News this Week

Science  06 Jun 2008:
Vol. 320, Issue 5881, pp. 1270

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    Russian Academy President Narrowly Wins Reelection

    1. Andrey Allakhverdov,
    2. Vladimir Pokrovsky*
    1. Andrey Allakhverdov and Vladimir Pokrovsky are writers in Moscow.
    Power couple.

    At the Russian Academy of Sciences, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (left) chats with RAS President Yuri Osipov.


    MOSCOW—Despite unprecedented opposition, which included fellow academicians calling for him to step aside, Yuri Osipov was reelected last week to a fourth term as president of the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS). The election, in which two candidates who challenged Osipov received a combined 46% of the secret ballots, made clear that RAS is split at a time when many members feel its future is insecure. Osipov's return “will bring the academy to deep stagnation,” says academician Alexandr Spirin, who had made a public call for the 71-year-old mathematician not to seek reelection.

    It's not clear, however, how long Osipov will actually serve. A source in the academy told Science that Osipov earned the support of the RAS Presidium, a key management body, only after agreeing to leave his post shortly after the elections so that Mikhail Kovalchuk, director of the Kurchatov Institute, can take his place. Some discount such gossip, however. “I know these rumors about Osipov to be replaced by Kovalchuk, but I doubt it is true,” says Nikolay Ponomarev-Stepnoy, the Kurchatov Institute's vice president.

    Kovalchuk was expected by many to win Osipov's seat this year, in large part because the government has placed nearly $8.5 billion of nanotechnology funding under his institute's control and because former Russian president and now Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is seen as his champion. Indeed, Putin paid a rare visit to RAS to announce new science funding measures, including higher salaries for academicians, corresponding members, and RAS researchers.

    But many RAS members, skeptical that the nanotechnology money will actually fund academic research, weren't swayed by Putin's lobbying. Two years ago, Kovalchuk failed to get elected to a full academician membership, and last week, academy members again declined to approve his membership, dooming any plans for him to run for election to be the next RAS president. The apparent rebuke to Putin could threaten the independence of RAS, as recent legislation has given the Russian government authority to claim some of the academy's valuable property.

    Still, even without Kovalchuk in the running, Osipov's victory was close. In past elections, he had no official challengers. But this time, the Power Industry, Machine-Building, Mechanics and Control Processes branch of RAS nominated its head, Vladimir Fortov. A significant personality in Russian science, Fortov headed the Russian Foundation for Basic Research and was the country's science minister in the 1990s.

    Citing the need for regular turnover of top positions, academician Vladimir Zakharov, head of the RAS Research Center in Chernogolovka, had written a letter to Power Industry branch officials suggesting Fortov. “Fortov is a prominent scientist, who won many international prizes. … He is well-known all over the world, and his presidency would strengthen the Academy's international status,” noted Zakharov. The Far-Eastern Branch of the academy also proposed a candidate, Valery Chereshnev, head of the RAS Urals Branch.

    A couple of weeks before the elections, Spirin, former director of the RAS Protein Institute, sent a public letter to Osipov asking him to withdraw his candidacy. “In the recent years the authority of our Academy, as well as your personal authority as the president, has strongly gone down in the broad scientific community and continues to fall,” wrote Spirin.

    At the RAS meeting in Moscow, Zakharov and Spirin again presented their arguments. Supporters of Osipov countered that he had managed the academy successfully for 17 years and was accepted in high government circles. “In these 17 years, Osipov has more than once saved the academy from elimination,” says RAS Vice President Alexandr Nekipelov.

    When the votes were counted, Osipov had received 52%, whereas Fortov got 39% and Valery Chereshnev 7%. “I think we are now witnessing a critical moment in the history of our academy,” says Spirin. “This is an unprecedented situation that so many people voted against the president.”


    Breaking With Tradition, France Picks Future Elite Schools

    1. Martin Enserink

    The French government has selected six university clusters to receive up to €500 million each for drastic renovation and expansion of facilities on their aging campuses. Although the money is for buildings only, the move is part of a broader plan to transform the selected schools into top-notch research universities that can compete on the global level and boost France's poor showing in university rankings.

    Each of the six winning proposals comes from collections of universities and other schools in individual cities—Toulouse, Grenoble, Strasbourg, Montpellier, Lyon, and Bordeaux—that have agreed to merge or at least strike up tight collaborations that will increase their clout and attractiveness. “We have never received amounts like this before,” says Alain Beretz, president of the University Louis Pasteur in Strasbourg, one of the winners.

    Most of the €5 billion for “Operation Campus” comes from the government's sale of shares in the electricity company EDF. The eight-member panel that selected the six winners asked seven others to rework their proposals and compete for four remaining slots to be awarded in July. One or more clusters from the Paris region are widely expected to be among the winners in that round.

    The plan, a 2007 campaign promise of President Nicolas Sarkozy, resembles Germany's prior effort to elevate nine universities to elite status (Science, 20 October 2006, p. 400). It's also a controversial break with France's traditionally egalitarian funding system. “The government is creating rich universities so it can forget about the others,” says Alain Trautmann, the founder of Sauvons la Recherche, a researchers' movement, who argues that a “Marshall Plan” is needed to spruce up all campuses across the country.


    Seaweed Invader Elicits Angst in India

    1. Pallava Bagla

    NEW DELHI—An effort in southern India to raise coastal farmers out of poverty by paying them to cultivate red algae for a food additive has gone awry. Last month, botanists reported that the alga, Kappaphycus alvarezii, has invaded coral reefs in a marine reserve in the Bay of Bengal. Experts are trying to establish who let the seaweed escape into the wild: a government lab, a multinational company, or careless farmers.

