A Dream In Liberia
by Deborah Weiss / 12.23.08

“This year, Pray the Devil Back to Hell won the “Best Documentary” award at the Tribeca Film Festival in NYC. The film, recently released, tells the amazing story of how one person’s dream helped to bring about the peace accords in Liberia after years of war under the tyrant Charles Taylor. It demonstrates the impact that one person can have during a time of strife, and reveals the tactics that otherwise powerless women used to achieve unprecedented peace and democratic elections. The film starts in 1989 when Charles Taylor first arrived in Liberia. A protégé of Libya’s al-Gaddafi, trained in guerilla warfare, Taylor launched a political uprising, attempting to overthrow the government. Other groups also rose up, causing the country to factionalize. Civil war, ethnic conflict, power struggles, and fights over money ensued. Primarily due to fear, Liberians voted Charles Taylor into the Presidency, and the warlords (LURDS) rebelled.

Charles Taylor became notorious for training child soldiers. He provided young boys with drugs and guns, and forced them to murder their parents. Under his leadership, Liberians endured hunger, child-rape and the pillaging of their country for fourteen years. No end was in sight. Then one night in 2003, a young mother Leymah Gbowee, prayed before she went to bed, asking God to end the war. That night she had a “crazy dream,” telling her that she should gather the women of Liberia together to protest and pray for peace. Leymah brought her idea to her church, and then to other churches, appealing to women to join her quest for peace. A female Muslim police officer attended one of the meetings, and was so moved she decided to spread the women’s peace message to the Muslim community.

Initially, some women wondered if working with those of a different religion meant that they were diluting their faith. Ultimately, they concluded that religion should not serve as a barrier to their mission of peace. For the first time in Liberian history, Christians and Muslims worked together for a common cause. The women protested, insisting that the men, who had all power, end the war. A few women turned to hundreds and then thousands. They were ordinary women — mothers, grandmothers, sisters, and aunts. They sat daily in the public square, with T-shirts, signs and banners demanding peace. Every day the women rallied together, sang together, and prayed together. They did the unimaginable — they spoke out. They even had the audacity to protest outside the Presidential Palace. But it wasn’t enough. Then, the women decided to use sex as a weapon. They went on a country-wide sex-strike, withholding sex from all their husbands until the men worked towards peace.

Eventually, President Taylor could no longer ignore the protesters’ impact. Pressure forced Taylor and the LURDS to sign a pledge to engage in peaceful negotiations. The parties scheduled talks to take place in Ghana, in June 2003. But on that same day, Taylor was indicted for war crimes and crimes against humanity. The negotiations went forward in Taylor’s absence. Months passed with no visible progress. Then one day, the women marched over to the negotiations, locked arms and blockaded the building’s exits. They refused to let the men out until they reached an agreement. It worked. On August 18, 2003, a peace agreement was signed. But the women still wanted democratic elections, so they banded together one last time to make their plea. They succeeded. In November 2005, Liberia held its first elections since 1996. This time the election was free, fair, democratic, and nonviolent. Liberians elected Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf to be President — the first female President in Africa. She was inaugurated on January 16, 2006.”

Naples women go on sex strike over firework injuries
BY Richard Owen  /  December 31, 2008

“Women in Naples are staging a sex strike in an attempt to stop their menfolk from setting off dangerous New Year fireworks which cause injury and even death. Carolina Staiano, 44, who is leading the campaign, said it has started with twenty women in in the town of Lettere near Naples “almost as a joke” but had spread “like wildfire” by e-mail and mobile phone over the past month to the point where ”I can’t keep up”. She said she was receiving phone calls and text messages “all the time” from hundreds of women signing up. Mrs Staiano, a mother of two, has spent her life caring for father, who became semi-paralysed after someone let off a firework next to him at New Year, injuring his legs. He has suffered from epileptic fits ever since. Mrs Staiano said that “at midnight on New Year’s Eve Naples is like Gaza. It’s terrible that a time of celebration becomes a time of tragedy. If a sex strike is what it takes in order to get the attention of our men, husbands, partners and sons, then we’re ready for it,” she told ANSA, the Italian news agency. “This time they’re just going to have to choose: sex or fireworks.”

