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In 1971 the news story broke of the discovery of a band of cave-dwelling people called "Tasaday," who were said to be living in a secluded area of rain forest in the Philippines. The discovery team was led by Manuel Elizalde Jr., the Filipino politician who headed PANAMIN (Presidential Assistant on National Minorities), the government agency then in charge of all Philippine tribal peoples. These twenty-six Tasaday individuals were reported to be following a Stone-Age life-style, surviving solely on wild foods, and wearing leaves for clothing. They reportedly knew nothing of the outside world, nor of the large village of agriculturalists located just a three-hour walk from their cave home. They knew neither how to hunt nor how to grow food, and ate only what they could forage: roots, wild bananas, grubs, berries, and crabs and frogs fished by hand from small streams. News reports said that they had no pottery, cloth, metal, art, houses, weapons, dogs, or domestic plants. The cave site where they are said to have lived is located in dense rain forest in South Cotabato Province in southern Mindanao, at 6° 18 N and 124°33 E, at an elevation of 1,200 meters.

The story gained worldwide attention mainly through the National Geographic Society, both from the publication of their famous cover story on the Tasaday (in National Geographic in 1972), and from their Tasaday film shown repeatedly on television stations worldwide in 1972-73. The fame of the Tasaday spread farther with the publication in 1975 of the book The Gentle Tasaday by American reporter John Nance. Politicians, movie stars, journalists, and film makers were flown in by PANAMIN helicopters to visit the Tasaday for short periods in 1972 and 1973. About a dozen scientists were invited by PANAMIN to visit the site, though only one, ethnobotanist Douglas Yen, was able to stay for more than a few days. (Yen was there for 41 days.) Most of these scientists published short articles in local Philippines publications. Then, in 1974, all contact with the Tasaday was stopped by the PANAMIN authorities. A blanket of silence fell over the Tasaday for thirteen years, until the termination of the Marcos government.

Then, just a month after the fall of Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos in February 1986, sensational reports on the Tasaday again hit the international press, this time saying the whole story was a hoax. Although rumors had quietly circulated in the Philippines academic community for years that the Tasaday were not all they had been made out to be, independent researchers and reporters alike had always been forbidden by Elizalde, PANAMIN, and the Marcos government from investigating these stories or visiting the Tasaday. In the chaotic month following Marcos's downfall, foreign journalists were able to slip into the area. The first was Swiss journalist Oswald Iten. In March of 1986 he found the Tasaday living in houses and wearing regular clothes. But a week later the German magazine Stern sent in their reporters. They photographed the same Tasaday man that Iten had photographed, this time wearing leaves, but with a pair of cloth underpants showing underneath the leaves. In the following months, most of the hundreds of news articles in the worldwide press argued that the Tasaday story was a complete fabrication.

For the public, the issue by the end of the 1980s had been simplistically reduced to two polar alternatives: were the Tasaday (in 1971) a group of primitive isolated foragers living off wild foods alone and unaware of the outside world, or were they rain-forest phonies? As Asiaweek stated in November 1988, the Tasaday discovery is either "one of the major anthropological events of the century," or "the hoax of the decade."

Actually, neither of these extreme views is correct. As anthropologists have analyzed the issues, a consensus perhaps halfway between these viewpoints has developed. The nohoax theorists had by 1991 moved away from the viewpoint that the Tasaday had lived completely isolated in a cave for hundreds of years, that they had a stone-tool technology, that they are windows into the Pleistocene epoch. Some of those anthropologists at the other extremethose who claimed a hoaxhave also retreated from their position that these people were "paid performers" brought in from outside to fake a primitive life-style before scientists and media cameras.

While the thirty or so scholars involved in the controversy in the late 1980s still disagree sharply on many of the details, almost all of them agree that the Tasaday were not following a Paleolithic foraging subsistence. They still disagree as to whether or not the Tasaday were living without iron tools, independently of cultivated foods, and with no interaction with farming peoples. But no scholar argues that they were a Stone Age people. On the other side, no anthropologist today claims that the Tasaday never existed. All seem to agree that they are a genuine minority tribal people who have always lived in South Cotabato in the general vicinity in which they were found in the early 1970s. Disagreement continues, among anthropologists especially, as to whether these twenty-six people (increased to about seventy in 1986) were a separate ethnic population, or merely a group from a nearby Manobo farming village who were asked by PANAMIN officials to live at the cave site whenever visitors were flown in.