    The saga began in 1996, when the Central Salt and Marine Chemicals Research Institute (CSMCRI) in Bhavnagar launched a project to grow the algae in perforated bags in the open sea and extract carrageenan, a gelatinous compound used to stabilize or add texture to products as diverse as toothpastes and mocha lattes. In 2000, CSMCRI transferred the technology to PepsiCo India Holdings Private Limited in Gurgaon, whose executive vice president, Amit K. Bose, told Science that since 2001 the company has been “supporting and subsidizing” local farmers to cultivate the alga offshore. The seaweed is grown on tethered rafts in shallow water; algae is harvested and dried and exported to countries such as Malaysia and the Philippines, which extract the carrageenan.

    The commercial cultivation is near the edge of the Gulf of Mannar Marine National Park, a 560-square-kilometer reserve that's home to more than 100 species of corals and mammals such as sea cows and dolphins. Off Kurusadai Island in the reserve, “no part of the coral reefs was visible in most invaded sites, where [the algae] doomed the entire colonies and occupied almost all ridges and valleys of the coral landscape,” a team led by botanist S. Chandrasekaran of Thiagarajar College in Madurai reported in the 10 May issue of Current Science. It's not clear if the alga has spread to other parts of the reserve.

    This isn't the first time the alga, native to the Philippines, has invaded new turf: In 1999, it colonized coral reefs in Hawaii, according to the University of Hawaii, Manoa. For that reason, some prominent researchers, including M. S. Swaminathan, an agricultural scientist at M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation in Chennai who now serves in Parliament, had opposed bringing the alga to India in the first place.

    No one has taken responsibility for K. alvarezii's escape. Whoever is deemed responsible could be prosecuted for damaging habitat under the Indian Wild Life Protection Act of 1972, says P. K. Manohar, a lawyer with Legal Action for Wildlife and Environment in New Delhi.

    Moving in.

    Kappaphycus alvarezii growing on coral in the Gulf of Mannar Marine National Park.


    Bose acknowledges that PepsiCo promoted contract farming of the algae to serve the community by helping impoverished farmers. The company guarantees that it will buy all the farmers' annual production of K. alvarezii, amounting to 100 to 200 metric tons of dry seaweed; all the dry seaweed is exported, Bose says. He denies that PepsiCo played a role in the alga's escape into the marine reserve. Instead, he suggests that CSMCRI's cultivation trials are “the root cause for its bioinvasion at [Kurusadai].”

    CSMCRI's director, Pushpito K. Ghosh, says he is “quite puzzled as to what may have happened.” He and his colleagues argue that strong currents could have swept algal twigs from commercial farms near Kurusadai or from his institute's trial cultivation site. “Another possibility, which must not be ruled out, is clandestine experimentation by unscrupulous elements,” Ghosh says, without elaborating. Chandrasekaran calls that an “outlandish explanation” and notes that no one is allowed to visit Kurusadai Island without written permission from reserve authorities. No matter how the seaweed colonized Kurusadai, Ghosh says, “there is no question of CSMCRI disowning responsibility.”

    PepsiCo has said it will pay for a wider survey of K. alvarezii in the marine reserve as well as measures to scoop it up. But it may be too late to get rid of the algae, says Swaminathan: “All that we can now do is restrict the extent of bioinvasion.”


    Departing U.S. Genome Institute Director Takes Stock of Personalized Medicine

    1. Jocelyn Kaiser

    For 15 years, Francis Collins has been the face of the public effort to decipher the human genome. So it came as a surprise last week when the physician-geneticist announced he will step down as director of the U.S. National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) on 1 August. He plans to write a book on personalized medicine and launch a broad job search.

    Since taking the helm of NHGRI—then a center—in 2003, Collins led a then-controversial 10-year effort to sequence the 3 billion bases of the human genome, ushering in “big biology.” The Human Genome Project sparked a debate about whether genomic data should be freely available, an argument Collins championed and ultimately won. He has also been a tireless advocate of legislation to protect people from genetic discrimination. The passage of such a law last month was one “signal” that it was time to leave, he says.

    The timing of Collins's departure has prompted speculation that he wants to advise one of the presidential campaigns, a possibility he says would interest him. Which side is not clear: He told Science only that he considers himself an independent. Collins is an evangelical Christian who wrote a 2006 book about his beliefs.

    Collins reflected on the state of genomic medicine and his plans in a telephone interview last week. His remarks, edited for brevity, follow. A longer version, including his thoughts on dealing with the egos involved in the human genome program, is available at

    Q: Genomewide association studies are turning up many new genetic risk variants for common diseases. Yet when people have their DNA scanned for these markers through companies like 23andMe, they learn that they have slightly elevated risks for diseases that they are at only modest risk of developing in the first place. If this is personalized medicine, it seems disappointing.

    F.C.: I co-wrote a paper back in 1997 in Science basically arguing for the International HapMap Project [to map human genetic diversity] and for the potential that would have to reveal genetic risk factors in common disease. There were people saying HapMap was basically a welfare program for the genome centers. So the successes that you now see pouring out of the pages of journals are exhilarating. At latest count, I think 165 genetic variants associated with a common disease have been discovered in the last 2 years.

