President Corazon Aquino said Wednesday that the Tasaday are a legitimate Stone Age tribe and that those seeking to discredit them as impostors are simply out to rob them of their ancestral lands.

It was the first time Aquino commented publicly on the Tasaday, who have become involved in international controversy since the government said they were discovered in 1971 in the jungles of Mindanao island.Then-President Ferdinand Marcos declared the Tasaday, who numbered in the dozens, an indigenous tribe and set aside timber-rich lands for them in Mindanao.

But some Philippine scholars have branded the Tasaday a hoax that Marcos perpetrated to gain international publicity for the Philippines.

Defenders of the Tasaday say skeptics simply want access to rich timber lands or to discredit Marcos. But Aquino told an international conference of tribal minorities that the Tasaday controversy underscores the need to protect primitive cultures from exploitation.

"For apparently materialistic motives, and to open the groups' . . . rich agricultural and timber ancestral lands for exploitation, some scholars with media support denounced the existence of the tribe as a hoax," she said.

Scholars who defend the Tasaday say they are descendants of Manubo-speaking tribesmen who fled their coastal village more than 700 years ago to escape pirates. They fled into isolated jungle caves and over the centuries reverted back to a Stone Age culture, supporters say.