Not Altogether Lost
- Invented Eden: The Elusive, Disputed History of the Tasaday by Robin Hemley
Farrar, Straus, 352 pp, US $25.00, May 2003, ISBN 0 374 17716 3
In June 1971 it was learned that a hitherto unknown tribe had been found living in the dense rainforest of Mindanao in the southern Philippines. Reportedly, the group consisted of 27 members, spoke an unknown tongue and wore only leaves. Tentatively named Tasaday after a nearby mountain, they seemed to be exclusively hunter-gatherers who knew nothing of agriculture and used stone tools to dig for wild yams. In keeping with the Edenic simplicity of their long hair and near-nudity, they were credited with having no knowledge of war or aggressiveness. At the time – pretty much the hippy high noon of flower-power and anti-Vietnam protest – the Tasaday’s punctuality seemed as impeccable as their unspoilt innocence was chastening. Anthropologists and news teams began converging on Manila.
From the first, two men were prominent in the Tasaday story and it was through them that much of the information was channelled. One was John Nance, an Associated Press combat photographer who had been wounded in Vietnam and recently posted to head AP’s Manila bureau. It was largely through Nance’s books, such as The Gentle Tasaday, together with National Geographic’s idyllic pictures (‘First Glimpse of a Stone Age Tribe’), that images of the Tasaday became internationally familiar. Later, Nance was to become controversial, though never with the notoriety of the other protagonist. This was the Filipino millionaire who credited himself with the tribe’s discovery, Manuel (‘Manda’) Elizalde.
Manda was the son of a Spanish businessman and a Boston Brahmin: parents who between them represented both the Philippines’ colonial rulers. He grew up in ravaged postwar Manila as a beneficiary of the vast Elizalde business empire: an excellent tennis player, a spoilt playboy, a youthful alcoholic. Some said marriage obliged him to turn over a new leaf, others that he needed to travel further afield to indulge his erotic tastes. In any event he became interested in tribal minorities, the less clad the better. The Elizaldes were one of the few elite families to support rather than fall foul of President Marcos, who had come to power in late 1965 intent on settling some old scores. By the time of his Tasaday discovery, Manda was head of PANAMIN (Presidential Assistance on National Minorities), the organisation charged with the protection of the Philippines’ ethnic minorities: some 44 tribal groups. He had reformed his drinking habits and become a ubiquitous figure, dropping godlike into rural backwaters in his private helicopter, strewing food and favours. A flamboyant and complex character, often moody and sometimes violent, he was also capable of being strangely sympathetic. A mutual friend once told me that if Manda didn’t shoot your socks off first he would probably charm them off. No one who visited his Manila mansion ever forgot the experience, nor the extensive garden where he required tribespeople to live in exact replicas of their huts wearing nothing but tribal costume. The visitor was struck by a preponderance of women, a good few of whom were little more than children.
This was the man who in 1971 announced his discovery of the Tasaday, and whose PANAMIN organisation controlled access to them from the outset. Carefully selected film crews, journalists and scientists made the trip down to South Cotabato and were arduously choppered into dense jungle to view the tribe. Imelda Marcos visited and declared herself a changed person; so did Gina Lollobrigida and Charles Lindbergh. National Geographic came and went twice. Everyone who visited the Tasaday was ravished by the remote setting and touched by the group’s affectionate spontaneity. For their part the Tasaday became deeply attached to John Nance and positively idolised Manda. In 1974, President Marcos, having basked in the favourable attention the group had brought to an Administration that had turned into a dictatorship, ordered a 45,000-acre patch of jungle closed as a reserve for the Tasaday. Nobody was to have access. For twelve years the group faded from view, until the Marcoses were ousted by Cory Aquino’s ‘People Power’ uprising in 1986 and sent into exile in Hawaii. At this point some Tasaday, by then wearing jeans, reportedly confessed to a Filipino journalist that they were actually local farmers who had been ordered to impersonate an imaginary tribe and had been carefully coached in their roles. Within a week two German reporters from Stern tracked down the same Tasaday informants, who were now wearing leaves over glimpses of cotton underwear. There had been sceptics and cynics right from the start, but now the rumours that had been held in whispered abeyance during Marcos’s time surfaced loudly. The Tasaday were a complete hoax. Scientific reputations crumbled overnight; John Nance was pilloried for gullibility or worse; journalistic careers (including Nance’s) were destroyed; Manda had already fled the Philippines. And yet the Tasaday – whoever they are – are there to this day, living in what remains of their jungle. Manda himself is dead but John Nance is still in regular contact and continues to maintain that they are genuine, a story from which he has never wavered for over thirty years. Linguists have identified their dialect as a distinct offshoot of Cotabato Manobo, a language unrelated to T’boli, the tongue of the surrounding area.