    But let's be frank about it. The discoveries still only account for a fraction of the heritability of diabetes or heart disease. A lot of people have been speculating that variants that are less common—1% or 2% or 3%—will have a larger effect in people that are carrying them. So I think in another 6 or 8 years [when rare variants are known], the predictive power will ratchet up substantially.

    I'm of two minds here. I'm actually quite excited to see all these discoveries that many people are interested in taking advantage of. But I'm also worried that the public might become disillusioned and say, “Is that all there is?” And that could set the field back.

    Q: How will personalized medicine work 10 years from now?

    F.C.: I think we'll be at the point where sequencing your genome or mine could be done in an hour for under $1000, and people will say, “No big deal; why did they ever think this was hard?” But we'll still have this question of, “Okay, we can now make a pretty good prediction about your risk. What should you do about it?”

    And here is one of my major frustrations. We desperately need, in this country, a large-scale, prospective, population-based cohort study. And we need to enroll at a minimum half a million people. We would need to have their environmental exposures carefully monitored and recorded, their DNA information recorded, their electronic medical records included, and have them consented for all sorts of other follow-ups.

    I tried very hard to get some enthusiasm for this at high levels in the Congress and the [Bush] Administration, but as soon as people realize that this is genome project-like in terms of its cost, they shake their heads and say, “Well, it's not the right time.” It would be $300 [million] or $400 million a year to run this study.

    Q: Do you think the day will come when the large sequencing centers supported by NHGRI are no longer needed?

    F.C.: Yes. They're incredibly valuable right now, but I do look forward to a time, maybe 5 years from now, maybe 7 years, where DNA sequencing is so exportable, and so much of a plug-and-play operation, that the need for these very large, complex centers fades away.

    Q: Why are you resigning now and moving, as you put it, into “the white space of unemployment”?

    F.C.: At age 58, I'm restless to see what other challenges might be out there waiting for me. I want some time to reflect on all that's happened, to step out of the pressures of a 90-hour work week, and see where is all this going. Maybe there's something I can do in global health or something that relates to the real applications of genomics to medicine—given my physician background, that's where my heart is.

    This sort of systematic [job] search, where you talk to lots of people, is pretty untenable when you're an NIH institute director. That is especially true now with the very high scrutiny towards conflicts of interest.


    Runoff Threatens Early Human Site

    1. Robert Koenig

    PRETORIA, SOUTH AFRICA—Wastewater runoff from a golf-course irrigation system is threatening research at caves along South Africa's southern coast that contain the earliest evidence of humans exploiting marine resources, scientists say. To their disappointment, a judge here declined last week to issue an injunction designed to protect the archaeological site.

    Due to the area's water shortage, the golf course has been using a “gray water” effluent to nurture its greens, but a drainage system intended to prevent leaching into the 15 caves below hasn't worked as planned. The Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa (WESSA), a party to the original agreement under which the golf course was supposed to protect the caves from leaching, had asked a high court judge of Western Cape province to order that the irrigation be stopped or diverted.

    Water hazard.

    Researchers are using plastic mats and sandbags to try to protect prized caves from leaching damage caused by runoff from a golf course.


    “The cave we are now excavating has been badly affected by the effluent leaching,” says archaeologist Curtis Marean of Arizona State University's Institute of Human Origins in Tempe, who heads an international project investigating the so-called Pinnacle site and nearby caves near Mossel Bay. He says the caves at Pinnacle “were dry as a bone” when he first saw them in 1998; he and other scientists noticed the leaching, which includes greenish and yellowish deposits from chemicals in the effluent, after the golf course opened in 2006.

    Dozens of scientists from South Africa and countries around the world have conducted archaeological research in caves at the site, first excavated in 2000. The site has provided evidence that people in the caves included shellfish and other marine resources in their diet about 164,000 years ago, as shown by the dating of mussel shells and a whale barnacle found in the caves. The caves also revealed an early use of pigment and the production of bladelet stone tool technology (Science, 19 October 2007, p. 377).

    Marine biologist Steve du Toit, who directs conservation efforts for WESSA in the Western Cape, says that the organization wanted the court to take quick action “to ensure there is no further damage to the archaeological resources or the environment of the site.” But the judge said local homeowners, whose property values could be affected by a halt in irrigation, were “entitled to be heard” as part of any court decision. WESSA plans to appeal.

    The developer of the golf course, the Pinnacle Point Golf Estate, says it is trying to correct the leaching problem. It stopped irrigating the practice green and two holes of the course this week and—if the province's environment department approves—plans to install a new membrane and drainage system, says the development director, Lance Kinnear. But du Toit and other scientists worry that this won't stop all the leakage, and they fear additional cave damage.

    As part of a wider project focused on southern Africa's ancient climate, environment, ecology, and anthropology, scientists are analyzing stalagmites in the caves to help determine rainfall and vegetation patterns in the region between 50,000 and 90,000 years ago and help develop climate models. Marean calls the effort “the first large transdisciplinary project to target the southern reaches of the Southern Hemisphere in an attempt to develop a unified record of climate and environmental change over the last 400,000 years.” But Marean says that the leaking effluent may have already contaminated the geochemistry of some stalagmites, irrevocably altering that valuable record.


    Read All About It--The First Female Genome! Or Is It?

    1. Martin Enserink

    Dutifully hailing it as a victory for equality, hundreds of newspapers, TV stations, and Web sites noted last week that scientists had finally sequenced the genome of a woman. A 34-year-old red-haired clinical geneticist from the Netherlands had joined living DNA legend James Watson and genome entrepreneur J. Craig Venter in the exclusive club of people whose entire DNA sequence has been unraveled. The story had a funny twist, too: Her name is Marjolein Kriek. A Watson and a Kriek, united by DNA again.

