The Washington Post - 29.08.2019

(Joyce) #1




The United States is in a “very
politically turbulent time” that
has required military officials to
address displays of partisanship
by some U.S. troops, the Penta-
gon’s top general said Wednesday,
emphasizing that the vast m ajori-
ty of service members have acted
“With very few exceptions, they
have conducted themselves in a
manner very consistent with our
ethos and with our values,” said
Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford
Jr., the chairman of the Joint
Chiefs of Staff. “They have done
exactly what we’ve asked them to
do, by and large.”
Dunford, who is expected to
retire next month, did not list any
of the incidents in question. But
some service members at public
events have displayed banners,
hats and flags featuring the
“Make America Great Again” po-
litical slogan favored by President
Trump. Such displays violate mili-
tary regulations designed to en-
force political neutrality in uni-
Dunford and Defense Secre-
tary Mark T. Esper appeared be-
fore an overflow crowd of dozens
of reporters in the Pentagon press
briefing room in the first event of
its kind in a year, a reflection of
turmoil after former defense sec-
retary Jim Mattis’s resignation in
December over differences of
agreement over how Trump treats
U.S. allies.
On Wednesday, the Wall Street
Journal published an essay adapt-
ed from Mattis’s upcoming book
in which he wrote that he “did as
well as he could for as long as he
could.” Mattis warned that tribal-
ism is dividing the nation and
“that our democracy is an experi-
ment — and one that can be
The Pentagon’s current top
leaders have both expressed
warm feelings for Mattis in the

past but did not address his criti-
cisms directly Wednesday, saying
that they are trying to keep the
military out of politics by avoid-
ing partisanship themselves.
The Pentagon officials ad-
dressed a wide range of other
issues in the hour-long news con-
ference, including the future of
the war in Afghanistan, relations
with Turkey and tensions be-
tween the United States and Iran.
On Afghanistan, Dunford de-
clined to provide details about
what a future counterterrorism
presence in the country could
look like if the Trump administra-
tion strikes a deal with the Ta liban
following months of talks.
The agreement is expected to
remove several thousand of the
estimated 14,000 U.S. troops who
are in Afghanistan in exchange
for concessions that include a Ta l-
iban promise to block activity by
al-Qaeda and begin further nego-
tiations directly with the Afghan
government. U.S. military offi-
cials have thrown their support
behind the effort but have private-
ly advocated maintaining a force
that can strike the Islamic State.
Dunford said the circum-
stances on the ground “would
clearly change in the wake of a
negotiation,” but he also seemed
to inject a note of caution into
discussions about a possible U.S.
“I’m not using the ‘withdraw’
word right now,” Dunford said.
“We’re going to make sure that
Afghanistan’s not a sanctuary,
and we're going to have an effort
to bring peace and stability in
The general added that Afghan
forces, which for years have strug-
gled with retention and high
casualties, continue to require
outside military help.
On Iran, Esper expressed cau-
tious optimism that Washington
and Te hran may be on a better
path than in June, when Iran shot
down a U.S. Navy surveillance
drone over the Strait of Hormuz
and the Pentagon nearly respond-
ed with a strike on Iranian targets
before Trump called it off.
Esper said that he is “not sure
I’m ready to call the crisis over yet,
but so far so good.”

Dunford defends troops

in a ‘turbulent time’

In joint meeting, Esper
expresses optimism
on Iran relations


About 3.8 million years ago, a
distant human relative took his
final steps. Swept into a river del-
ta, his head was buried in sand
that, over time, hardened into a
stone helmet. The skull fossilized
within the sandstone, to the de-
light of the scientists who discov-
ered t he cranium in 2016.
Excavations at Woranso-Mille
in Ethiopia, the site of an ancient
river and lake system where an-
thropologists found the fossil,
have produced a trove of bones
from ancient primates. Yet this
skull is “one of the most signifi-
cant specimens we’ve found so
far,” s aid Yohannes Haile-Selassie,
an anthropologist at the Cleve-
land Museum of Natural History
and a member of the international
team t hat studied the remains.
The skull, probably a male’s, is
from a species called Australo-
pithecus anamensis, as Haile-Se-
lassie and his colleagues report in
a pair of papers published in the
journal Nature. When compared
with other ancient bones, the cra-
nium could change how anthro-
pologists view a critical point in
the evolution of humanlike pri-
“I have no doubt t hat this s peci-
men will become one of the iconic
specimens in early human evolu-
tion,” s aid David Strait, a paleoan-
thropologist at Washington Uni-
versity in St. Louis unaffiliated
with t he new studies.
Australopithecus anamensis,
abbreviated as Au. anamensis,
lived between about 4.2 million
and 3.8 million years ago. The
primates sported a mixture of
traits. They almost certainly
walked on two legs, yet they had
long arms and strong hands, sug-
gesting they were capable climb-
You may be more familiar with
Au. anamensis’ younger relative,
Australopithecus afarensis. The
most celebrated Australopithe-
cus, Lucy, discovered in 1974, was
a member of this species. Au. afa-
rensis’s remains appear in the f os-

