew’s harps. The question is, Where did this bamboo come from? Not from the rain forest. Worldwide, there are some 700 species of bamboo; but the large woody species that stand erect on their own--the type in which the Tasaday cooked their food--are sun-loving, cultivated, and do not grow in shaded primary rain forest. Peralta states in his chapter, ‘The species of bamboo required did not grow there’; and Robert Fox (Elizalde with Fox 1971a:8), as well as John Nance (1975:23, 64), also recognized that the bamboo was not wild. The Tasaday, then, either planted the bamboo themselves or got it from Manobo farmers. Thus, since they were making these three tools from a cultivar, they could not have been as ignorant of agriculture as was originally claimed.
  7. The Tasaday stone tools displayed in Manila and shown in photographs were not genuine tools. The Tasaday were said to have had three simple stone tools in 1971, which were reportedly taken to Manila by Elizalde, where they strangely disappeared. For some unexplained reason, they were never photographed, and no one has seen them since. The stone tools subsequently published in photographs and displayed in the Panamin Museum in Manila were made by Manobo or Tasaday at the request of Panamin personnel for the benefit of newspaper correspondents. The Tasaday may have used some stone in their technology, but they did not use stone tools in the sophisticated way that humans did during the Upper Paleolithic.
  8. The Tasaday do not speak a separate language or unintelligible dialect. They speak a dialect of the nearby Cotabato Manobo language, one of more than twenty languages making up the Manobo subgroup of the Southern Philippine Austronesian language family. About 85% of Tasaday words are identical to Cotabato Manobo. If shared cognates are taken into consideration, the percentage would, of course, be higher. In 1989, Tasaday conversations tape-recorded by Molony in 1972 were played by Johnston in several Manobo villages. As Johnston reports in his chapter, the Manobo had no trouble understanding these although they did notice that the 'tune' (i.e., the accent) was different. It is important to note, however, that all the linguists who reviewed the Tasaday language data agree that the Tasaday speak a separate dialect of Manobo. Their speech is not identical with Cotabato Manobo speech, or with any Manobo dialect yet studied. A full Manobo dialect survey has yet to occur. Reid states in his chapter, and Molony and Elkins now concur in theirs, that this shows that the Tasaday have lived apart from Manobo people for at least 100-150 years. Thus the linguistic data we have to date, admittedly incomplete, support the no-hoax theory. Molony's observation that the Tasaday speech lacks borrowed words and agricultural terms makes it difficult to accept the view that these people were nothing more than farmers who had just moved into a cave to pose as something prehistoric.

These eight points, although they do not prove that the early Tasaday reports were a hoax do, however, indicate that the people were not as isolated and ‘primitive’ as first reported. It was more the fault of the journalists and Panamin officials--not the original dozen scientists who were more conservative in their analyses--that the story turned into a media circus.