‘Stone Age’ called insult

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Attention Fred Flintstone and the Geico cave guys: “Stone Age” is no longer acceptable, joining the list of other words and terms deemed offensive in polite society. “Primitive” also is considered, well, primitive by some.

“All anthropologists would agree that the negative use of the terms ‘primitive’ and ‘Stone Age’ to describe tribal peoples has serious implications for their welfare,” the British-based Association of Social Anthropologists said Tuesday. “Governments and other social groups have long used these ideas as a pretext of depriving such peoples of land and their resources.”

The edict is the result of a kerfuffle that began last March when Jenny Tonge, a Liberal Democrat member of Parliament, described two Botswana tribes as “trying to stay in the Stone Age” and “primitive” during a spirited debate. Though she later said she was misunderstood, Mrs. Tonge was criticized in the British press as “primitive” herself.

In a letter to the Guardian newspapers, tribal representatives stated: “She says it is not an insult. But if you call someone stone age or primitive, it sounds like you think they are inferior to you.”

Survival International, a London-based activist group that supports tribal rights, quickly started a campaign to “challenge racist descriptions” in the press. The group has asked the public to monitor news organizations for violations. The New York Times, the Canadian Broadcasting Co. and the Times of London are among those cited for using “Stone Age” in their coverage.

“Journalists and editors need to understand that the use of these terms directly contributes to the suffering of tribal and indigenous peoples all around the world,” spokesman Steven Corry said yesterday.

It presents an odd cultural moment for the Martin Agency, a Richmond-based advertising agency that created sullen cave men characters to market Geico insurance. The wildly successful campaign features well-dressed but disgruntled Neanderthals arguing against the use of cave man images to market Geico’s claims department — “so easy a cave man could do it.”

ABC, however, is so intrigued by the concept that the network announced plans to produce “Cavemen,” a comedy series based on the characters. A trio of the beetle-browed but trendy men will “struggle with prejudice on a daily basis as they live the lives of normal thirtysomethings in 2007 Atlanta,” the network said.

The timing of the British anthropologist’s announcement and ABC’s sudden interest in prehistoric themes did not go unnoticed by industry insiders.

“Anthropologists side with Geico’s cavemen,” said Ted Nudd of Adweek, an industry publication.

The Stone Age Institute, an academic department of Indiana University, and the American Anthropological Association did not return calls for comment. The American Sociological Association, meanwhile, called for “the discontinuation and elimination of the use of Native American nicknames, logos, and mascots in sport” in a resolution issued yesterday, noting that the practice fosters “negative psychological, educational and social effects.”

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