    But the announcement raised eyebrows as well, because the data have not been put in the public domain nor analyzed, let alone published. “As far as I can tell, this whole story is about perception with no reality involved,” PLoS Biology editor Jonathan Eisen, an evolutionary biologist, wrote in his blog. Indeed, Leiden University Medical Center (LUMC), which presented the research at a 26 May meeting in Amsterdam, wasn't really the first to claim a female genome—not even the second.

    Scientifically, it made sense to sequence the male genome first because women lack the Y chromosome, says John Edwards, who studies the genomics of breast cancer at Columbia University. But sequencing female genomes, especially when coupled with medical histories and clinical data, will be “vital for shedding new light on women's diseases,” he says.

    Such considerations aside, when LUMC bought a top-line sequencer from Illumina in San Diego, California, last year, it realized that the first female genome could make a splash, says team leader Gert-Jan van Ommen. The team recruited Kriek, he says, because of her name's resemblance to that of Watson's colleague Francis Crick, who died in 2004.

    In the spotlight.

    Clinical geneticist Marjolein Kriek is among the first women to have her entire genome sequenced.


    The PR machine started humming in earnest when Van Ommen agreed to present the genome effort at a 1-day meeting of Dutch researchers and science journalists organized by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO). To promote that meeting, NWO issued an embargoed press release for science reporters around the globe promising “world news.”

    But Illumina itself said in a 6 May press release that it had sequenced three unidentified Nigerian people: a man, a woman, and their son. And on that same day, a team from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, announced at a meeting at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory that, as part of a project to understand the genetics of acute myeloid leukemia, it had read the genome of a female cancer patient.

    Van Ommen says he wasn't aware of those claims. “If we had known, we would not have presented it this way,” he says. He does plead guilty to Eisen's charge of “science by press release,” noting, however, that his team is hardly the only perpetrator: For example, Watson's genome sequence was hailed publicly months before Nature published a paper on it.

    Illumina isn't the least bit miffed at the Leiden team's priority claim, a company spokesperson says. Perhaps that's because the LUMC press release noted that Kriek's DNA was cracked using Illumina's equipment.


    Encourage Risk, Help Young Researchers, Panel Advises

    1. Constance Holden

    Tight budgets have done more than restrict research; they're damaging morale by making people afraid to take chances, just when it's more important than ever to invest in what could be “transformative” research, a new report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences argues. “The constant hunt for dollars is fostering conservative thinking” and thus making a bad situation worse, according to a panel headed by Thomas Cech, president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Chevy Chase, Maryland.

    Formed to look at “alternative models for the federal funding of science,” the 22-person committee “quickly drilled down” to two messages, says panel member Keith Yamamoto of the University of California, San Francisco: the need to foster early-career scientists and to encourage high-risk research. Released this week, the white paper Advancing Research in Science and Engineering is styled as a follow-on to a National Academy of Sciences report (Rising Above the Gathering Storm) issued in 2005. “This report addresses a very serious set of problems,” says Robert Berdahl, president of the Association of American Universities in Washington, D.C.

    The panel notes that young investigators are struggling as training times lengthen and competition for grants gets tougher. The statistics are “scary,” Yamamoto says: In 1980, 86% of new faculty members won a grant the first time they applied for one; now only 18% do. At the same time, they're getting older: The average Ph.D. gets his or her first real job at age 38 and first R01-type grant at 42.

    It's time to encourage the next generation by various means, including supplying daycare for their young children and offering generous first-time grants that will keep a researcher afloat through tenure review time, the panel says.

    In what Cech calls its “single most controversial recommendation,” the report says institutions should find ways to help researchers with their salaries rather than relying on them to support themselves entirely with grant money—an arrangement that makes them more risk averse.

    The report eschews calls for increased funding, focusing instead on how to get the most out of existing research dollars. One suggestion to universities: “Limit excessive building programs” in order to make more money available for promising investigators.


    The Andes Popped Up by Losing Their Deep-Seated Rocky Load

    1. Richard A. Kerr

    Mountains grow so slowly that no one would notice—or so conventional thinking would have it. But a group of geoscientists is arguing that about 8 million years ago, the central Andean plateau, at least, sprang upward so fast that modern surveying techniques could have revealed the uplift in a few years. It happened, they think, when the deep root of dense rock that anchored the Andes rapidly fell away. The new geochemical evidence of rapid uplift “is really beautiful stuff,” says tectonophysicist Peter Molnar of the University of Colorado, Boulder. Lovely or not, the new paleo-elevation data will be facing some tests of their own.

    High, but how fast?

    The central Andes may have risen rapidly after shedding some weight.


    Mountains rise because Earth's outer skin gets squeezed. Across the Andes, an oceanic tectonic plate drives against the western edge of South America as the plate dives beneath the continent. A slow, steady squeeze gradually compresses and thickens the crust. Because the crust is less dense than underlying rock, that thickening buoys it, causing the mountains to rise. Tectonophysicists assumed that the rise of the Andes had been as protracted as their 50-million-year-long compression, but the geologic record of uplift left the speed ambiguous.

