The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Still looking for an idyllic Stone Age

Most of us long to believe that the future holds a better time. It is equally tempting to believe or imagine that things were better ' simpler, more manageable ' at some point in the remote past. Not many of us can resist the allure of some romanticism about the past and our ancestors. Peaceful primitives, noble savages, golden ages ' the variations on the theme of our ancestors and their times range from innocent nostalgia to a more manipulative rewriting of the past. But how far are we willing to go to obtain proof that better times ' and better human beings ' are possible' And what do we do when we find we have been a little too credulous' The story of the Stone Age Tasadays is a good starting point to consider such questions.

In the early Seventies, with the Vietnam war raging in the neighbourhood, the Philippines provided America with a convenient base. Not only did the country host air and naval bases, it also became one more location for the R&R of American soldiers. The steel and butterfly team of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos ran the country like their fiefdom. They were buddies with powerful white foreigners ' ranging from the powers-that-were in Washington to Gina Lollobrigida. They were also eager to promote the Philippines as an exotic tourist destination. Imelda Marcos looked kindly on international beauty contests, and the Philippines became one of the first third world countries to advertise tourist destinations, as well as the beauty of the local women, through the televised beauty pageant. Imelda also supported the showcasing of 'traditional' and 'folk' arts, preferably in the spanking new cultural centre she had just had built in Manila. It was at such a time that a great 'anthropological discovery' was made. Manuel Elizalde, a Marcos prot'g', found time between his activities as playboy and cultural minister to discover the kind of ancestors the media ' as well as war-weary people ' dream of. Elizalde claimed to have information from a hunter called Dafal that there was a band of some twenty-eight Stone Age people deep in the vast and isolated rain forests of southern Cotabato. These people, called Tasaday, believed themselves to be the only people in the world.

With Dafal as the middleman, Elizalde orchestrated a complicated operation so as to inform the world of this amazing discovery. Dafal the hunter gained the confidence of the Tasaday chief. A temporary landing pad was built for reporters on a treetop, 75 feet above the jungle floor. Television reporters arrived by helicopter, climbed down to the platform, then down the tree. They then spent two days filming life in the Stone Age with the help of two interpreters.

What did the world at large (represented by National Geographic and NBC Television) find out about our Stone Age ancestors' They were, of course, pretty much naked: the men wore a very basic genital pouch; the women wore a grass skirt. Ignorant of agriculture, they lived off the jungle. They lived in caves and used old stone tools and created fire through a pre-historic method ' by whirling a wooden rod back and forth between the palms and nursing the spark with the dried threads of vegetable fibre. And most important, in sharp contrast to the ruthless modern war in progress in their part of the world, the Tasaday were entirely peaceful. They didn't even have words for enemy, war, or conflict. There was an additional twist for garnish. The Tasaday spoke of a prophecy handed down from their ancestors ' that an outsider would come to them, to love and protect them and lead them out of darkness. (This was, obviously, Elizalde.) Elizalde, as protector of the gentle Tasaday, insisted that all interaction with the tribe occur only under strictly supervised conditions and for limited periods of time. (He was apparently paid $50,000 for exclusive rights by NBC though.) Despite these precautionary measures, the Tasaday became the centre of journalistic and anthropological attention.

But the media heat cooled as the Marcos government declared martial law in 1972, and subsequently cut off access to the 45,000 acre Tasaday reserve to help them 'preserve their way of life'. All contact with the newfound Stone Age ancestors was lost.

Fourteen years passed; the Marcos government was overthrown and martial law lifted. Then Oswald Iten, a Swiss journalist with a doctorate in anthropology, decided to travel into the Philippine jungle to find out what had become of the Tasaday. The caves were empty. He found the Tasadays nearby, dressed in Western clothes, leading simple though not primitive lives. The Tasaday apparently told Iten they were actually farmers from the other side of the mountain, paid by Elizalde to pose as a primitive tribe. They were promised further monetary assistance and security from counter-insurgency and tribal fighting.

The allegory of a yearning for a more peaceful, simpler time quickly became a symbol of manipulation ' and general popular gullibility. The revelation that the Tasaday were a fake tribe shocked the world just as much as their initial discovery had moved them. But Elizalde continued to insist on the authenticity of his Stone Age tribe, even flying some of them to Manila to file a lawsuit against their detractors. The absence of words was once again used to make a 'significant' point: in addition to the lack of martial vocabulary, the Tasaday also had no word for 'fake'. Obviously, Elizalde didn't know his clich's well: the bitten were too shy to take the language bait the second time.

Among the more virulent detractors are the anti-evolution types ' who see 'the tasaday hoax' as one more means to push their 'intelligent designs' about our collective past. Hemley himself concludes that although the Tasaday were not completely isolated, which is how they were presented by Elizalde, National Geographic and others who first 'discovered and packaged' them for world consumption, the linguistic evidence that the Tasaday constitute 'a separate ethnic group' cannot be easily dismissed. Finally, though the Tasadays did not provide the yearned-for encounter with ancestors, they are the simplest and most guileless of the numerous characters in the story. All we can conclude is that the scoop ' and its tellings and retellings ' reveal more about the tellers than either the Tasadays or our Stone Age ancestors.

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