In 1971, a "lost tribe" of 27 isolated "Stone Age" rain-forest dwellers was discovered deep in the jungle of the island of Mindanao in the Philippines. Their hair was long, their G-strings and grass miniskirts fashioned from curculigo leaves. They were said to subsist on foraged wild yams and speak a unique variant of the local Manobo dialect. They were dubbed the Tasaday, after a nearby mountain.
The media jumped on the romantic notion of these gentle, uncorrupted "noble savages" who were said to lack the concepts of war and iron, and the Tasaday made the cover of National Geographic. Their discoverer and champion was Manuel Elizalde, a Harvard-educated Filipino whose mother was a Boston Brahmin and father a rich Spanish-born businessman. Mr. Elizalde was Ferdinand Marcos's adviser on national minorities, and he became a sort of god to the impoverished Tasaday, dropping in by helicopter with celebrities such as Charles Lindbergh and Gina Lollobrigida in tow.
Elizalde also brought in several anthropologists and journalists, including AP photographer John Nance, whose book "The Gentle Tasaday" became a bestseller. But a systematic, long-term scientific study of the group was never managed. In this fascinating, exhaustively detailed recap of the Tasaday's controversial three decades of public history, Robin Hemley doggedly investigates why.
As abruptly as it had been opened, the 45,000-acre reserve that Marcos had set aside for the Tasaday was closed to all visitors in 1974. For 12 years, the tribe was isolated once more.
But the Tasaday's 15 minutes of fame weren't quite over. In 1986, when Marcos was toppled from power, a Swiss reporter hiked into the Tasaday Reserve and emerged convinced that the Tasaday were a hoax - that they were actually poor members of neighboring farming tribes who had been coached to pose as Stone Age cavedwellers to enhance Elizalde's and Marcos's standing. There followed documentaries such as Judith Moses' "The Tribe That Never Was" on ABC's 20/20, conferences as far afield as Zagreb, "authenticity SWAT teams," and "ethnographic inquisitions," all trying to determine the Tasaday's authenticity.
Hemley, a novelist and professor of English, got pulled into the controversy in the late 1990s, shortly after Elizalde's death. It takes an intrepid reporter to bushwhack through the thicket of assertions and counter-assertions surrounding the Tasaday and venture into the physically challenging "heart of grayness" of their reserve. Gun-toting Muslims, Marxists, and Christian lowlanders still fight over the timber and mineral wealth involved.
This story is a resonant, cautionary tale that pits society's eagerness for a romantic return to uncorrupted primitivism against a tendency toward cynicism and exploitation. Hemley recognizes the wider ramifications, too, which include questions about the rights of indigenous people, the erosion of precious rainforest from logging and agricultural development, and the divergent approach of scientists and journalists to their subjects.
Unfortunately, Hemley's attempt to clarify the picture, while valiant, occasionally suffers from his closeness to the material. He becomes so immersed in the nitty-gritty that he frequently can't see the forest canopy for the undergrowth. A case in point: his field interviews with the Tasaday. He quotes his retranslated tapes at length to show how he was deliberately misled by his guide and on-site translator - a proponent of the hoax theory. The result conveys firsthand the frustration of being trapped in a tangle of miscommunication and deliberate obfuscation, but it does not make good reading.
The wonder is that Hemley manages to reach as unequivocal a conclusion as he does, given that "ambiguities, instead of being resolved, in fact multiplied" the deeper he delved. Hemley concludes that "the real hoax had been perpetrated by some of the very same people who decried the Tasaday as fake." But he concedes that Elizalde and Marcos made the Tasaday poster children for indigenous cultures, using them "to put a gentle face, as it were, on totalitarianism."
While Hemley presents a convincing case against hoax proponents and a heartening defense of John Nance, who staked his career on the Tasaday and is the outsider who has most consistently helped them, his conclusions about the Tasaday themselves are less decisive.
He raises tantalizing questions about their language, dress, habitats, and even their DNA, only to admit that we'll never definitively know how isolated they really were prior to 1971. In short, Hemley leads us deep into the jungle of this complicated issue, but he doesn't quite manage to hack his way out into the clear.
• Heller McAlpin reviews books for The San Francisco Chronicle, The Los Angeles Times, and Newsday.