In 1971, as the U.S. military ravaged the Vietnam countryside with the most advanced technology available, a different set of images arose from Southeast Asia. Anthropologists and journalists had uncovered in the Philippines an indigenous tribe whose placid existence defied the Hobbesian violence of Vietnam. Acclaimed as the “Gentle Tasaday,” these hunter-gatherers carried crude stone tools and claimed no land but the dense rainforest surrounding their caves. They soon graced the cover of National Geographic and starred in documentaries and books. To many, they were “the anthropological find of the century,” a Stone Age tribe whose innocence confirmed the essential goodness of humanity. Humans, however, tend to subvert such tidy ideological interpretation. By 1986, the Tasaday were riddled by accusations of fraud and reports of an elaborate hoax orchestrated by President Ferdinand Marcos’s publicity-hungry government. But again the truth proved protean. As Robin Hemley describes in Invented Eden: The Elusive, Disputed History of the Tasaday, those who seek to explain this inscrutable tribe often end up revealing more about themselves then they do of their subject.
A creative-writing professor, Hemley is perhaps as well equipped as any anthropologist to relate the Tasaday’s history, a saga equal parts fact and fiction, science and sensationalism. At the center is Manuel Elizalde Jr., a/k/a Manda, the Philippines’ Harvard-educated minister of indigenous people. A playboy with a penchant for the primitive, Manda discovered the Tasaday in 1971 and was either their savior, inventor, or destroyer, depending on the source. With his fickle permission and assistance, small troops of journalists and anthropologists flocked to the Tasaday’s mountain home. Although scientific studies were brief and often mysteriously aborted, the stories were captivating, describing a cave-dwelling, leaf-wearing clan removed from the world’s progress for thousands, or at least hundreds, of years. But the tribe vanished as quickly as it appeared. By 1974, visits to their new 45,000-acre reservation were rare, and in 1976 Marcos officially closed off the Tasaday to the public.
If not for the efforts in 1986 of Swiss reporter Oswald Iten, the Tasaday fairy tale might have remained intact. Aided by a Filipino journalist and activist, he navigated land riven by violence among Communist forces, Muslim insurgents, and marauding soldiers, only to find the famous Tasaday caves empty. The destitute tribe was instead living in neighboring huts and, most damningly, wearing jeans and T-shirts. Isolated for nearly a decade (Manda had fled the country before Marcos’s fall), they asked Iten for protection and support. He declined, but left with a staggering story of local farmers coerced into playing the role of a Stone Age tribe. Once again, journalists and anthropologists descended. Harnessing inconclusive data, they soon divided into camps of defenders and hoax theorists. Three heated conferences later, the question of the Tasaday’s authenticity remains unresolved.
Revisions of seminal anthropological studies have become almost commonplace of late. The innate “fierceness” of Napoleon Chagnon’s Amazonian Yanomami has been bitterly debated, thanks to Patrick Tierney’s controversial Darkness in El Dorado (2000). Similarly, later studies have challenged idyllic characterizations of both the !Kung San of the Kalahari Desert and Margaret Mead’s beloved Samoan adolescents. Because of the scattershot research conducted upon them, the Tasaday were particularly susceptible to becoming Rorschach tests onto which various journalists and, it seems, certain anthropologists projected their fantasies. Some, Hemley argues, approached them determined to find untouched gentleness after the ruin of napalm. Others, trained in an era of suspicion and conspiracy, returned with jaundiced eyes to the tribe.
Hemley’s irritatingly self-conscious but still ingratiating account probes the players in this expansive story, scrutinizes their publications and personal reflections, and explores the way truth is arrived at in both journalistic and academic quests. In each, leading questions, preconceptions, miscommunication, and the prospect of celebrity generate polarized debate. In the midst of such knotty discussions, reality often ends up unacknowledged, discarded for its more congenial simulacrum.
Hemley concludes that the absolute truth of this particular story may be beyond our grasp. It lies with a group of people who have been thrust into celebrity and quickly neglected. They live in a region where missionaries, loggers, multinationals, government ministers, insurgents, and “Lost Commands” of prowling soldiers vie for power. Few of the scientists discussing the Tasaday have even visited this dangerous area. Furthermore, as Hemley demonstrates in his own visits, frank communication with them is confounded by misapprehension and his translators’ sometimes loose interpretations. After their 30-year trial at the hands of others, it seems, the Tasaday are guarding their truths. And in the modern world, truth (or its appearance) is a valuable commodity.
In 1986, two journalists from Stern magazine ventured to the caves on the heels of Oswald Iten and found a motley group back in their original leafy G-strings and skirts—but this time thrown over underwear, perhaps a half-hearted attempt to reclaim Stone Age authenticity and receive assistance. Fifteen years earlier, the Tasaday had learned that in exchange for food, medicine, protection, and clothing, they had only to offer up their Stone Age image. As one woman petulantly explained, “What we give you is that you click your cameras at us. . . . That is what we give!”