sil record between around 3.9 mil-
lion and 3 million years ago. Lucy
and her kin left b ehind b ones f rom
nearly every part of their s keleton,
and even, in Ta nzania, fossilized
footprints. Our own human spe-
cies probably descended from
some k ind of Australopithecus.
The older Australopithecus left
more fragmentary impressions,
reduced to an arm, a handful of
teeth, partial jaws and other bone
scraps. Its skull had long eluded
researchers. The new fossil is “the
most complete, earliest Australo-
pithecus skull ever found. That’s
really exciting,” said Carol V.
Ward, a University of Missouri
professor who studies the evolu-
tion o f early hominins and was not
a part of this research. (Hominins
are humans and our extinct rela-
tives, who split f rom the rest of the
great ape lineage about 7 million
years ago.) “This is the fossil I’ve
been w aiting for.”
Ward, who has s tudied Au. ana-
mensis since the 1990s, soon after
paleoanthropologist Meave
Leakey and her team named the
species, said skulls are rich in
information. “They house the
brain and most of the major sen-
sory systems. They r eflect locomo-
tion a nd body s ize,” Ward said. The
jaws can inform scientists about
an extinct s pecies’ diet. This speci-
men could help refine the timeline
of hominin adaptations, she said.
This skull is the first to “give us

a glimpse of what the face of Aus-
tralopithecus anamensis looks
like,” Haile-Selassie said. It had a
jutting jaw and lower features.
Over millions of years, hominin
faces flattened while the brain
case enlarged. “ ‘When did we
start looking more like ourselves?’
is the key question, and I would
say that starts with the origin of

our genus, the genus Homo,” he
Skull features also allow re-
searchers to tease out the relation-
ships between extinct hominins.
“We identify species, not entire-
ly but largely, from the jaws and
teeth and cranium, and use that
information to sort out how they
are related to each other,” Strait
From this specimen, which rep-
resents the oldest Australopith
species, “we can better start to

address why Australopithecus
first evolved,” Strait said. It’s an
early marker on our evolutionary
For the past decade, the gener-
ally a ccepted idea, Strait said, was
that Au. anamensis transformed
over time into Au. afarensis, fol-
lowing in sequence like dancers in
a conga line.
“This discovery is challenging
this i dea,” he said.
The authors of the new studies
suggest that an isolated popula-
tion of hominins split from Au.
anamensis and evolved into Au.
afarensis. In this view, Lucy’s ilk
was an offshoot species that did
not immediately replace its pred-
ecessor relatives but lived contem-
The strongest evidence in favor
of this explanation is a bone frag-
ment reported earlier, this one
from another region in Ethiopia.
The fragment, 100,000 years older
than the newfound skull, has a
forehead that is wider behind the
eye sockets. This trait, the authors
say, means it belongs to Au. afa-
rensis. P ut another way, t here m ay
have been a period of about
100,000 years when both Au. ana-
mensis and Au. afarensis l ived.
Tim White, a paleoanthropolo-
gist at the University of California
at Berkeley, disagreed with this
“No two crania of any species
are exactly identical in all anatom-
ical details,” including our own
species and “our closest living and
fossil relatives,” White said.
He i nterpreted the difference in
the measurements of the new
skull and the skull fragment as
variation within a single species,
Au. anamensis.
“This discovery is therefore a
great example of a very important
fossil that does not require a re-
draw of our family tree,” White
said, “but rather strengthens the
hypothesis that Australopithecus
was evolving” between 3 and 4
million y ears ago in E ast Africa.
Ward was also skeptical, point-
ing out that the study authors’
hypothesis hinged on an incom-
plete bone fragment.
“The important thing with all
these fossils is that when they
raise questions it’s not frustrat-
ing,” she said. “It’s raising ques-
tions that we now know w e should
be asking.”

‘Significant’ skull in evolution studies

3.8 million-year-old
primate fossil offers new
clues for human history

A reconstruction by John Gurche of Australopithecus anamensis,
based on a nearly complete skull fossil found in 2016 in Ethiopia.

“I have no doubt that

this specimen will

become one of the iconic

specimens in early

human evolution.”
David Strait, paleoanthropologist
at Washington University in St. Louis

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