Robin Hemley’s book is a brave and wholly convincing attempt to find the truth concerning the ‘anthropological fraud of the century’. These days, and certainly in the Philippines, the received opinion is that the Tasaday were unquestionably a hoax – dreamed up by Manda Elizalde purely for personal aggrandisement (his discovery brought him international celebrity) or else in cahoots with Ferdinand Marcos. By 1971, Marcos’s second term of office (he had been re-elected in 1969) was going badly. There had been destabilising attacks by Maoist guerrillas of the New People’s Army and increasingly violent protests from leftist students; unrest was to escalate until Marcos declared martial law in September the following year. This was highly damaging to his Administration’s image, not least because in the American view the Philippines had long been ‘the showcase of American democracy’. Ferdinand and Imelda had been given the red-carpet treatment by President Johnson on a state visit to Washington in 1966 and the US had been fully supportive of Marcos ever since: it needed his country as a loyal, stable aircraft carrier moored within easy reach of Vietnam. Domestic unrest in the Philippines looked almost as bad for Washington as for Marcos, and by mid-1971 there was an urgent need for some favourable news to counteract the damaging stories in the international press.
Against this background the Tasaday appeared as a godsend. The images of innocent leaf-clad forest dwellers still living a palaeolithic dream probably did help to put a more human face on Marcos’s regime for a while – or at least to distract the world’s attention away from his political prisons. The Tasaday became exhibits required to perform for the camera. Here, Hemley might have broadened his thinking about the exhibiting of ‘primitive’ tribal groups. The largest single exhibit at the St Louis World’s Fair of 1904 was the Philippines pavilion, intended to display the archipelago lately taken beneath the United States’ colonising wing. Some 1200 Filipinos were shipped over to be exhibited as examples not merely of the variety of tribes and traditions scattered over the 7200 islands, but also of the uplifting influence of American tutelage. There were tableaux vivants of natives doing their native thing: carving wood, dancing tribal dances and exposing a good deal of titillating flesh – much like Manda Elizalde’s garden on a grand scale. The Fair’s twenty million visitors may have arrived in a state of complete ignorance, but having watched the antics of the captive Filipinos they presumably went away feeling virtuous that their country had brought belated civilisation to these savages. Filipinos still shudder at the memory of the World’s Fair. You would have thought that the last thing you’d find in any modern Philippines exhibition would be show tribes, but you’d be wrong. At President Ramos’s huge Expo Pilipino of the late 1990s there they all were again: Ifugao, Kalinga and Sama Dilaut people listlessly whittling and weaving and dancing on the airbase the USAF had abandoned after the eruption of Mount Pinatubo.
In the early 1970s the Tasaday had to stand both for the enlightened, magnanimous face of Marcos’s totalitarianism and for a mystical simplicity from which an overcivilised and careworn world could learn. By 1988 they had been reduced to posing in a papier-mâché cave at a cultural festival. The Bureau of Tourism would have been hard-pressed to explain what this exhibit was supposed to signify; the Christian Science Monitor called it exploitation. Was it intended to validate the group’s authenticity, a simulacrum of something too precious to be realised with complete faithfulness? In 1997, the year Manda died of cancer, I had a marathon dinner à deux with Imelda Marcos at which she went out of her way to insist on the Tasaday’s authenticity and the purity of their indifference to materialism. This claim had already broken down badly; various members of the group had long been complaining bitterly about the salt, beads, cloth and torches that Manda had promised them and that never arrived. As for the blissful assertions of Tasaday pacifism, those went quiet within months of their discovery when they were seen scrambling for bows and arrows on spotting an intruder.