A Hypothesis of Tasaday History before 1971

As of 1991, there are still few facts known about how the Tasaday lived in the recent past. Based on the data available, however, most anthropologists are led to accept the following tentative interpretation: it may be inferred that during the first half of the twentieth century the Tasaday were a group of foragers who lived not very differently from other hunter-gatherer groups in Southeast Asia (such as the Agta, Batak, Philippine Negritos, and Semang, who are described elsewhere in this encyclopedia). Linguistic analysis of the Tasaday language in 1989 provided strong evidence that sometime in the nineteenth century they separated from a Cotabato Manobo agricultural group and moved deeper into the rain forest of South Cotabato, near where they live today. Their economy then shifted from farming to a seminomadic foraging subsistence. They probably lived in simple huts and slept in rock shelters only during occasional overnight foraging trips. They ate wild foods, but also domestic foods, some of which they may have planted themselves in tiny gardens but most of which they secured by trading minor forest products with Manobo farmers living up to 40 kilometers away. In this hypothetical scenario, they had at least periodic interaction based on trade with other Manobo groups living in South Cotabato, especially with the people of Blit, the name of the agricultural village located in the late 1960s just 4 kilometers southwest of the Tasaday cave.

Some Little-Known Facts

While the above is a plausible but still hypothetical description of Tasaday history, there are some facts that have recently emerged concerning the pre-1970 Tasaday that indicate that the journalists, if not the early scientists, exaggerated the "primitiveness" of the Tasaday and led the public to assume that they were more isolated than they actually were. These eight facts, which no anthropologist disputes, are listed below. Explanation and documentation for these may be found in the 1991 volume by Headland that is listed in the bibliography at the end of this article.

  1. The Tasaday were not wearing leaves when discovered in 1971, as the public was led to believe. They were wearing commercial cloth. They were asked at that time by Elizalde to discard their cloth and to "wear their traditional" coverings. Thereafter, published films and photographs always showed them either naked or wearing orchid leaves.
  2. The Tasaday had trade goods before they were discovered in 1971; they were not isolated, out of contact with the modern world, or Paleolithic. Besides cloth, they had, for example, brass, metal-tipped arrows, bows made from cultivated (not wild) bamboo, iron bush knives, imported baskets, glass beads, and tin cans.
  3. Farming peoples in nearby towns were eating meat from wild game that had been killed and smoke-dried by Tasaday before 1971. This was probably an important trade item the Tasaday exchanged for the goods above. Wild meat is a main trade product exchanged for cultivated foods by tropical forest hunter-gatherers all over the world.
  4. The South Cotabato rain forest lacks sufficient wild plant foods to sustain a pure foraging group. The evidence is strong for this. Although the Tasaday ate wild fruits, roots, palm pith, etc., these are so widely scattered and difficult to harvest that foragers could not depend on such resources to provide adequate carbohydrate needs unless they also had access to some cultivated starch foods.
  5. No one ever observed the Tasaday subsisting on wild foods. It was assumed a priori that their diet was based solely on nondomestic foods, and the original dozen scientists never learned otherwise during their fieldwork periods there in the 1970s. But from June 1971 they ate rice, often two and sometimes three times per day, during the periods when the scientists were there. What is significant is that the rice was often given to them secretly by the PANAMIN staff. The scientists, not knowing this, thought the Tasaday were fulfilling their nutritional needs from wild foods. It was not until later that a few of them discovered that rice was being smuggled to the Tasaday.
  6. The Tasaday stone tools displayed in Manila and shown in photographs were not genuine tools. The Tasaday were said to have had three simple stone tools in 1971, but these were reportedly taken to Manila by Elizalde, where they strangely disappeared. They were never photographed, and no one has seen them since. The stone tools subsequently published in photographs and displayed in the PANAMIN Museum in Manila were made by Manobo Tasaday at the request of PANAMIN personnel for the benefit of newspaper correspondents. The Tasaday may have used some stone in their technology, but they did not use stone tools in the sophisticated way that humans did during the Upper Paleolithic period.
  7. The Tasaday do not speak a separate language or an unintelligible dialect. They speak a dialect of the nearby Cotabato Manobo language. About 85 percent of Tasaday words are identical to Manobo. The percentage of shared cognates would, of course, be much higher. In 1989, Tasaday conversations tape-recorded in 1972 were played by linguist Clay Johnston in several Manobo villages. The Manobo had no trouble understanding them, although they did notice that the "tune" (i.e., the accent) was different. It is important to note, however, that all the linguists who reviewed the Tasaday language data agree that the Tasaday speak a separate dialect of Manobo. Their speech is not identical with Manobo speech. This suggests that the Tasaday have lived geographically separate from Manobo people for at least 100 to 150 years. The Tasaday speak a dialect of Cotabato Manobo, one of more than twenty languages making up the Manobo Subgroup of the Southern Philippine Austronesian Language Family.
  8. The bamboo in which the Tasaday cooked their food was cultivated bamboo (Dinochloa spp.), not wild bamboo. This bamboo could not have come from the rain forest. They either planted it themselves or got it from Manobo farmers. Since the Tasaday were using a cultivar for their cooking vessels, they could not have been as ignorant of agriculture as was originally claimed.

