OSLO, Norway – The first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize (search), environmental activist Wangari Maathai (search), received her award Friday to the beat of drums and dancers that broke with the usual stodgy ceremony, and she warned that humanity is "threatening its own life-support system."
Maathai received the traditional gold medal and diploma that accompanies the $1.5 million prize at a ceremony in the Norwegian capital. A few hours later, Sweden's king awarded the other Nobel prizes — medicine, physics, chemistry, literature and economics — in Stockholm.
Bengt Samuelsson, chairman of the board of the Nobel Foundation, addressed the frequently heard criticism that too few women have received the Nobel Prize over the years. While only 31 of the 705 Nobel Prizes handed out since 1901 have gone to women, Samuelsson pointed out that three of this year's laureates are women.
"If the history of the Nobel Prize during its first century was a reflection of 19th- and early 20th century values, maybe this year's awards are a glimpse of the changes we will see during this century," Samuelsson said.
One of the women, however, was a no-show at the ceremony: literature laureate Elfriede Jelinek. The Austrian writer says she has a social phobia. The third woman winner was Linda B. Buck, who shared the medicine prize with fellow American Richard Axel.
Maathai's Nobel prize is the first to acknowledge environmentalism as a means of building peace. In Oslo, the 64-year-old Kenyan — wearing a traditional dress, a bright orange scarf tied in her hair — warned that the world remained under attack from disease, deforestation and war.
"Today, we are faced with a challenge that calls for a shift in our thinking, so that humanity stops threatening its life-support system," she Kenyan told the crowd of dignitaries, who included the Norwegian royal family as well as talk show host Oprah Winfrey and Kerry Kennedy, a daughter of the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.
"We are called to assist the Earth to heal her wounds and in the process heal our own indeed, to embrace the whole creation in all its diversity, beauty and wonder," Maathai said.
Before she took the stage, the traditionally rigidly formal ceremony lit up with color and sound as three African dancers and accompanying drummers pounded out a brief piece of music that echoed off the walls of the large auditorium that was decorated with flowers.
"In the course of history, there comes a time when humanity is called to shift to a new level of consciousness, to reach a higher moral ground," she said. "That time is now."
Maathai, who is the 12th woman to receive the prize since it was first awarded in 1901, said she'll use it to encourage more environmental protection.
Her selection by the secretive five-member Nobel Committee for the Peace Prize raised eyebrows because of her environmental ties and also because of controversy over statements she reportedly made claiming that AIDS was created by scientists and loosed upon Africa by the West.
But she told The Associated Press that her comments were misquoted and taken out of context. "I have not said what I'm quoted as saying," she said of
She reaffirmed her stand in a statement released by the Nobel Committee, saying: "It is therefore critical for me to state that I neither say nor believe that the virus was developed by white people or white powers in order to destroy the African people. Such views are wicked and destructive."
Maathai, who is also the first Kenyan to win the award, was selected for her role in founding the Green Belt Movement, which has sought to empower women, improve the environment and fight corruption in Africa for nearly 30 years. A deputy environment minister, she also won acclaim for her campaign to fight deforestation.
The awards ceremony at Stockholm's concert hall was followed by a lavish banquet a few blocks away at City Hall.
More than 1,300 guests, including the laureates' families, Sweden's royal family, government officials, ambassadors, scientists and business leaders, were invited to the Stockholm dinner, which, like the awards ceremony, was carried live on Swedish television.
At the ceremony, Horace Engdahl, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, made a presentation for the literature prize, saying its winner, Jelinek, has "given new currency to a heretical feminine tradition and have expanded the art of literature."
"If literature by definition is a force that bends to nothing, you are in our day one of its truest representatives," Engdahl said.
Axel and Buck won the medicine prize for their work on the sense of smell. Americans David J. Gross, H. David Politzer and Frank Wilczek won the physics prize for their explanation of the force that binds particles inside the atomic nucleus.
Their breakthrough came with a completely new mathematical theory, where a minus sign was included where previously tested theories gave an incorrect positive sign.
"Seldom has a negative result had such a positive effect," said Lars Brink, a member of the Royal Academy of Sciences, which awards the prize.
The chemistry prize was awarded to Israelis Aaron Ciechanover and Avram Hershko and American Irwin Rose for their work in discovering a process that lets cells destroy unwanted proteins.
Norwegian Finn E. Kydland and American Edward C. Prescott received the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for shedding light on how government policies and actions affect economies worldwide.
The economics prize was introduced in 1968 and is funded by Sweden's central bank. The other awards are funded by the Nobel Foundation.
The Nobel Prizes are usually announced in October and are handed out every year on Dec. 10, the anniversary of the 1896 death of Nobel, a Swedish industrialist and the inventor of dynamite. The first awards ceremony took place in 1901.