Monday, April 18, 2022

The Tasaday

I was "strongly encouraged" as an anthropology student to watch the National Geographic special about the Tasaday tribe in the early 70s. They were supposedly a "Stone Age" tribe who were unfamiliar with metals and had not been in contact with outsiders in known memory.  It was a very romantic idea. There was discussion afterward among the professors whether it was proper for outsiders to spoil their culture by contact. It was unclear to me whether it was Tasaday culture they were protecting or our ability to study something rare. Students were encouraged to continue the discussion among themselves.  It was clear that these were matters of Great Import from the solemn tone of the documentary and the similar hushed tones of the older students who stepped up to lead those discussions. 

I had what was considered a simplistic view (because someone was impatient with another student who gave it voice), wondering whether we would bring them medicine if they were sick. What about sickness unto death? Wouldn't it be a kindness to introduce the idea of knives or something to them to improve their ability to survive? Look, I may be misremembering badly and this is all post hoc for me.  I don't recall a single conversation about it again after that night. Yet I think I recall that this was considered a grievous imposition on these poor people, who deserved to have their culture preserved. Again, I wondered why not give them the choice and see what they thought?

I later learned the whole thing was a hoax put forth by some friends of Marcos (why?), and then learned that it wasn't a hoax and the hoaxers were a hoax. I now know that I should have at minimum questioned whether this "Stone Age" description was just journalistic exaggeration and nonsense. It is exactly the sort of thing that sets hearts aflutter and sells fishwrap. 

I take it that the current understanding is that they are not a residual Stone Age tribe, but they are very remote and do not seem to have had intention of participating in a hoax. Their primitiveness is real but not fully uncommon on this southern island in the Philippines. Lots of tribes had little contact at that point, and this was simply the one with the least. Even the word "contact" is more than a little fuzzy.  If your tribe is in contact with a tribe that is in contact with another tribe that has a few people who occasionally walk into settled areas where they trade with people from off the island, don't you have some contact in the sense that you hear about other people who do things differently and get your hands on some of their smart technology if you get the chance?

I mostly bring this up only to poke fun at the idea of the holiness of leaving people alone so that we can use them for our study purposes rather than offering them choices, however indirectly.  It makes them not real people. My daughter died of a terrible disease last year and you could have saved her and did nothing?  And you call that respecting me?


HMS Defiant said...

As I understand it there is an island in the Andamans which nobody goes to. It was decided to just leave those dangerous critters alone. Uplift is despised now and best left to people like Brin to write about in his science fiction.

Deevs said...

Yeah, sorry, Jay. I'm not clicking on any of those links.

Christopher B said...

I think I remember a glossy Nat Geo article about this group from back in the day. Now I think they were stretching the 'no contact' claim a bit.