The Naples authorities have backed the womens’ revolt, sending residents text messages with the campaign slogan: “Make love, not explosions”. Vincenzo Sorrentino, a hospital casualty ward doctor and local town councillor who has long been campaigning against illegal fireworks, said that the sex strike was inspired by Lysistrata, by the Greek dramatist Aristophanes. In it the women of ancient Athens refuse to let their menfolk make love to them until they lay down their weapons and make peace with Sparta in the Peleponnesian War. “This is an issue that men are particularly sensitive to,” Dr Sorrentino said. ”We’ve tried everything to stop the mayhem caused by fireworks but we’ve never achieved the results we hoped for. We decided to get women involved because they are more convincing and they always achieve their goals.” Italians spend an estimated 60 million Euros (£576 million) on new year fireworks, many of them made and sold illegally. Since 2000 fireworks have caused four deaths in the Naples area and five hundred serious injuries.

Dr Sorrentino said that the campaign to stop Naples men letting off dangerous fireworks would be “long and difficult,” but local soundings suggested the sex strike was already having an effect. ”The idea of no sex is not exactly popular,” he said. Mrs Staiano said her local parish priest had contacted her to say that he too was supporting the campaign “as an effective way of protecting families”. She said her message to women was “tell your husband or partner that if he prefers fireworks to you he can sleep on the couch”. Asked about her own husband, Mrs Staiano said he had “known from the start” he had a choice. “We celebrate New Year’s Eve in our house without fireworks,” she said.”

Gang wives call sex strike against crime  /  September 13, 2006

“They are calling it the “crossed legs” strike. Fretting over crime and violence, girlfriends and wives of gang members in the Colombian city of Pereira have called a ban on sex to persuade their menfolk to give up the gun. After meeting with the mayor’s office to discuss a disarmament program, a group of women decided to deny their partners their conjugal rights and recorded a song for local radio to urge others to follow their example. “We met with the wives and girlfriends of gang members and they were worried some were not handing over their guns and that is where they came up with the idea of a vigil or a sex strike,” mayor’s office representative Julio Cesar Gomez said. “The message they are giving them is disarm or if not then they will decide how, when, where and at what time,” he said by telephone. Mr Gomez said the city, in Colombia’s coffee-growing region, reported 480 killings last year. Crime and violence have dropped in Colombia since 2002 when President Alvaro Uribe was first elected promising to crackdown on left-wing rebels fighting a four-decade insurgency and the illegal militia groups who formed to counter them. But cocaine-trafficking gangs and armed groups still roam parts of Colombia and murder and kidnappings remain a problem despite the fall in crime statistics.”

Colombian gangsters face sex ban  /  13 September 2006

“A city official said the idea came from a meeting of wives and girlfriends over the progress of a disarmament scheme. “We met with the wives and girlfriends of gang members and they were worried some were not handing over their guns and that is where they came up with the idea of a vigil or a sex strike,” the mayor’s spokesman told Reuters news agency. “The message they are giving them is disarm,” he added. Studies found that local gang members were drawn to criminality by the desire for status, power, and sexual attractiveness, not economic necessity, Colombian radio reported. One of the girlfriends, Jennifer Bayer, told Britain’s Guardian newspaper: “We want them to know that violence is not sexy.” Ms Bayer said the women had come up with a strike anthem rap song that included the lyrics: “As women we are worth a lot. We don’t want to fall for violent men because with them we lose too much.”

Women call off sex strike
BY  James Achanyi-Fontem in Yaoundé  /  December 18, 2003

“The men of a Cameroon village have been able to breathe a sigh of relief after their wives called off a three-month sex strike. The 2,000 women of Aghem, northwest Cameroon, had withheld sexual favours and refused to cook for their husbands to provoke them into settling a dispute over grazing rights. The women, who work in separate fields from their husbands, were complaining about graziers claiming their land and allowing cows to eat their crops. The strike was called off after the regional governor, Koumpa Issa, arrived on Monday to settle the matter. The conflict began more than 30 years ago, and the Government has been issuing controversial decisions on the matter ever since. In 1981 eight people were killed before a government commission called on the graziers to keep off the women’s land. The latest strike was prompted by a ruling allowing two cattle owners to begin grazing in the Naikom and Mbinjam areas. The women of Aghem felt provoked but could not get their husbands to take up the issue. By tradition in the Wum region, men are involved in production of cash crops, such as arabica and robusta coffee, while women work on subsistence crops, such as rice, maize and potatoes.