Hemley is properly conscientious about placing the Tasaday in their political and geographical context, a vital element in any ‘lost tribe’ story: Eden is always as much about real estate as it is about innocence. An ironic picture emerges of the gentle Tasaday living a forest idyll amid the violent civil war raging all around them in Mindanao; of the voracious people and factions with a stake in their story; of rumours that Manda was ‘really’ using the Tasaday as a cover for a marijuana plantation or as a way of soliciting foreign funds for PANAMIN. Still, Hemley could certainly have justified a digression to recognise that the ‘lost tribe’ is a significant trope in itself, one that has exerted ever greater fascination as the number of locations that might harbour genuinely ‘unknown’ peoples has shrunk. (One tribe to surface recently was in 1998 on the border between Brazil and Peru.) In this sense ‘lost’ has only ever meant ‘hitherto unknown to missionaries, anthropologists and film crews’. Such groups have always been in some sort of contact with other indigenous locals: all peoples have histories and interrelationships, and all – however faintly and indirectly – have been in some way affected by European expansion. Hemley gives a perfunctory overview of anthropology’s recent preoccupations, but seems resistant to the fact that what currently concerns anthropology is precisely this interrelatedness. The sentimental figure of the ecologically noble savage, to which Hemley admits being attracted, has long ceased to interest.
The exact degree of the Tasaday’s ‘lostness’ was always a confounding issue. As early as 1971, experienced anthropologists such as Robert Fox and Zeus Salazar had observed that since the group’s nearest neighbours were barely two and a half miles away it was only reasonable to suppose they must have been having regular outside contact. Others seemed to have a vested interest in proving the Tasaday’s existence to be hermetic. Behind this desire lurked yearnings for what we ourselves have supposedly lost in becoming more developed. If it were not for the lingering mythology of the Fall, it seems doubtful that we would hold lost innocence – or the Edenic primitives of ‘lost’ tribes – in such high regard. When Hemley himself admits to being susceptible to this idealised fiction, he passes up an opportunity to be clear about the political implications for the peoples concerned. He could have taken for granted a certain consanguinity in the area and moved on to point out that the Tasaday are not only ineluctably involved with the local social and political scene, but also with international questions of justice which make it impermissible for ‘lost’ tribes to remain either idealised or artificially sequestered.
This is the moment for a mea culpa. In the mid-1990s I was spending much of my time in the Philippines researching America’s Boy, a book about the Marcos era. Grudgingly, I concluded that I dared not omit the Tasaday because they afforded one of the few stories that everyone knew about the Marcos regime (along with Imelda’s damned shoes). My own view of them was sketchy and conventional, and, realising that the subject probably merited at least a year’s research all to itself I lazily fell back on canvassing the views of people more knowledgeable than I. They included some journalists I trusted, a Mindanao expert or two and faculty members of the Department of Anthropology at UP, where in particular I consulted Arnold Azurin. An overwhelming consensus confirmed what I had already heard: the Tasaday were a scam. Azurin alone had written extensive rebuttals of each claim for their genuineness. That seemed good enough for me, and I wrote accordingly, saying that believers such as John Nance had been left looking particularly silly. When my book was published I received a generous, dignified letter of protest from Nance, correctly pointing out that I had never visited the Tasaday, knew nothing about them other than hearsay, and that my conclusion was quite simply wrong. I replied, saying I would be happy to recant the moment some really good evidence of their genuineness was produced.