    In recent years, geochemists have exploited a more detailed record of elevation change locked in the isotopic composition of the oxygen, hydrogen, and carbon of minerals formed as mountains rise. On page 1304 of this issue of Science and in a paper in press in Earth and Planetary Science Letters, Carmala Garzione and Gregory Hoke, both of the University of Rochester, New York, and their colleagues report new geochemical paleo-elevation data. Combined with existing isotopic data, the new data point to rapid uplift. In one technique they used, isotopes can reflect uplift because as atmospheric moisture moves up a mountainside, isotopically heavy molecules tend to precipitate out sooner than lighter ones. That leaves relatively less of the heavy molecules in the rain and snow that falls on the mountaintop, where the isotopes are locked into minerals. The higher the mountaintop, the lighter the isotopes. From the isotope data, Garzione and her colleagues infer that the Andean plateau shot up by 1.5 kilometers in as little as 1 million years.

    Crustal compression doesn't happen that fast, but Garzione and her colleagues say an indirect effect can explain the rapid rise. Compression thickens not only the crust but also the cold, dense mantle rock immediately beneath. The central Andes seem to have lost this so-called mantle lithosphere, the group says, removing a weight from the lighter crust. Without that ballast, the crust could rise. The timing and style of volcanism in the central Andes suggest that the mantle lithosphere fell away suddenly—as a huge drop dripping off the crust or as a layer peeling away—just when the isotopic data indicate a punctuated uplift, the group writes.

    The Andean paleo-elevation data all but clinch the case for that scenario, says tectonophysicist David Rowley of the University of Chicago in Illinois. But first the paleo-elevation data need to be tested further, says Todd Ehlers of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Garzione and colleagues state that the climate under which new minerals recorded elevation change resembled the modern climate, he says, “but they've never tested it.” Ehlers reported at last December's American Geophysical Union meeting that in a climate model, the rise of the Andes themselves alters climate—for example, by changing the source and therefore the isotopic composition of precipitation. That could give a false paleo-elevation, he says. He would like to see more work with models rather than in the field.


    Boring No More, a Trade-Savvy Indus Emerges

    1. Andrew Lawler

    Long in the shadow of its sister civilizations to the west, the Indus is emerging as the powerhouse of commerce and technology in the 3rd millennium B.C.E. But political and economic troubles dog archaeologists' efforts to understand what made this vast society tick.

    Long in the shadow of its sister civilizations to the west, the Indus is emerging as the powerhouse of commerce and technology in the 3rd millennium B.C.E. But political and economic troubles dog archaeologists' efforts to understand what made this vast society tick

    Ancient alleyways.

    The 5000-year-old massive brick structures of Mohenjo Daro, including the Great Bath (center), still rise from the plains of Pakistan.


    THAR DESERT, PAKISTAN—Egypt has pyramids, temples, and mummies galore. Ancient Mesopotamians left behind the dramatic saga of Gilgamesh, receipts detailing their most prosaic economic transactions, and the occasional spectacular tomb. But the third of the world's three first civilizations had, well, good plumbing. Even the archaeologists who first discovered the Indus civilization in the 1920s found the orderly streetscapes of houses built with uniform brick to be numbingly regimented. As recently as 2002, one scholar felt compelled to insist in a book that the remains left behind by the Indus people “are not boring.”

    Faces from the past.

    These small figurines are rare examples of Indus human or deity statuary.


    Striking new evidence from a host of excavations on both sides of the tense border that separates India and Pakistan has now definitively overturned that second-class status. No longer is the Indus the plain cousin of Egypt and Mesopotamia during the 3rd millennium B.C.E. Archaeologists now realize that the Indus dwarfed its grand neighbors in land area and population, surpassed them in many areas of engineering and technology, and was an aggressive player during humanity's first flirtation with globalization 5000 years ago. The old notion that the Indus people were an insular, homogeneous, and egalitarian bunch is being replaced by a view of a diverse and dynamic society that stretched from the Arabian Sea to the foothills of the Himalaya and was eager to do business with peoples from Afghanistan to Iraq. And the Indus people worried enough about the privileges of their elite to build thick walls to protect them. “This idea that the Indus was dull and monolithic—that's all nonsense,” says Louis Flam, an archaeologist at the City University of New York who has worked in Pakistan. “There was a tremendous amount of variety.”

    This radical overhaul of the Indus image, which has gone largely unnoticed by the larger archaeology community, emerges from recent visits to key excavations in India and Pakistan, including previously unknown sites here in the desert, and interviews with dozens of Indus scholars around the world. During the past decade, archaeologists have uncovered entire Indus cities previously unknown, some with unique features such as major fortifications. New methods have spurred the first detailed analyses of everything from climate to settlement patterns to butchered animal bones. Growing interest in the role of the ancient economy in spreading goods and ideas has scholars tracing a vast trade network that reached to Mesopotamia itself, where at least one Indus interpreter went native.

    Even well-combed sites are still full of surprises: The city of Harappa may be 1000 years older and Mohenjo Daro far larger than once thought. And the dramatic “Buddhist stupa” adorning Mohenjo Daro's high mound may in fact date back to the Indus heyday around 2000 B.C.E. (see sidebar, p. 1280). “What has changed is the mass of evidence from the past 15 years,” says archaeologist Rita Wright of New York University (NYU), assistant director of the Harappa dig. “There is more data from landscapes and settlements, not just the cities.”