Snubbed by husbands who refused to take an interest in their affairs, the women gathered at the local palace of chief Bah-ambi III without their husbands. For three months they not only denied their husbands sex, but also refused to cook food for their families. The women had marched naked from Wum to Bamenda to put their complaint to the governor before returning to organise the sex strike. Before the negotiations the women, who were half naked, carried out a traditional cleansing rite at the palace to end their sex strike. The governor then took an oath that he would find a solution to the farmland problem. During the first meeting, which featured ceremonial slaughter to resolve the conflict, the governor hailed the women for respecting his call to stop the strike, and he promised that a solution would be found to their complaint. The governor’s wife said that as a woman she felt the women’s tribulations and that was why she decided to accompany her husband.”

Sudanese women ban sex in effort to halt war
BY Vivien Morgan  /  23 Dec 2002

“A former university professor in Sudan has launched a sex strike in an attempt to to end the 19 years of civil war that have torn the country apart. “Women decided that by withholding sex from their men they could force them to commit to peace – and it’s worked,” said Samira Ahmed. She was explaining the way that Sudanese women in the Upper Nile region of Southern Sudan have acted to stop their children dying. The action is called alHair in Arabic, which means “sexual abandoning” of their men. It began with just 20 women from the two tribal groups, the Lou and Jekany, which have been at the centre of the fighting. It had now been taken up by thousands of women, said Mrs Ahmed.

“I hate war,” she said, sitting in the urban quiet of a Khartoum suburb. Her stylishly patterned sari was arranged over her head, covering thick black hair and drawing attention to her heavily black-kohled eyes. Around her neck was an elaborate silver necklace, and she wore heavy silver rings and bangles. As a former university professor, and the daughter of the first Sudanese senior manager for Shell, she has led a privileged life – and she knows it. “As a child the south seemed so far away, and it wasn’t until I was at university when I met southerners and became friends with them that I began to have hopes for Sudan and peace.” She can act at government level to promote peace, but women in the war-torn villages had to think of some way to get their voices heard.

Hence the Lysistrata-style sex strike. There are direct parallels with Aristophanes’s play, in which Lysistrata’s disgust with war brings about a scheme to force the men of Greece to the peace table by denying them sex. Unlike in ancient Greece, the women’s attempt to exert political influence in this way in Islamic Sudan touches a sensitive religious spot as it challenges the Muslim belief in husbands’ conjugal rights. This, Mrs Ahmed said, was why the movement had not attracted much publicity in northern Sudan, where the government sits and where the peace talks are being orchestrated. “Here in Sudan women are subtle,” she said. “Most don’t use confrontation, and try to exert their influence within the family, but we are powerful especially behind the scenes, and we want to stay involved.” The civil war broke out in 1983 when rebels took up arms against the predominantly Arab and Muslim northern government in an attempt to obtain greater autonomy for the largely animistic and Christian south.

Mrs Ahmed has been involved as an adviser to women’s initiatives: getting women from southern Sudan to try to resolve practical problems over access to water and land rights. It had, she said, been effective in raising the profile of women. Mrs Ahmed is also helping grassroots women’s groups that are trying to organise better girls’ education, improve social and economic conditions, and ensure the rights of women and children. Sudan has still not ratified the United Nations convention to eliminate discrimination against women. The problems of abduction, the use of child soldiers and violence against women continue to concern them, even during this period of ceasefire. While her countrywomen withhold their wifely obligations, Mrs Ahmed said her adviser role was “a duty, not an honour”. She cannot question it, she repeats with a small serious smile. “I owe it to all those women struggling to bring up their families in our country ravaged by war.”

Sex ban lifted in Turkish village  /  August 16, 2001

“A group of husbands have breathed a collective sigh of relief after their wives ended a month-long sex boycott. The women of Sirt, a small village near Antalya on Turkey’s southern coast, had launched the bedroom strike in protest at the lack of accessible running water. A break down of the village’s 27-year old water system had meant that the women had been forced to queue for hours in front of a trickling fountain before carrying their water home in containers — a walk of several miles for some. When constant requests to repair the system failed to produce any improvement, the women decided more drastic steps were needed — a refusal of all marital favours until their spouses fulfilled their plumbing obligations.

