Robin Hemley, in his book Invented Eden, asks if someone did just that. In 1986, a Swiss reporter named Oswald Iten returned to the rain forest and found the Tasaday wearing Levi's jeans and T shirts. They said that they were local farmers who had been coerced previously into playing cavemen. A few weeks later, a team from Der Stern arrived, led by the Tasaday's original discoverer, and found them once again wearing leaves. That, supposedly, proved they were fake. Comparisons were drawn with Piltdown Man, the great paleoanthropological hoax of the early 20th century.
The Tasaday controversy has raged ever since. It will never be resolved, because from the beginning their cave, whether or not it was their actual dwelling, was run as a media attraction by Manuel Elizalde, the Philippine politician who became their patron. And that made it impossible to carry out any sort of legitimate scientific research. Elizalde favored journalists over anthropologists; celebrities such as Charles Lindbergh and Gina Lollobrigida (who was a chum of Imelda Marcos, for whom she wrote the text of a coffee-table book about the Tasaday) choppered in to have a look at the prelapsarian freaks.
Invented Eden attempts to elucidate the convoluted enigmas surrounding the Tasaday and their relationship with the outside world. No one emerges looking very pretty. Elizalde, who died in 1999, was something of a playboy gangster; the first wave of discoverers come across as naive, all too willing to believe the story Elizalde handed them; the debunkers are most ruthless of all, in Hemley's account, out to discredit personally anyone who believes in the Tasaday. If the original story seemed too good to be true, those who debunked it are portrayed here as unscholarly in their methods or worse. Some of the recantations seemed to have been extorted and were later disavowed. Anyway, what does it prove if, 15 years after their supposed first contact with the outside world, the Tasaday wore Levi's? And does that mean they can never wear leaves again?
The author of three books of fiction and a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Hemley has a great story on his hands, and he has done much valuable research. His book, however, is far from satisfying. In tone it alternates between a voice so low key as to verge on dull and a stuffy attempt to make the book appear more scholarly than it is. Hemley's humor is always just off target, or trite, or both. "To paraphrase Groucho Marx, we don't want to be members of a human race that would have us as members"; it almost makes sense, but for that, no cigar.
Hemley skillfully untangles the accusations and counteraccusations of Tasaday proponents and skeptics, but when he narrates his own fact-finding travels in the Philippines, he can be risibly naive. He tells the reader everything he wrote down in his notebook, interesting or not: "We drove for half an hour, past rice paddies, water buffalo and palm trees." Invented Eden has many such sentences. Worse, Hemley is a complainer, which is no more fun in a book than on the trail: the roads are muddy, his saddle hurts, the locals rip him off, his asthma acts up.
Yet it is an honest book. One trusts Hemley, who concludes that although the Tasaday were not completely isolated, as Elizalde, National Geographic and others had first presented them, some of the original claims, particularly those based on linguistic evidence, cannot be easily dismissed. The only thoroughly sympathetic characters in this tale are the Tasaday themselves, who may not have been Rousseauian innocents but are certainly simple, guileless folk. Their story, however, has become exceedingly complex, revealing more about the tellers than the Tasaday themselves.