    But piecing together a cohesive new picture is hampered by the political discord between India and Pakistan. Many foreign archaeologists steer clear of Pakistan because of political instability, while India's government—scarred by colonialism—often discourages researchers from collaborating with European or American teams. A virtual Cold War between the two countries leaves scientists and sites on one side nearly inaccessible to the other (see p. 1282). And although Indus sites are finally receiving extensive attention, many unexcavated mounds face destruction from a lethal combination of expanding agriculture, intensive looting, and unregulated urban development (see p. 1284). The small coterie of archaeologists from Pakistan, India, America, Europe, and Japan who study the Indus admit that they also share some of the blame. Often slow to publish, this community can be reluctant to work together and lacks the journals and tradition of peer review common to colleagues who focus on other parts of the world. “We're at fault,” says one Indus researcher. “We should be pushing harder to publish and collaborate.”

    Despite these challenges, the wave of fresh material is leading to a deeper understanding of a culture once considered obscure and impenetrable. The new data paint a far more vibrant and complex picture of the Indus than the old view of a xenophobic and egalitarian society that lasted for only a few centuries before utterly vanishing. “We are rewiring the discussion,” says archaeologist Gregory Possehl of the University of Pennsylvania. Adds Wright: “The Indus is no longer just enigmatic—it can now be brought into the broader discussion of comparative civilizations.”

    The faceless place

    The very existence of the Indus wasn't recognized until more than 100 years after digs began in Egypt and Mesopotamia. It was only in 1924 that archaeologists announced they had found two great cities from a previously unknown urban society that flourished at the same time as the Old Kingdom pyramids and the great ziggurats of Sumer. The cities, Mohenjo Daro and Harappa, thrived for nearly 1000 years along the floodplain of the Indus River, which like the Nile, Tigris, and Euphrates irrigates vast swaths of land that otherwise would be desert (see map).

    The discovery in what was then British India was stunning: Mohenjo Daro covered at least 200 square hectares and may have housed from 20,000 to 40,000 people. Harappa, 400 kilometers to the north, was only slightly smaller. Both were comparable in size to contemporary cities such as Memphis on the Nile and Ur in today's Iraq. Unlike Egyptian and Mesopotamian cities of the time, however, the Indus builders created well-ordered streets and homes with sophisticated water and sewer systems unmatched until Roman times. The Indus penchant for precise standardization—from tiny weights to bricks to houses to entire cities—was unique in the early historic period. And at Mohenjo Daro, they used expensive baked brick rather than the cheaper mud brick favored in the Middle East, thus leaving behind the only Bronze Age city on Earth where it is still possible to stroll down ancient alleys shaded by intact walls.

    Yet despite the impressive remains, there were bafflingly few clues to the political or religious systems behind the urban complexes, which seemed to lack the grandeur of Egypt and Mesopotamia. There are no remaining life-sized statues, extensive wall carvings, or elaborate building decorations. The Indus used a still-undeciphered script, but chiefly on small seals, and some scholars believe it was not a script at all (Science, 17 December 2004, p. 2026). Indus scribes did not leave the vast libraries of clay tablets or carved stone inscriptions that have yielded such insight into Mesopotamia and Egypt. Most burials include only a few modest goods, in contrast to the riches of Egyptian tombs. And archaeologists could find no obvious temples or palaces. The few monumental buildings—though given nicknames like “the Granary” and “the Monastery”—had functions still hotly debated.

    Unlike the many pharaohs, kings, architects, and merchants who show up in sculpture and texts in Egypt and Mesopotamia, few Indus individuals were recorded. Only a few small statues show individuals, such as seated men wearing tunics and a tiny, lithe dancer. The Indus “is something of a faceless sociocultural system,” says Possehl.

    This led some early and mid-20th century archaeologists to consider the Indus a nonhierarchical society. Others postulated rigid control by a small elite. Given the lack of data to support either interpretation, these ideas may have had more to do with socialist and totalitarian ideas popular at the time than with the ancient past.

    Picking at the past.

    Workers at Farmana in India uncover clues to Indus architecture.


    That first generation of archaeologists did agree that the Indus was an impressive but brief flash in the pan without deep roots. Because there was no evidence of previous settled life in the region, they surmised at the time that the Indus people absorbed urban ideas from Mesopotamia—2500 kilometers to the west—and rapidly created a quirky two-city state around 2600 B.C.E., which then vanished equally abruptly by 1800 B.C.E. The 1947 partition of India, creating the new nations of India and Pakistan, drew a line through the Indus heartland and left Indus archaeology largely an academic backwater for nearly a half-century.

    Round to square

    The assumption that the Indus did not spring from local culture began to unravel in the 1970s, when a French-led team excavated a Neolithic site called Mehrgarh dating to 7000 B.C.E. in the Baluchistan hills on the western fringe of the Indus valley. The town included many of the trappings of later Indus life, from mud-brick houses and copper tools to wheat, barley, sheep, goats, and cattle. Although some plants may have arrived from the Near East, goats and cattle were likely domesticated locally, and possibly sheep as well. A partially worked elephant tusk demonstrates that craft specialists were already plying their trade, and lapis lazuli jewelry from Afghanistan and marine shells from the distant coast show long-distance trade networks.

    The site is now widely accepted as a precursor to the Indus and clear proof of the indigenous nature of the later civilization. That idea gets new support from surveys here in the Thar Desert, on the eastern edge of the Indus valley. This area was long assumed to have been largely uninhabited before the rise of the Indus cities. But hundreds of small sites now show that humans lived here on the plains, not just in the Baluchistan hills, for several millennia prior to the rise of the Indus, says archaeologist Qasid Mallah of Shah Abdul Latif University in Khairpur. Taking a reporter on a tour across dunes covered in scrub, he pointed out huge piles of chert used to make blades by the Neolithic predecessors of the Indus.

    Burnt out.