Now, after some frantic lobbying on the part of Sirt’s male population, the government’s Directorate of Rural Affairs has agreed to provide eight kilometres (five miles) of piping so that water can be brought to the village from a nearby source. “It (the boycott) worked,” a delighted Ayse Sari told Associated Press. “We got the attention. We were tired of carrying the water .Those who had donkeys were lucky.” The men will have to lay the pipes themselves, although they believe this is a small price to pay for a resumption of normal marital relations. “We are very happy,” village leader Ibrahim Sari said.

Not all the women, however, are ready to end their protest. While some feel that, with new pipes on the way, it is time to re-open the bedroom doors, others insist that only when the pipes have been laid — something which could take another month — will they call off their strike. “They won’t be able to get into our bedrooms until the water actually runs through the taps,” one village woman, Fatma Koru, said. “The protest will continue.”

Prostitutes’ hunger strike over closures  /  Agence France-Presse  /  October 23, 2007

“Some 50 prostitutes near La Paz went on a hunger strike today and threatened to march naked down the streets of El Alto to reopen the bars and strip joints closed down by the local population last week. “We’ve all taken our HIV-AIDS test and we’re going on a hunger strike,” the protest leader said inside a local AIDS clinic where the street workers undergo regular checkups and have holed up for now. Withholding her identity, the woman said that if El Alto wants to get rid of prostitutes “then the government should give us a hand and take care of our children, and afterward provide us with jobs”.

In addition to taking over the AIDS clinic and refusing to eat, the prostitutes are threatening to march naked down the streets of the town to defend their right to work. Many of El Alto’s residents last week demonstrated outside the town’s 32 bars and strip joints forcing them to close, complaining that they are magnets for lawbreakers and a bad influence on children. According to unofficial estimates, there are between 400 and 500 prostitutes plying their trade in El Alto for an average income of $US40 ($44) a day.”


“For the Greeks of Athens, the roles of women were actually more complex than Lysistrata would have us imagine. At one point an elaborate system developed wherein married women were not really expected to be romantic partners but were supposed to be breeding stock, though from good families. Marriages were arranged, usually for the purpose of connecting land, titles, or property. These women were not highly educated, and it was not really expected that men would spend much time in their company. Men more often spent their time with another breed of woman, the courtesan or hetaera. These women were highly educated, both intellectually and in the arts of love, and were sought by most of the educated men of the culture. It would be a mistake, however, to consider them as being similar to modern prostitutes—they were far higher in class and in cultural status.”


“For a hetaera typically life began as a young slave girl. Some were captured in battle and some girls were sold into slavery by impoverished parents. The slave girls that were chosen to become hetaerae were particularly beautiful and talented. Prospective hetaerae were often too expensive for one person to afford so an investment group of three or more investors would buy them. They would then be sent to a hetaerae training school where they would be trained. They would be taught to play a musical instrument, dance, and speak publicly. They would also be taught about philosopy and politics so they could converse intelligently with almost any man. Even before they were done with training they could be hired out as an entertainer or prostitute. Usually an arrangement was made so that if they made a good return for the investors they would be given their freedom. It was at the point of freedom that they became hetaerae.”


“The hetairae were the most important women in Greece, and the most important sex workers in the entire history of Earth. Unlike “respectable” Athenian matrons, hetairae were thoroughly educated and free to leave the confines of the home to see plays, attend banquets, or debate philosophy and politics with the most learned men.

Phryne’s lovers included the orater Hyperides, the painter Apelles, and the sculptor Praxitiles. These and other patrons made her so wealthy that, when Alexander destroyed Thebes, Phryne offered to rebuild the city at her own expense. Praxitiles gave her one of his finest works–his Cupid–and Phryne posed for his famous and daring statue of Aphrodite, the first to portray the goddess nude. It was displayed prominently in the city of Cnidos, to which it brought tourism and wealth. Though the original has not survived the ages, Phryne’s beauty is preserved in Roman copies.

