ON SABBATICAL: A representation brouhaha: the continuing saga of the Tasaday

A crowd of more than 200 professors (mainly from the fields of anthropology, sociology and history) and students packed the Bulwagang Recto of the University of the Philippines Thursday morning (August 17) to tackle the theme, "What's New About the Tasaday? Implications for Practice in Anthropology.” The forum was organized by the Ugnayang Pang-Agham Tao, Inc. (UGAT) and the University of the Philippines’ Anthropology Department.

The UP's big names in the field of social sciences, including Dr. Ponciano Benagen, Professor Israel Cabanilla, Dr. Zeus Salazar, Dr. Arnold Azurin, Dr. Abe Padilla, Dr. Maria Mangahas and others, presented papers or acted as reactors during this forum. Invited guests included Ms Sylvia Miclat of the Environmental Science for Social Change (ESSC) and Commissioner Janette Serrano, Chair of the National Commission on Indigenous People (NCIIP).

The Forum's rationale according to its organizers was stated in the program in this manner: "The Tasaday have come a long way from being projected as 'stone age people' to being ancestral claimants today. The objectives of the forum are to discuss continuing issues of representation of the Tasaday and their implications for the practice of 'Public Interest Anthropology'. The event is also a commemoration of the International Tasaday Conference held in August 1986, which was sponsored by the Department of Anthropology and the UGAT".

When 26 Tasadays were "discovered" by PANAMIN head Manuel Elizalde in 1971
in the rainforests of what is now an area near Barangay Ned in the municipality of Lake Sebu, South Cotabato, the media heralded it as a very significant event. John Nance wrote in his book, Discovery of Tasaday, that the Tasaday story was "a saga of adventure, love, conflict and exploration – equal, by the Tasaday's measure, to the travels of Odysseus, Marco Polo, or the Astronauts… as if H. G. Wells' Time Machine hurtled us backward in history.”

Nance was one of the distinguished visitors flown by helicopter to the Tasaday cave. Others included Charles Lindberg and Margaret Mead who were escorted by Madame Imelda Marcos. Foreign and Filipino anthropologists and journalists came up with all kinds of books and publications on the Tasaday including those written by the likes of R.B. Fox, Frank Lynch, Teodoro Llamzon, Carlos Fernandez, Carol Molony, E.E. Yenb and Hermes Gutierrez. They covered all aspects of the Tasaday: their alleged stone technology, language, their food and diet including the plants that they ate, their social organization and various other aspects of the culture.

Nance who claimed that he stayed in the Tasaday's dwelling for a total of 72 days from June 1971 and 1974 first came up with the book, The Gentle Tasaday, published in l975. Nance, like many of those whose visits to the Tasaday cave were arranged by Elizalde believed that "the technological period of pre-history in which we first see the Tasaday is commonly referred to as the Stone Age. Tools were made of stone, wood, and bone. Metals were not yet known, nor were cloth and pottery. The Tasaday were in this technological stage in the 1960s".

As information on the Tasaday filtered to those outside the sphere of the Marcoses and Elizalde, there arose discordant voices as to the alleged exaggerated claims of those who were the favored ones to se the site and intermingle with the Tasadays. Dr. Salazar claimed that the Tasadays' continued stay in the forests, with no contact with the outside world, could not have exceeded more than 150 years. In the years to come there would be more anthropologists who would question the claim that the Tasadays were of the Stone Age.

These voices found a venue during the 1986 International Forum on the Tasaday held in the country sponsored by UP-Anthro and UGAT, following another conference held abroad.

The media reports, the published books and the international conferences led to a representation brouhaha as some voices held on to their Stone Age representation of the Tasaday and with other voices passionately claiming that they could not be represented as such.

No doubt this wide coverage made the Tasaday a household name among academic and other circles all over the world interested in the discovery of such supposedly "Stone Age, primitive and exotic" creatures of the forest. Many Filipino anthropologists attending international conferences, as claimed at the August 17 Forum, are continuously beset with questions as to whatever happened to the Tasaday.

A new generation of Anthropology students came to the August 17 Forum, too young to have heard of Panamin and Elizalde and of the Tasaday controversy. But they were certainly provided with a still coherent voice of those opposing the "Tasaday as of the Stone Age" discourse. Most of the speakers and reactors agreed that there was no way that the Tasadays could be considered of the Stone Age era, given new evidence collected in the site.

Most interesting was the report of Ms Miclat and Commissioner Serrano who claimed that the remnants and descendants of the 26 Tasadays who were the cavedwellers discovered by Elizalde et al are now seeking the help of the ESSC and the NCIP in their efforts to possess the Certificate of Ancestral Domain Title (CADT) of their homeland. Ms Miclat showed the maps that the ESSC have been able to draw up after their visits to the area and consultations with the community.

Commissioner Serrano, on the other hand, continued to refer to the Tasadays as both "Manobo-Blit" and "T'boli" during the Forum, a very interesting manifestation of where the NCIP Commisioner is in her "labeling" of the Tasaday. She also stated that there are many corporations (e.g. Dole) and land-hungry politicians who are interested in taking over or using the land for their purposes. Researchers from UP who have gone to Lake Sebu also claimed that these outsiders want the Tasaday to have a CADT so that it would be easier for them to lease the land, not just for agri-business purposes but also for mining (as the area is rich with coal).

There were, however, well-meaning voices heard during the open forum who challenged the crowd not to overly "politicize" the issue, just because the Tasaday discovery was very much associated with the discredited Marcos regime. They strongly suggested to look deeper into the evidence, especially in the field of linguistics and eco-botany, that the Tasaday were a "lost tribe" and had no contacts with outsiders for a long, long time.

"Most probably for only about 150 years," said Dr. Salazar, "certainly not going back to the Stone Age."

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Redemptorist Brother Karl Gaspar of Davao City, former head of the Redemptorist Itinerant Mission Team and author of several books, including “To be poor and obscure,” and “Mystic Wanderers in the Land of Perpetual Departures,” is on a year-long sabbatical).