    Qasid Mallah points to a burn layer at Kot Diji, perhaps a sign of ancient conflict.


    Still, the sudden appearance of fully formed urban areas remains a puzzle. Indus cities appeared starting about 2600 B.C.E.—600 years after the first cities sprouted in Mesopotamia—and typically arose on virgin soil rather than atop earlier settlements. Some older towns date back about a millennium earlier, but most of these appear to have suffered catastrophic fires and were abandoned at the dawn of the new urban era. A site called Kot Diji a short drive from the Thar Desert shows the scars, says Mallah. The mound is an archaeological layer cake built up over centuries, with a dark layer of ash distinctly visible in a band several meters above the plain.


    Sprawling between the Himalaya Mountains and the Arabian Sea, the Indus civilization covered a larger area than Egypt or Mesopotamia (inset) and boasted at least a half-dozen large cities and many smaller towns and villages. Trading posts stretched from northern Afghanistan to Oman, and goods traveled over both land and sea routes.

    Some scholars argue that these burn layers record conflict between the earlier towns and new cities. But Mallah and many of his colleagues say there is not enough evidence to make that leap. Whoever constructed the cities did make distinct changes, creating new pottery styles and introducing metal forms such as razors and fishhooks. But they also drew on the long cultural history of the region and don't appear to be outside invaders, says Mallah.

    In fact, new evidence suggests that not all the major cities were built from scratch. At an ongoing dig at Harappa, led by Richard Meadow of Harvard University and Jonathan Kenoyer of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, the team has found evidence of occupation dating to as early as 3700 B.C.E. By 3300 B.C.E., Harappa was a modest village of 10 square hectares but with streets running in a gridlike pattern and bricks of two standard sizes—clear foreshadowing of orderly Indus construction. “And they were trading lapis, shells from the coast, copper, and carnelian across a vast area,” says Kenoyer. One of his graduate students, Randall Law, just published a dissertation pinpointing for the first time the far-flung origin of the many varieties of stone used by Indus artisans.

    At a site called Farmana in the intensely farmed region west of Delhi, across the Pakistan border from Harappa, this evolution from a village of huts to sophisticated urban architecture is remarkably visible. At this previously unexcavated site, Vasant Shinde of Deccan College in Pune and his team have uncovered remains of an oval-shaped hut dating to about 3500 B.C.E., a pit dwelling made with wattle and daub and plastered walls, of a type seen today in the region. A few meters away is a level from 1000 years later where the houses have morphed into a rectangular shape and resemble those of the later Indus, except for postholes on the periphery that may have held up a roof. A few meters and 2 centuries from that trench is classic urban Indus: the clear outline of a large house with more than a dozen rooms, including a plastered bathroom, and a 20-meter-long wall fronting a long street nearly 4 meters wide. “You can see how beautifully this was planned,” Shinde says, pointing at the fine brickwork and straight lines. “There are no postholes, and the bricks are of the same ratio as at Harappa.” Thus from both sides of the border, the newest evidence not only underscores the local origins of the Indus, it also reveals in situ evolution. Says Mallah, “We believe that urbanization was a gradual process.”

    Gated communities

    For the first half-century after its discovery, the Indus was virtually synonymous with Mohenjo Daro and Harappa. No other major cities were known. But along with 1000 smaller sites, archaeologists now count at least five major urban areas and a handful of others of substantial size. These sites reveal new facets of Indus life, including signs of hierarchy and regional differences that suggest a society that was anything but dull and regimented.

    Water works.

    This drain from Harappa is part of a sophisticated water system that set the Indus apart from its Mesopotamian and Egyptian cousins.


    Take Dholavira, 800 kilometers south of Harappa in the Indian state of Gujarat. Covering 60 square hectares, it thrived for nearly 1000 years with perhaps seasonal access to the Arabian Sea. Evidence from excavations during the 1990s reveals a city that apparently included different classes of society. “Here you have meticulous planning, monumental and aesthetic architecture, a large stadium, and an efficient water-management system,” says R. S. Bisht, the Archaeological Survey of India scientist who oversaw the digs. Although still largely unpublished, archaeologists around the world say Bisht's finds are truly extraordinary.

    In Dholavira's central citadel is an enormous structure—which Bisht dubs “the castle”—with walls that are an astounding 18.5 meters wide at their base. Next to it is an enclosed area Bisht calls “the bailey” that may have housed an elite. “This shows that Harappan [Indus] society was highly structured,” says Bisht. “There was a hierarchy.” Nearby is a huge mud-brick platform adorned with rare pink-and-white clay decoration and what Bisht believes was a multipurpose stadium ground stretching nearly the length of three football fields and including terraces to seat thousands of people. No structures of similar size are found at other Indus cities. And though the acropolis of an Indus city is usually walled, Dholavira's acropolis, middle town, lower town, and a series of water tanks are surrounded by an enormous wall measuring nearly 800 meters on one side and more than 600 meters on the other.

    The finds at Dholavira are part of a growing body of data that lay to rest the idea of an egalitarian or a totalitarian society. For example, although most Indus graves are modest, at Kalibangan in India the remains of an elderly man lie in a mud-brick chamber beside 70 pottery vessels. At Harappa, another elderly man shares his tomb with 340 steatite beads plus three beads of gold, one of onyx, one of banded jasper, and one of turquoise. Another high-status Harappan went to rest in an elegant coffin made of elm and cedar from the distant Himalayas and rosewood from central India.