Phryne’s friend Bacchis was at the height of her fame and charms when she heard the orator Hyperides speak. Smitten, she immediately became his mistress. When Phryne was tried for “impiety” for impersonating Aphrodite in the nude during public festivals, Bacchis and the auletride Myrrhina convinced Hyperides to defend her. The stakes were high: Phryne could well have been sentenced to death. Hyperides was clearly losing the case when, in desperation, he tore open Phryne’s clothing to reveal her breasts to the judges. They acquitted her, concurring with his argument that such divine beauty could hardly insult the gods. Hyperides composed a splendid oration honoring Bacchis after her death; it remains one of the most eloquent and tender works in all Greek literature.

Lais, a Sicilian by birth, was sold into slavery when her city was captured. The painter Apelles, struck by her beauty, bought her, gave her a superb education in his own household, set her free, and established her at Corinth–one of the largest trade centers and a hub of prostitution. Lais soon rose to the first rank in her career, and could pick and choose among her clients. She rejected the staggering sum offered by the orator Demosthenes, yet waived her fee for the poor, ragged cynic Diogenes of “I am looking for an honest man” fame. She generously spent her earnings on improving Corinth, and modeled for a statue at the request of the city’s grateful citizens.

The erudite hetaira Aspasia founded a renowned gynaceum–a school for hetairae–at Athens. She emphasized intellectual studies, and lectured publicly on rhetoric and philsophy. Socrates himself brought his friends and students to hear her speak; she thus influenced his ideas as well as those of Plato and other great philosophers. Like Lamia, Aspasia also became the unofficial ruler of Athens through her lover (Pericles in this case). She wrote a magnificent eulogy upon his death.

Sappho is best known as a poet and lesbian, but due to her erotic writings and because she operated a gynaceum like Aspasia’s, historians believe she was also a hetaira. Pithionice from Athens became the mistress of Alexander the Great’s treasurer Harpalus, and governed Babylon at his side; upon her death, Harpalus ordered the construction of a magnificent tomb in her honor. The philosopher Epicurus was one of the many clients of Leontium; her writings earned the praise of Cicero. The playwright Sophocles enjoyed the services of Theoris and of Archippa, who was his sole heir. Thais of Athens accompanied Alexander the Great on his Persian campaign; she married his general, Ptolemy, who became king of Egypt, and they founded the Lagid dynasty.”

Lysistrata: the Ritual Logic of the Sex-strike / by Camilla Power

“Aristophanes, born about 450 BC, was at the height of his powers during the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. His three comedies of sexual subversion — Λυσιστρατη (Lysistrata), Θεσµoφoριαζoυσαι (Thesmophoriazusai) and ’Εκκλησιαζoυσαι (Ekklesiazusai) — are the remaining examples of what may have been a traditional ‘feminist’ or gynocratic theme in Old Athenian Comedy. The theme – Γυvαικoκρατια The idea of women performing roles of men, i.e. taking part in the business of the πoλις (polis) as opposed to that of the ’oικoς (oikos), the sphere of domestic management, seems to have been inherently comic to the Greek citizen of Aristophanes’ Athens. The only public sphere of activity open to women was ritual and sacerdotal. The male audience’s laughter would have been, to an extent, a nervous release, channeling anxieties about male status. Such unease on the part of male citizens would surely have been felt during women’s separatist rites and festivals. At these abnormal times, sanctioned by ancestral tradition, women collectively occupied a public, ritual space outside the oikos, giving vent to their legendary potential for defiance and subversiveness. In his essay on the place of sacrifice at Thesmophoria, The Violence of Well-born Ladies, Marcel Detienne (1989) stresses the sexual-political implications of women organising and carrying out public sacrifice. The celebrants set up a ‘city of women’ autonomous in the midst of the male city — in fact, a city of tents close to the site of the Assembly on the Πvυξ (Pnyx). Normal (male) political business was suspended for the three-day duration of the festival. Men’s uneasiness at their exclusion Detienne finds illustrated in legendary anecdotes of male attempts to spy on the women’s secret rituals, and the women’s response of righteous but lethal fury. This tension of what is at the same time secret and public underscores the horrifying ambivalence to the Greek male imagination of women — fertile and menstruating women — wielding the instruments of blood-sacrifice in ritual ‘essential to the reproduction of the city of men’ (1989: 139). Alluding to the role of menstruation at Thesmophoria, Detienne (1989: 147) writes: ‘even before the sacrifice, blood flows ritually in the Thesmophoria, evoking with the blood shed as the animal is killed the distress at seeing the blood of life that fecundates mix in the same body with the blood of death and war. ’Thesmophoriazusai enacts such a fantasy of male infiltration into the women’s ritual stronghold, the temple of Demeter Thesmophoros. Thesmophoria, held in autumn at the time of sowing, was one of the most venerable women-only rites in Greek culture. Its atavistic practices included hurling pigs into snake-filled crevices, and strict observance of sexual abstinence, i.e. sex-strike, whilst lying on beds strewn with the menstrual herb agnus castus. The three days culminated in the blood-rite and spreading on the fields of the decayed, but consecrated, remnants of the sacrificial pigs. According to Herodotus (2.171), the rites of Thesmophoria were introduced to Greece, at Argos, by those arch-female rebels and sex-strikers, the Danaids. Ekklesiazusai, one of Aristophanes’ later plays written after the War, depicts events arising out of a conspiracy of women entered into at the Skira — another women’s festival antagonistic to men. This fell at midsummer, the end of the Athenian year, marked by a period of general licence and dissolution of the normal order. It was an exceptional time for women, one of the few days when they were sanctioned to leave the isolation of their quarters. Gathering at a special female shrine ‘according to ancestral custom’, they formed their own organisation, sacrificed and feasted at men’s expense. Historian Philochoros (quoted by Burkert 1983: 145 n.42) noted that they ate garlic in large quantities, so as to avoid sex and be odious to men.”

