Science / Medicine : 19-Year Debate Over ‘Stone Age’ Tasaday Thrives in Rain Forest : Anthropology: Scientists remain divided over the authenticity of the cave-dwelling tribe. Now upheaval in the Philippines threatens to obscure the truth even further.

<i> Bower is behavioral sciences editor for Science News magazine in Washington, D.C</i>

They call it the rain-forest Watergate.

One of the most confusing and contentious debates in modern anthropology concerns a group of 70 people living in a mountainous rain forest on Mindanao, the second-largest island in the Philippines. The people are known as the Tasaday, and their story is a volatile blend of science, politics and the media.

In late 1971, the Tasaday were heralded as the most primitive people on Earth, living a virtually Stone Age life. National Geographic ran a cover story on the 26 Tasaday individuals observed crouching in two caves, wearing orchid-leaf coverings, using stone and bamboo tools, and eating wild roots, bananas, berries, grubs, and crabs and frogs scooped by hand from nearby streams. They had no pottery, no woven cloth, no metal, no art, no weapons, no domestic plants or animals--in sum, no apparent knowledge of the outside world.

But in 1986, the Tasaday’s pristine reputation was abruptly blasted out of the water. A Swiss journalist, soon to be followed by two German reporters, trekked to the tribe’s mountain caves. After interviewing several Tasaday and observing their colored T-shirts, wooden beds and metal knives, the journalists pronounced them a hoax.


They reported that several Tasaday confessed to being members of two nearby farming tribes and had been coerced to act like Stone Age survivors by Manuel Elizalde Jr., who in the early 1970s served Philippine President Ferdinand E. Marcos as head of a government agency charged with protecting the rights of minority groups. The scheme, according to the European reports and later television documentaries in the United States and England, was hatched to make Marcos look like a friend of Philippine tribes while he arranged to exploit valuable mahogany stands on their preserves.

Several anthropologists then joined the fray, charging that the Tasaday are bogus and the scientists who studied them in 1972 were duped by Elizalde.

The original investigators of the Tasaday unanimously responded that the cave dwellers are a distinct tribe, although not relics of the Stone Age.

The only thing for certain at this point is that the scientific data on the Tasaday are preliminary and even new investigations may not lead to a consensus about their origins.

For example, anthropologist and long-time Tasaday skeptic Zeus Salazar of the University of the Philippines interviewed several Tasaday informants and in 1988 presented several genealogies, or family histories, showing that 16 of the Tasaday studied in 1972 were actually members of the nearby T'boli and Blit Manubo tribes.

But another genealogical study, described at a November, 1989, meeting of the American Anthropological Assn., indicates the Tasaday are for real and have inhabited their portion of the Mindanao mountains for at least seven generations, or approximately 200 years. Ethnographer Amelia Rogel-Rara of the Tasaday Community Care Foundation in Manila and her co-workers interviewed all 70 Tasaday now living in the rain forest, as well as about 40 of their friends and relatives living elsewhere.

Salazar remains skeptical and says Rogel-Rara’s work must be examined closely before winning scientific acceptance.

Salazar also charges that the Tasaday language contains agricultural terms for planting and harvesting, activities they supposedly did not practice. Journalists who talked with Tasaday informants say they spoke the languages of nearby T'boli and Manubo farmers.

But the strongest evidence of the authenticity of the Tasaday lies in their speech, responds linguist Carol Molony of Stanford University, who visited the tribe for 14 days in 1972. Molony tape-recorded Tasaday conversations and developed an 800-word vocabulary list from their language. Tasaday is a dialect of other Manubo languages in the Philippines, she maintains. Many Tasaday words share common origins with words used by nearby farming tribes, but there are important differences, in Molony’s view. For instance, the Tasaday’s nearest neighbors use words of Sanskrit, Chinese, Spanish and English ancestry; no similar linguistic influences appear in the Tasaday tongue.

T'boli and Manubo actors could not banish these telltale terms from their speech, Molony argues.

