Photo of the Tasaday tribe by John Nance.

Unexpected meetings can change your life.

I was in Columbus, Ohio, over the weekend to shoot photos for a USEA Area 8 (Sounds like an Army thing, but it’s a horse thing) banquet and made an unexpected and positively exhilarating discovery:

I got to meet journalist John Nance, one of the early discoverers of the then-uncontacted Tasaday tribe in the Philippines.

Meeting John Nance

Amid all the horse-industry people and equestrians in the crowded room, I was randomly joined at my table by a friendly guy and his wife. My paradigm automatically flagged him as most likely another horse trainer, but casual conversation over dinner proved otherwise.

As it turns out, the man was journalist John Nance — journalist, author, one hell of an adventurer, and a fellow vagabond. He was also involved with the Tasaday tribe discovery in the Philippines and shot the first pictures of the recently contacted tribe. I had no idea, but the guy sitting next to me was teeming with stories and life experiences. I could have listened to his adventures all night.

The Tasaday Tribe in the Philippines

The Tasaday tribe were discovered living in caves lost in the deepest rainforests of the Philippines. Word of them came to light in the 1970s. They had been living in isolation since the Stone Age and definitely looked the part, lacking all forms of technology, clothing, and knowledge of the world as we know it.

John visited the Tasaday people many times, sometimes even with his friend Charles Lindbergh — yes, the pilot — documenting their lives and championing their cause.

As is often the case with newly contacted tribes, the Tasaday were in for a rough time.

In 1986, the media picked up a claim by loggers and jealous neighboring tribespeople that the entire discovery of the Tasaday had been a hoax. The writer Michael Crichton even declared the whole finding of the tribe a “publicity stunt.” John claims otherwise, bet his career on it, and continued to help the Tasaday in every way possible — even setting up a non-profit for them.

After seeing the fire in John’s eyes while discussing the Tasaday tribe and hearing some of his incredible story, I would have probably thrown a drink at Mr.Crichton given the opportunity.

The entire reason the hoax was propagated was to get the Tasaday off their ancestral homeland so the valuable timber and minerals could be harvested.

Imagine that. A very familiar story that has played out again and again in places such as Borneo and Sumatra.

The Tasaday Hoax

The truth came out years later when the people who had perpetuated the discovery of the Tasaday tribe as a hoax admitted to being bribed by those who had created the scheme. Then, to top it all off, the journalist who started the rumor of the tribe not being authentic had been working with the people who fabricated the hoax. He refused to go back to the Philippines.

John Nance spent two and a half years in Vietnam (when people were shooting) as a journalist and trekked around Laos, Cambodia, India, and lots of the world back in the 60s and 70s when there was real adventure to be had. He obviously didn’t have a Lonely Planet or internet connection for advice. There were no backpacker hordes slurping cheap beers along the Banana Pancake Trail, no internet cafes, no hostels, and very few Westerner people. He got to see Angkor Wat in Cambodia before it became so heavily touristed and restored.

He had undoubtedly seen some jungle adventure and positively vibrated with energy. I want to be like this guy one day. In a room with over a hundred horse-type people in a random city in Ohio, I accidentally bumped into a true vagabonding legend whom you may have probably never even heard of.

John Nance Tasaday Books

John has written several books about the Tasaday and is working on a book about the secret life of Charles Lindberg. You can find a used copy of The Gentle Tasaday on Amazon.

The thought crossed my mind that when I am in New Guinea sometime in the future, I could catch a cheap flight up to Manila and go check on John’s beloved tribe. They have been moved to a reserve by the government and partially “civilized.” When the tribe was first contacted, there were only 26 of them. Interestingly, in 2007 the first Tasaday boy went to college. Wow.

Are they better off now? Based on how indigenous peoples have fared in the past after governmental intervention, I have to wonder.

This entire experience confirms one of my top rules for a life of travel: TALK TO EVERYONE! How many times have you missed great people and opportunities because of coasting through the usual social protocols?

There are reportedly uncontacted tribes still living in West Papua, Indonesia. I don’t necessarily want to meet these tribes and mess up a good thing (uncontacted tribe tourism is a thing), but I do want to see these wild places.

The Tasaday were lucky enough to have John Nance on their side, and I was fortunate to meet him unexpectedly.


2013 Update: I finally made it to the Philippines in my travels. I did find and meet some obscure “witchdoctors” on Siquijor Island, but Typhoon Haiyan put an abrupt end to my plans for searching out the Tasaday tribe.

2021 Update: I located and bought a signed copy of John’s book The Gentle Tasaday! I’m grateful for this rare find and can’t wait to delve in.