Camilla Power
email : c.c.power [at] [dot] uk

“As the economy crumbles, the Lipstick Index — that frivolous financial barometer that says cosmetics sales rise in direct relation to free-falling finances — has jumped. Sales in the last few months are up 40 percent. Here are 41 of fall’s most popular pick-me-ups, from $1.99 to over $50. What do women want when they aren’t allowed to want too much?”


“An indicator based on the theory that a consumer turns to less expensive indulgences, such as lipstick, when she (or he) feels less than confident about the future. Therefore, lipstick sales tend to increase during times of economic uncertainty or a recession. This term was coined by Leonard Lauder (chairman of Estee Lauder), who consistently found that during tough economic times, his lipstick sales went up. Believe it or not, the indicator has been quite a reliable signal of consumer attitudes over the years. For example, in the months following the September 11 terrorist attacks, lipstick sales doubled.”

BY Kate Douglas / 13 October 2001

“At first glance it looks like any old lump of pinkish rock. But look closer and you can see it has a cross-hatched pattern carefully etched onto its surface. If someone told you the marks on this piece of red ochre were made by humans more than 70,000 years ago, making it the world’s oldest known work of art, you might well be impressed. But if they told you it was a Stone Age lipstick? You’d probably think they were pulling your leg.

In fact, they’re completely serious. The artefact was found at the Blombos Cave, 30 metres above the sea on the coast of South Africa, and the cave is full of similar lumps of pigment. Many older, undecorated ones have been found throughout Africa. Researchers are using the discovery to paint an extraordinary picture of the emergence of our species, putting cosmetics at the heart of what makes humans unique.

Take this Stone Age make-up, along with fossil evidence and archaeological findings of permanent dwellings, hearths and group living, and you start to see the first signs of an organised society, communicating through signals and symbolism, even rituals. It’s exciting the researchers because they believe this could be the earliest evidence uncovered so far of human symbolic culture – and it may even tell us how culture began.

Anthropologists have never quite agreed on our cultural origins. The objects found alongside the remains of our ancestors so far suggest there was a cultural revolution around 50,000 years ago. That’s when early modern humans started making increasingly intricate bone and stone tools, carving patterns into rocks and creating representational art that reaches its zenith in the spectacular cave paintings at Lascaux in France and other sites. But the Blombos ochre pushes our cultural origins back much further than researchers had suspected, and is leading them to suggest that human culture has a more intriguing history than anyone thought.

To understand where cosmetics come into the story, we have to step back a little. Cultural development is intricately linked to the development of societies. And anthropologists note that we humans have a unique social structure. We are the only primates where males and females form long-term, monogamous relationships within large social groups, with both sexes cooperating to care for the children. If we could only understand how this unusual cooperation came about, it might provide clues to our cultural development.

