John Nance and the Tasaday Tribe

Photo by John Nance

Everything happens for a reason.

This is something that I have maintained for a long time and still firmly believe. I was in Columbus, Ohio, over the weekend to shoot photos for a USEA Area 8 (Sounds Army, but it’s a horse thing) banquet and made an unexpected and positively exhilarating discovery.

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

It turns out, the man was journalist John Nance — writer, one hell of an adventurer, and a fellow vagabond. He was also involved with the Tasaday tribe discovery in the Philippines and shot the early pictures of the tribe. I had no idea, but the guy sitting next to me was teeming with stories and life experiences. I could have listened to him all night…

The Tasaday tribe, which was discovered living in caves lost in the deepest rainforests of the Philippines, 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 many times, sometimes even with his friend Charles Lindberg — yes, the pilot — documenting their lives and championing their cause.

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. 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.

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.


The truth came out years later when the people who had participated in the Tasaday 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 that fabricated the hoax. He refused to go back to the Philippines. How’s that for a publicity stunt, Michael?

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. There were no backpacker hordes slurping cheap beers, no internet cafes, no hostels, and very few Westerners people. He got to see Angkor Wat in Cambodia before it was touristed and restored.

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

Vagabonds attract other vagabonds.

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 this year I could catch a cheap flight up to Manila and go check on John’s beloved tribe. They have been moved into a preserve 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.

This entire experience confirms one of my top rules of vagabonding (maybe #33?): TALK TO EVERYONE! How many times have you missed great people and great opportunities because of playing by the usual social protocols?

There are still confirmed uncontacted tribes living in West Papua, Indoneisa, even. It seems hard to believe, but there are still a few truly “wild” places left in this world, and John was lucky enough to be a big part the adventure in his lifetime. Now I want mine!

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8 Responses to “John Nance and the Tasaday Tribe”

  1. “Vagabonds attract other vagabonds.”

    Definitely true!

  2. You wouldn’t happen to have a contact for John?

  3. There are more than 110 ethnolinguistic communities in the Philippines, and the whole Tasaday issue is still up in the air. They could be from the Ubo or Blit communities, but I cannot be sure.I myself go to cotabato often for work with the Tboli community, if you want to see our communities, join my group We have immersions every two months. Our cultures are dying fast, and were trying to help by teaching them about sustainable and grassroots tourism–it will preserve their culture.

  4. Hi Greg! Nice blog! Hope to keep in contact with you.

  5. John was a really incredible guy and no doubt loved the conversation with you. Sadly, he passed a couple of years ago.

  6. I had no idea that John passed; hate to hear about that. Good man who helped some indigenous people probably best left alone.

  7. I have Nance’s book and was about to read it when I realized I should see what is up with this people now, since the book is 40 years old. I read the Wikipedia entry, then what else there was, causing confusion, but now I tend to think this was/is a distinct people. The hand of Marcos was particularly discouraging, dictator/liar that he was.
    I am interested in communal societies, the way forward in this mess we live in.

  8. After much research, I agree with you, Ed. I meant to go try to find some of the tribe and get their take when I was in the Philippines in 2013, but Typhoon Haiyan had other plans. 🙂

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