Invented Eden now gives me the opportunity to apologise to John Nance and to admit that although faint doubts will always remain, my indolent, secondhand opinion on the Tasaday was almost certainly wrong. For, after laying out his (sometimes exhaustingly) detailed research, including intrepid treks through guerrilla territory to visit the Tasaday, Hemley concludes there was no real hoax. From the outset the Tasaday’s true identity had been obscured by private motives, wishful thinking and journalistic labels such as the ‘stone age’ epithet unfortunately used by Nance himself. They are not a stone-age tribe, but a remnant of a much larger group which at some point during the past centuries (not millennia) fled deeper into the forest to escape a measles epidemic that is still part of their folklore. In this way they became isolated long enough for their language to have acquired mutations and for them to have forgotten their farming habits and reverted to hunter-gathering. When they hit the headlines in 1971, the Tasaday were what Lévi-Strauss calls ‘pseudo-archaics’: true marginals, even slightly feral.
Such are the people whom Nance befriended and whom he has loyally visited and supported ever since. He might not agree with every detail of Hemley’s conclusion, but at last he will surely feel vindicated as well as touched by Hemley’s tribute to him. In his letter to me Nance proposed that the hoax was itself a hoax: that powerful timber and mining interests wanted to get their hands on the 45,000 acres Marcos had awarded the Tasaday, and that declaring them a fake tribe was the surest way to get their reservation annulled and the land back up for grabs. This is all too likely. Hemley’s conclusion squares with my own experience in the Philippine province where I have lived on and off this last quarter-century. There, the original rainforest has long gone, felled by the Spanish to use in their galleon shipyards. But on the steep hills of the interior, amid secondary forest badly scarred by swidden (slash and burn) farming, indigent people scratch a living little better than that of the Tasaday. On a trip last year to see the results of a feeding programme, I encountered a group of 12 children between the ages of two and seven playing naked in some river shallows under the supervision of two nine-year-old girls. They had been left for the day without food, as they were most days, while their parents and older siblings were up in the woods and hills digging for wild yams. The Philippines is full of forgotten citizens, marginalised by isolation and poverty, landlessness and illiteracy, by loggers and prospectors, armed thugs and corrupt local officialdom. In this context, Hemley’s conclusion about the Tasaday’s true status is eminently persuasive. They are not exemplars of unspoiled innocence but victims of circumstance: baffled by duplicity, still poor though mostly clad in rags rather than leaves, and now in possession of tobacco and alcohol.
Victims of circumstance, yes, but Hemley makes the point early on that ‘the story of the Tasaday is as much about us (the industrialised world), who we perceive ourselves to be, as it is about a band of 27 or so souls in the Philippines who became stand-ins for the world’s hopes, dreams and fears.’ The same could be said of all ‘lost’ tribes. Right from the beginning everybody wanted something from these people who owned nothing. Manda wanted limelight; the Marcoses wanted virtue; anthropologists wanted a career exclusive; media folk wanted dewy pictures and stories of prelapsarian free love; depressed townies wanted a frisson of primitive transcendence; missionaries wanted them for Jesus; and a rabble of loggers, prospectors, Islamic and Christian guerrillas wanted their land. They were promised beads, salt and torches; they learned to act themselves with charming smiles. And they were asked countless questions. When professional linguists began learning to speak their language it was an intrusion too far. The Tasaday retreated still further and, like the Mitford sisters, used a private language among themselves. This was nafnaf, in which every word seemed to end in an –uff sound. Nobody outside the group ever understood nafnaf.
Language was always a problem with the Tasaday. They never could comprehend the incessant barrage of questions, neither its meaning nor purpose. They were not great talkers, there in their patch of jungle loud with silence and insect noises. There was little to discuss among themselves but their monumental lack; but they must not have been conscious of this until Manda’s helicopter descended and their lives were suddenly overwhelmed by devouring 20th-century voices. Joseph Roth got this right in his essay ‘Passengers with Heavy Loads’, watching refugees arrive in Berlin from remote rural areas after the First World War: ‘And what do the forest people talk about? They speak in half sentences and stunted sounds. They keep silent not from wisdom but from poverty.’