Leslie Aiello, professor of biological anthropology at University College London, suggests that the need for cooperation was driven by our expanding brains. During the 6 million years of hominid evolution there has been a threefold increase in brain size. That, Aiello points out, would have made a more energy-rich diet essential. A bigger-brained child would have taken many years to nurture to maturity, and our ancestors would have been forced to gradually adopt new strategies to find food, particularly meat. Even with a change in diet, at some point females would have benefited from some help from their menfolk with hunting for food.

Catherine Key, a student of Aiello’s, turned to computer modelling to find out what would make males help out. She based her model on a game called the prisoner’s dilemma, which explores the conditions under which pairs of players will cooperate. She used the model to discover how altering the costs of reproduction – the amount of energy females invest in rearing their offspring and males expend attracting and keeping mates – could have affected the level of cooperation between the sexes.

The game showed that as costs increase, females will begin to help one another (Folia Primatologica, vol 71, p 77). “That’s because females have the same interests, such as food and child care,” says Key. But there were few conditions under which males and females would cooperate. While it was to females’ advantage to put all their effort into raising a small number of offspring, the best strategy for males was to attempt to father as many offspring as possible and not stick around to watch them grow up. But the model showed that males and females will cooperate when two conditions are met: first, when female reproductive costs are much higher than those of males, and second, if females can somehow punish uncooperative males.

The fossil record holds clues about when these conditions might have existed. The earliest hominids show distinct sexual dimorphism – males were around 50 per cent bigger than females. For males, being big and impressive allows them to win more mates. The trouble is they need more food, and so their reproductive costs are high. But over 4 million years of evolution, although both sexes got gradually bigger, the size difference was reduced to just 20 per cent. This meant that males were no longer investing much more in their body size than females, and so their reproductive costs would have grown more slowly than females’. Add to that a huge increase in brain size between 500,000 and 100,000 years ago, when cranial capacity expanded from around 1200 to 1500 cubic centimetres, and you get a substantial leap in female reproductive costs relative to male.

The crunch may well have come with a dramatic deterioration in global climate, when meat became increasingly hard to get. “The energetic burdens of females would probably have been most acute during the penultimate glacial, which is 190,000 to 130,000 years ago,” says Ian Watts, also from University College London, and one of the team studying ochre at Blombos. This is just the time frame in which our own species, Homo sapiens, evolved.

So, what about the other condition? What strategy might females have devised to punish uncooperative males? One suggestion is that women formed strong coalitions that wielded their power by withholding sex. A successful coalition would have required them to communicate and coordinate their action and send out strong signals to the men, telling them they were fertile but temporarily unavailable. It’s a tricky signal to communicate, because signs of fertility would have been a big attraction for the males, yet at the same time the females had to persuade them to go off hunting. They’d have to plan, be devious, and know what the others were doing – all of which would have constituted a form of culture. And that’s were the red ochre comes in.

The theory is based on an idea proposed a decade ago by Chris Knight from the University of East London and developed by Camilla Power of University College London. They point out that features of the modern human female reproductive cycle, such as concealed ovulation and continuous sexual receptivity, could have evolved as ways of encouraging males to stick around. But these signals alone wouldn’t prevent the strongest males from monopolising females – by noticing menstruation they could systematically identify and target females as they approached the peak of fertility. This would have became a problem as females became increasingly reliant on help to meet the costs of reproduction.

Knight suggested that our female ancestors synchronised their reproductive cycles so that a dominant male simply wouldn’t have time to service all the fertile females. This would give more males a chance to procreate and would increase their incentive to stay. But what the women really needed was food so, according to Knight, they formed coalitions and invented collective bargaining, going on “sex strike” at the time of menstruation and continuing to withhold sex until their men brought meat.

In support of his theory, Knight pointed out that traditional societies often have menstruation and hunting rituals that are linked together and coordinated through the phases of the Moon. Hunting expeditions are more successful if the nights are moonlit, and the human female reproductive cycle, with a mean length of 29.5 days, exactly matches the lunar cycle. Knight highlighted studies suggesting that women do synchronise their periods when they live in close proximity, although the evidence for this is equivocal.