Linguist Lawrence A. Reid of the University of Hawaii at Manoa examined Molony’s work and that of other language specialists who visited the Tasaday, and he agrees that they speak a Manubo dialect. The Tasaday probably belonged to a larger Manubo community around 150 years ago, Reid says, and, for some reason, retreated into the forest where their dialect has since developed.

Yet linguists Cesar and Araceli Hidalgo of the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur hiked up to the Tasaday caves last August and concluded the tribe speaks a language distinct from the Manubo dialects of nearby farmers. They agree with Molony and Reid, however, that the Tasaday are not a hoax.

Another critical question, notes anthropologist Thomas N. Headland of the Summer Institute of Linguistics in Dallas, involves what the Tasaday ate prior to their introduction to scientists in 1972. Based on his own fieldwork with a hunter-gatherer group on the Philippine island of Luzon, Headland says a rain forest does not contain enough wild starch foods, such as yams, to sustain human life. The Tasaday, like the Luzon tribe, must have traded forest products for starches cultivated by farmers within a three-hour walk of their caves, he contends. Headland doubts the Tasaday were isolated in the forest for more than a century, as some of the linguistic data suggest.

Ethnobotanist Douglas E. Yen of Australia National University in Canberra disagrees. Yen spent 38 days with the Tasaday in 1972 studying their diet. The forest provided enough food of sufficient variety to subsist on, he says. Some Tasaday went on hunting and gathering trips for a week or more, Yen notes. They returned with small bundles of meat, and probably ate larger quantities at animal kill sites, a common practice among other hunter-gatherers.

By 1972 the Tasaday were receiving government rice supplements, Yen says, and with worldwide publicity came the rapid introduction of agricultural practices and other outside influences. “We may have seen the last of the original Tasaday in 1972,” he asserts.

Yen suspects the Tasaday were farmers sometime within the past few centuries and fled to the mountains to escape one of the Philippines’ many political upheavals.

Tasaday doubters, such as Gerald Berreman of UC Berkeley, maintain there is plenty of evidence suggesting the tribe is phony and probably an invention of Elizalde. “This is a rain-forest Watergate,” Berreman says.

Scientific investigations in the early 1970s were tightly controlled by Elizalde and lasted only about three hours per day, after which visitors were flown out by helicopter, he points out. Impostors could easily have snuck back to their home villages at night and returned early in the morning.

Berreman also charges that Tasaday stone tools were crude, virtually unusable and obvious fakes. Furthermore, there is no evidence of nearby forest-dwelling tribes that allegedly intermarried with the Tasaday and would have been critical to the reproductive success of such a small group. Perhaps most telling, Berreman adds, is the lack of any reports of debris in the Tasaday caves, a sure sign of human occupation.

Yen and John Nance, a Portland, Ore., journalist who has visited the Tasaday many times and staunchly defends their authenticity, say there were refuse piles in the Tasaday caves down a hillside from the caves in 1972, but an archeological study of the remains was not conducted.

Such a study may not be performed in the near future, either. The Philippines’ political situation is unstable, and scientists in search of the Tasaday face potentially life-threatening encounters. Marxist guerrillas, disaffected soldiers from the Marcos regime and armed tribal groups all operate out of the Mindanao rain forest.

Political pressures also fuel the hoax charges, according to Tasaday supporters. If the Philippine government proclaims the Tasaday to be impostors, their 46,300-acre forest preserve--established by Marcos in 1973--would be taken away. It then would become fair game for logging companies, miners of silver and other valuable metals and developers desperate for land amid a burgeoning population crunch on the islands.

For now, both the Tasaday preserve and the rancorous scientific debate over their origins remain intact. A panel convened by the American Anthropological Assn. will soon review evidence on the tribe.

“It would take a competent archeologist a matter of hours to examine the Tasaday caves and determine whether they had been inhabited for days or for generations,” says William Longacre of the University of Arizona in Tucson. But given the combative scientific and political context, “I wouldn’t touch that study with a 10-foot pole,” Longacre adds.