Can Women Change the Way We Think About War?

The story of war has always been told by men. But what happens when we look at war through the eyes of women? That's the fundamental premise of an upcoming new five-part documentary series on PBS - Women, War & Peace - that takes a comprehensive look at how women are emerging as critical partners in brokering peace agreements and creating new international laws governing conflict. From Afghanistan to Bosnia to the troubled nation-states of Africa, women are helping to re-define the way we think about war. In the process, women are no longer defining themselves as the victims - they are beginning to view themselves as the leaders of a new movement for peace.


Women-war-peace The PBS documentary series grew out of the combined vision of three women - Abigail Disney, Gini Reticker and Pamela Hogan - who traveled to war-torn areas around the globe. As they listened to the stories of women in local communities, what they found was that the fundamental narrative of war had changed in the past two decades. With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the shape of international conflict forever shifted as former American and Soviet proxy states dissolved into a messy zone of unscripted conflicts raged by ragtag armies and fueled by cheap automatic weapons like the AK-47. In the past 20 years, the new weapons of war have become rape, ethnic cleansing, and forced evacuations of entire cities to tent camps. The use of these weapons meant that women and children - not soldiers - become the immediate victims of armed conflict.

For the U.S., Women, War & Peace has consequences for both the boots on the ground in conflict zones as well as the policymakers in the corridors of the Pentagon. Take Afghanistan, for example. When the U.S. troop surge was announced in late 2009, women in Afghanistan from different tribal communities forcibly injected themselves - with the help of Secretary Hillary Clinton - into the peace talks with the Taliban. In fact, one of the most powerful segments of Women, War & Peace - Peace Unveiled - follows three women who immediately began to self-organize to make sure that women’s rights don’t get traded away in the deal. Even now, brave Afghan women such as Wazhma Frogh are providing a new perspective on how women can play a role in a new peace deal for the war-torn nation. At the same time, the U.S. military is exploring new ways for female soldiers to reach out to the women of the nation.

Women, War & Peace is the first media broadcast of Women and Girls Lead, a three-year public media initiative designed to focus, educate, and connect women and girls across the globe. As part of this broader movement, Women, War & Peace has already attracted a number of noteworthy backers - both in the U.S. government and Hollywood: Matt Damon, Geena Davis, Tilda Swinton and Alfre Woodard. Their involvement means that it may finally be time to re-think war -- and then bring this message to a wider audience.

In many ways, the media has an enormous role to play. Stories of war and terrorism have always received greater media attention than stories of women rights and women's participation in the peace process. The media has been far too eager to portray women as "victims" or as "bargaining chips" -- not as true partners with equal voices. Once these media images begin to change in places like Bosnia and Afghanistan, we can begin to have a substantive dialogue about what it is like to have a fundamentally new type of peace process around the world.

[Image: Female Soldier Tries to Reach Out to Afghan Women in Kandahar]

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

Surprising Science
  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.