The above eight points do not prove that the Tasaday were "a hoax"; in fact, the linguistic data (point 7) support the no-hoax theory. These points do indicate that they were not as isolated and "primitive" as first reported. The media circus surrounding the story was more the fault of the news reporters and PANAMIN officials than that of the original dozen scientists, who were much more conservative in their analyses. Discoveries of lost Stone-Age cavemen make for great press coverage, but poor science.

Critical Research Needed

The original claims in 1972 were that the Tasaday had been living for hundreds of years in a cave (actually, three adjacent caves, but they dwelled mainly in "Cave III," the largest). Although many outsiders visited the Tasaday at this cave site in 1972-73, PANAMIN never allowed any archaeological investigation to be done at the site. The research most needed at present, then, is in archaeology. As archaeologist William Longacre stated in 1989, it would only take a "blue-ribbon" team of archaeologists three or four days of digging at the cave site to collect the data needed to find out when and for how long humans lived in the cave, if ever, and what their subsistence was like. A simple dig into the cave midden (if there is one) would furnish valuable data, and would probably settle the hoax controversy once and for all.


Bower, Bruce (1989). "The Strange Case of the Tasaday: Were They Primitive Hunter-Gatherers or Rain-Forest Phonies?" Science News 135:280-281, 283. Reprinted in Anthropology Newsletter 30(7): 25-26 (October 1989).

Elizalde, Manuel, Jr., and Robert B. Fox (1971). "The Tasaday Forest People: A Data Paper on a Newly Discovered Food Gathering and Stone Tool Using Manubo Group in the Mountains of South Cotabato, Mindanao, Philippines." [Typescript, viii + 20 pp., + 5 unnumbered pages of 10 photographs. Dated July 1971.] Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, Center for Short-Lived Phenomena.

Fernandez, Carlos A., and Frank Lynch (1972). "The Tasaday: Cave-Dwelling Food Gatherers of South Cotabato, Mindanao." Philippine Sociological Review 20:275-330.

Headland, Thomas N., ed. (1991). The Tasaday Hoax Controversy: An Assessment of the Evidence. Washington, D.C.: American Anthropological Association.

MacLeish, Kenneth (1972). "Stone Age Cavemen of Mindanao." National Geographic 142(2): 219-249.

Nance, John (1975). The Gentle Tasaday: A Stone Age People in the Philippine Rain Forest. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. Reprint, with a new afterword by the author, pp. 453-471. 1988. Boston: David R. Godine.

Yen, D. E., and John Nance, eds. (1976). Further Studies on the Tasaday. Panamin Foundation Research Series, no. 2. Makati, Rizal: PANAMIN.


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Tasaday, alleged band of 25 hunter-gatherers living in the Philippine rain forest, purportedly contacted by Westerners for the first time in 1971 in southern Mindanao (Cotabato Province). They reportedly lived in a cave, used stone tools, subsisted solely by foraging on wild foods, and had no knowledge of agriculture or contact with farmers. After 1974, the Philippine government strictly prohibited all contact between outsiders and the Tasaday. After the fall of President Ferdinand Marcos in 1986, Western reporters returned to Cotabato and found the Tasaday living in houses in a farming village and wearing Western clothing. News accounts followed stating that the discovery of Tasaday as a band of cave-dwelling rain-forest foragers had been an elaborate hoax staged by the former presidential assistant on national minorities.

Specialists disagree on the matter. In 1991 an independent anthropologist issued a report concluding that the Tasaday were probably a band of foragers who did in fact live in the Cotabato rain forest but who were not nearly as isolated as the initial reports by the government agency entrusted with their protection made them out to be. Before 1971 the Tasaday wore cloth (not leaves), secured trade goods by trading smoked meat with farming villagers, and spoke a dialect of Catoboto Manobo that was fully intelligible to the local surrounding farming villagers but slightly different from these villagers' language. These facts suggest that the Tasaday represent the descendants of a group of Cotabato Manobo farmers who moved into the rain forest and adopted a mobile economy based on foraging, small-scale horticulture, and trade with surrounding farmers. It is unlikely that they ever lived permanently in caves. Ethnic groups practicing similar seminomadic subsistence economies are known from many parts of Southeast Asia (e.g., the Semang). Although Philippine authorities apparently initially promoted the "primitive" nature of the Tasaday band and then prevented independent specialists from properly investigating them, the Tasaday probably represent a genuine group, rather than a set of villagers recruited to take part in a hoax. The precise nature of the Tasaday band prior to 1971, however, is difficult to assess and remains controversial.

See T. A. Headland, ed., The Tasaday Controversy: Assessing the Evidence (1992).

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Tasaday Small group of isolated aboriginal people of the rainforests of s Mindanao in the Philippines. They are food-gathering cave dwellers with a Stone Age culture.

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