British peer claims Bushman way of life is biologically less evolved

March 31, 2006

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Jenny Tonge, a former MP and now member of the UK's House of Lords, has sparked outrage by claiming that the Bushmen's way of life is biologically less evolved. In a debate in the House of Lords, and later in a BBC interview, she called the Bushmen's lifestyle 'stone age' and 'primitive'.

Shortly afterwards, in the British newspaper The Guardian, she went further, implying that the hunter-gatherer way of life is low down the evolutionary scale: 'A more accurate description would have been Mesolithic, middle stone age or hunter gatherer. Why this perfectly acceptable, biological, evolutionary description should cause offence I do not know.'

She also called for a proper debate about the 'management of Indigenous people' to prevent them 'failing to adapt and becoming dropouts'.

The Bushmen's organisation, First People of the Kalahari, called her remarks offensive. They said, 'If you call someone stone age or primitive, it sounds like you think they are inferior to you… We just want the opportunity to be allowed to choose our lifestyles. We want to go back to our land to be with our ancestors and we want to be allowed to live there in peace by hunting and gathering – not as 'exhibits in a museum' but because it is a very clever way to survive in the desert. Tonge obviously does not respect us enough to think we know how to choose what is best for ourselves.'

Baroness Tonge's statements come soon after Survival International launched 'Stamp it Out', a campaign to highlight how the use of labels such as 'stone age' to describe tribal peoples underpin prejudices which cause them real harm.

Baroness Tonge formed her opinions of the Bushmen on the basis of half a day in a Bushman relocation camp during a visit controlled by the Botswana government. As was widely predicted, Bushmen in the camp have recently started to die from alcohol abuse – see press release.

Listen to Baroness Tonge debating her views with Survival International's Fiona Watson here.

To read Baroness Tonge's article, and reactions to her remarks in the press, click here

For more information call Miriam Ross on (+44) (0)20 7687 8734 or email [email protected]