It was Power who realised that women needn’t synchronise their cycles to benefit from menstrual coalitions, they just had to fake the signs. She believes that around 500,000 years ago, when brain size started expanding rapidly, menstruating women would have become a threat to other females by attracting much-needed male attention. So women who were nursing and pregnant took control of the situation by feigning menstruation. At first, this “sham menstruation” was improvised and impromptu, perhaps with women borrowing one another’s blood or using animal blood. “Then everything becomes symbolically organised rather than ad hoc,” she says, “and that would have triggered the regular use of red ochre.”

The emergence of “sex strikes” is more difficult to explain. Menstruation is a woman’s best advertisement of fertility so, contrary to what most people think today, it is a huge come-on. The problem for female coalitions would have been that rather than attracting their men, they needed to persuade them to leave the camp to hunt. Our ancestors would have had to devise a very powerful cultural “no” signal to counteract the strong biological “yes” that menstruation gives out.

“To say ‘no’ in the loudest possible way, you don’t use words, you do things that are the exact opposite of what you would do if you were going to make ‘yes’ signals,” says Power. “To say ‘no’, you do the reverse of being a human female – you pretend to be male and you pretend to be an animal.” Combining a come-on with a turn-off may seem a little far-fetched and, of course, there’s no turning the clock back 150,000 years to see how our female ancestors behaved. But Power has done the next best thing: she has been studying initiation rituals in sub-Saharan traditional societies, in which such strategies may persist to this day.

Part of a girl’s puberty ritual among the Khoisan, for example, is a dance called the Eland Bull Dance, where the girl plays the part of the bull, sending out a “wrong sex, wrong species” signal. Meanwhile, the women of the camp dance around her as if mating with the bull, taunting the local men with their complete lack of interest in them. “The message to the males is absolutely clear – you go off, you hunt some eland, and then we’ll see. It’s a sex strike in all but name,” says Power. The Hadza have a similar ritual called “epeme”, linked to symbolic menstruation and the new moon, associated with a mythical heroine who hunts down male zebra and wears their penises.

In a recently completed study, Power found that in a range of traditional societies puberty rituals link menstrual taboos with hunting, lunar phase and “wrong sex” signals in ways that meet the predictions of the sham menstruation and sex strike theory. “It’s wildly improbable that any of that is going to be there by accident,” she says. And there is more evidence in the archaeological record, says Watts. His study of 74 sites in southern Africa dating from more than 20,000 years ago reveals an explosion in the use of red ochre and other red pigments between about 100,000 and 120,000 years ago. And, he says, new findings in Zambia and the re-dating of the important Border Cave site in South Africa push the date of the ealiest use back further still – perhaps to 170,000 years ago in Zambia.

Some have yet to be convinced about the symbolic purpose of ochre, especially so early in our history, believing that it might instead have been used to preserve hides. But Watts doesn’t buy this. He admits that iron oxides neutralise collagenase, an enzyme used by bacteria to break down fibrous collagen, but studies of Kalahari bushmen suggest hides wear out before they succumb to bacterial decay. And Watts’s own research reveals that our ancestors went out of their way to collect high-quality red iron oxides, even when other oxides of different colours were available locally and could have preserved hides just as well. Red ochre has got to be culturally significant, argues Power. “Suddenly people just want to body-paint. Well, why?” she asks. “This is the only Darwinian explanation for why on earth that ochre is there.”

Of course, not everyone is convinced, but anthropologists are starting to take the idea seriously. One of its strengths is that it addresses the question of why symbolic culture evolved, rather than simply how it did so, according to Robin Dunbar from the University of Liverpool. He agrees that the dynamics of social groups must have been an important factor. “Knight’s story is a powerful one because it makes a number of very specific claims,” says Robert Aunger from Cambridge University. Even so, he has yet to be convinced by the evidence. “It is just one story among many in an area still so ripe with controversy that it will take history a long time to sort out who’s right and who’s wrong.”

Is it frivolous to suggest that cosmetics are the roots of human culture? Power’s answer is an emphatic no. She points out that the word “cosmetics” comes from the Greek, “cosmos”, meaning order. “In traditional cultures cosmetics are not mere frippery,” she says. They define who belongs to which group, who can touch who, and who can mate with who. “The regularised use of cosmetics as a sexual signal could even have been the thing that marked off modern humans.” So perhaps lipstick is not just the key to culture, but also to the origin of our species.”

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