Thomas N. Headland

Senior Anthropology Consultant
Adjunct Professor of Anthropology

The Tasaday 'Cave People'

By Thomas N. Headland (1993)

This is an abridged version of an article by the same title originally published in a children’s magazine that is affiliated with the American Museum of Natural History in New York (FACES: The Magazine About People, volume 9, number 7, March 1993, pages 33-37). It provides here a short version of a long and complicated controversy for busy lay people who don’t want to read the whole book. A few notes were added in brackets in the text below in February 1999.

Bilangan (lower right), one of the main Tasaday men in 1972,

and his wife, clearing grass from in front of their house

with bush knives (Photo by Oswald Iten, March 1986)

In 1971 startling articles appeared in newspapers and magazines around the world. They reported the discovery of a band of Stone Age people called the Tasaday living deep in the tropical rain forest of southern Mindanao in the Philippines. These news reports claimed that this small group of only 26 people knew nothing of the outside world or even of the farming village located just two-and-a-half miles downstream from their cave home. They were described as the most primitive people on earth. The Tasaday lived in caves, used stone axes, wore tiny leaf G-strings, and ate only wild foods that they found in their forest abode--roots, wild bananas, grubs, berries, and crabs and frogs fished by hand from small streams. They did not even know how to hunt the monkeys, deer and wild pigs that abounded their forest. And they had no pottery, cloth, metal, art, houses, weapons, or dogs. they not only did not plant or cultivate domestic plants, but they were unaware of agricultural foods of any kind.

This discovery report grabbed enormous international attention after it was published as a cover story in National Geographic Magazine in August 1972, and after the National Geographic Society documentary film on the Tasaday was shown repeatedly on television stations around the world that same year. The fame of the Tasaday spread further in 1975 with the publication of the book The Gentle Tasaday: A Stone Age People in the Philippine Rain Forest by American reporter John Nance.

The man who led the discovery team that found the Tasaday people in June 1971 was Manuel Elizalde Jr., a wealthy Filipino politician. [Elizalde died in 1997 at age 60.] In March 1972 he set up a base camp for his team of 41 people near the mouth of the Tasaday's cave home so they could observe the lives of these 26 people. During the following months politicians, movie stars, journalists, celebrities and film makers were flown to the cave site in Mr. Elizalde's helicopters to visit the Tasaday for short periods of time. Independent scientists and anthropologists, however, were strictly forbidden to visit the area. The only exceptions were nine scientists, carefully chosen by Elizalde, who were allowed to visit the site for a few days and who published their reports.

Then, on December 16, 1972, Elizalde closed his base camp, and all contact between the Tasaday and outside visitors came to a halt [except for Elizalde's quick overnight visits in April 1973 and March 1974]. Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos even threatened imprisonment of any scientist caught entering the Tasaday area without Elizalde’s permission. A blanket of silence fell over the Tasaday, lasting for 13 years until the overthrow of the Marcos government.

Then, just a month after the fall of President Marcos in 1986, sensational reports on the Tasaday again appeared in newspapers and television. These reports, however, were calling the 1971 story a hoax. In the chaotic month following Marcos's downfall, foreign journalists had been able to slip into the area. They found the Tasaday living in regular houses in the area, wearing western clothes, and tending gardens just like those of other rural Manobo people in the southern Philippines.

Eight Little-Known Facts

What can these [eight] facts tell us? Since the Tasaday had trade goods (cloth, brass, iron tools, glass beads, tin cans, etc.) before they were 'discovered,' they couldn't have been isolated. The public was told that they wore only leaves, and all the published photographs showed them dressed that way; but that was because Elizalde asked them to switch from cloth to leaves when he first contacted them. Anthropologists now know that the stone axes were fakes, made up on the spot solely for impressing the visiting journalists. There is no evidence that they ever had a stone-tool technology, so they should never have been called 'Stone Age.' Anthropologists also now realize that Philippine rain forests do not have enough wild starch food for pure human foragers to live on over a long period. [See the Wild Yam Question.] While the Tasaday ate wild fruits, roots, palm pith, etc., these are too difficult to find and harvest for foragers to depend on them for all their food needs. It was at first assumed that the Tasaday lived only on wild foods, and some of the nine scientists never learned otherwise during their visits there in 1971 and 1972. But the Tasaday were then eating rice, probably on a daily basis. Anthropologists were shocked when they learned later that rice was often given to them secretly by Elizalde's staff. Most of the original nine scientists, not knowing this, thought the Tasaday were living on wild foods, until later when a few of them discovered that rice was being smuggled up to the Tasaday caves after dark. And where did the bamboo come from, since it does not grow wild in the rain forest? They either planted it themselves or got it from the fields of Manobo farmers that were less than a three-hour walk away. Since the Tasaday were using this cultivated plant, and eating rice (which does not grow wild in the Philippines), they could not have been as ignorant of agriculture as was claimed. Finally, if they had been out of contact with all other people for hundreds of years, they would speak a separate language. But the fact is, they speak the same language (called Manobo) as that of thousands of other farmers living in southern Mindanao, with only minor dialect differences. [But see another opinion by Lawrence Reid.]

So, was the Tasaday story a hoax or not? Today anthropologists agree that the widely-hailed story that these people were Stone Age cavemen living in isolation for hundreds of years is patently false. In that sense, it was a hoax. On the other hand, however, the non-hoax element is that there was a small community of people called Tasaday that really exists and who were living as a separate--but not isolated--group of hunters and food gatherers in the rain forest of the southern Philippines. While there are still some uncertainties about just how the Tasaday lived before they were 'discovered' in 1971, we may at least conclude today that these 26 people were neither uncontacted Stone-Age cave dwellers nor farmers brought into the forest and paid to imitate a crude lifestyle of archaic prehistoric Man.

The evidence we have [in 1993] suggests that the Tasaday were a group of hunter-gatherers. But rather than being ultra-primitives, they lived during the first half of the twentieth century much like other hunter-gatherer groups in Southeast Asia. They thus had iron tools and did not use stone axes; they wore cotton cloth; and they lived in simple thatch huts, although they may have slept in caves occasionally when on overnight trips, just as do other Asian hunter-gatherers. They certainly ate wild foods, but also cultivated foods such as rice and root crops that they got through trading.

The Tasaday did live separate--but neither alone nor isolated--from Manobo farming groups. They visited and traded with outsiders, and especially with the farmers living in the village just two-and-a-half miles from the Tasaday cave. And they were once farmers themselves, a century ago, descendants of Manobo farmers who separated from an agricultural village sometime in the 19th century, and moved deeper into the rain forest near where they live today.