    Urban house sizes also vary much more dramatically than early excavators thought, says Wright, who works on the Harappa team. Then, as now, location was a matter of status: She notes that whereas some larger dwellings have private wells and are next to covered drains, more modest houses face open drains and cesspools.

    Like elites everywhere, high-status Indus people were able to acquire high-quality goods from master craftsmen to denote their wealth. They owned finely crafted beads made in a wide variety of stone, glazed pottery called faience, and ornamentation in gold, silver, copper, lead, tin, and electrum (a gold and silver alloy). For those with less means, beaded necklaces of cheap terra cotta imitated those of semiprecious stone. Anthropologist Heather Miller of the University of Toronto in Canada and Massimo Vidale, a visiting professor at the University of Bologna in Italy, concluded in a 2001 paper that the Indus were capable of “technological virtuosity.” A recent find at Harappa tentatively dated to 1700 B.C.E. may prove to be the world's oldest glass, says Kenoyer.

    Such goods are found across the region, including at newly discovered cities. For example, recent excavations at Rakhigarhi, 340 kilometers southeast of Harappa in rural India, turned up a bronze vessel decorated in gold and silver along with a foundry containing thousands of semiprecious stones, demonstrating extensive craft production and bolstering the notion of an elite. At another new site called Ganweriwala, deep in the desert region south of Harappa, preliminary fieldwork by Farzand Masih of Punjab University in Pakistan has yielded finely made shell bangles and a variety of agate, terra cotta, and steatite beads.

    Yet despite the trappings of wealth for some, there is little evidence of the vast divide that separated pharaoh from field hand in Egypt. “This was an enormously innovative civilization,” says Michael Jansen of RWTH Aachen University in Germany. “Rather than spend their time on monuments as in Egypt, they built practical things that benefited the inhabitants.”

    The newly discovered cities also reveal a surprisingly diverse urban life. Rakhigarhi contains the usual Indus amenities—paved streets, brick-lined drains, orderly planning—that are conspicuously lacking in the current town that covers the highest mound. But instead of following a grid, the ancient streets radiate from the city's east gate. As at Harappa, there is evidence of settlement centuries before the urban explosion rather than the clean-slate approach typical of other Indus cities. Dholavira has its own peculiarities, including large amounts of dressed stone from a local quarry in addition to the standard baked or mud brick. A 10-symbol signboard was posted on the gate leading into the citadel, an unusual use of a script typically found only on small seals or pots. Grave rites also seem diverse. At Mohenjo Daro, there is no evidence for formal burials at all. At Dholavira, Bisht found a set of tomblike chambers containing an unusual variety of grave goods such as beads and pots but no traces of skeletons; he speculates that the bodies may have been cremated.

    How the Indus people viewed life after death remains elusive. And the lack of temples adds to the difficulties in understanding their overall religious beliefs. A rare clue to religious practice may have emerged from now-barren Ganweriwala, which once bloomed thanks to the ancient Ghaggar-Hakra River. In his preliminary work there last year, Masih found a seal with the figure of a person or god in a yogalike pose and an apparent devotee below; on the reverse side is Indus script. The seal is similar to others found at Mohenjo Daro and dubbed “proto-Shiva” by some for its similarity to the Hindu deity. The seal has fueled speculation that the religious traditions of the Indus lived on beyond the urban collapse of 1800 B.C.E. and helped lay the basis for Hinduism (see p. 1281). Horned figures on a variety of artifacts may depict gods, as they often do in Mesopotamia.

    The frustrating lack of evidence has fueled other theories that remain tenuous. Jansen and Possehl suggest that the Indus obsession with baths, wells, and drains reveals a religious ideology based on the use of water, although other scholars are skeptical.

    Masters of trade

    While evidence accumulates from Indus cities, other insights are coming from beyond the region, as artifacts from Central Asia, Iraq, and Afghanistan show the long arm of Indus trade networks. Small and transportable Indus goods such as beads and pottery found their way across the Iranian plateau or by sea to Oman and Mesopotamia, and Indus seals show up in Central Asia as well as southern Iraq. An Indus trading center at Shortugai in northern Afghanistan funneled lapis to the homeland. And there is strong evidence for trade and cultural links between the Indus and cities in today's Iran as well as Mesopotamia.

    Holding a pose?

    This rare seal may hint at the ancient origins of yoga and the Hindu god Shiva.


    Textual analysis of cuneiform tablets coupled with recent excavations along the Persian Gulf also show that Indus merchants routinely plied the Arabian Sea and Persian Gulf, likely in reed boats with cotton sails. “They were major participants in commercial trade,” says Bisht, who sees Dholavira and other sites along the coast as trading centers thanks to monsoon winds that allowed sailors to cross 800 kilometers of open waters speedily. “These people were aggressive traders, there is no doubt about it,” adds Possehl, who has found Indus-style pottery made from Gujarat clay at a dig in Oman. Archaeologist Nilofer Shaikh, vice chancellor of Latif University, takes that assertion a step further, arguing that “the Indus people were controlling the trade. They controlled the quarries, the trade routes, and they knew where the markets were.”

    She points out that although Indus artifacts spread far and wide, only a small number of Mesopotamian artifacts have been found at Indus sites. Evidence suggests that some Indus merchants and diplomats lived abroad, although the trade was certainly two-way. An inscription from the late 3rd millennium B.C.E. refers to one Shu-ilishu, an interpreter from Meluhha, reports NYU's Wright in a forthcoming book. What may be Shu-ilishu and his wife are featured on a seal wearing Mesopotamian dress. There is some evidence for a village of Indus merchants between 2114 and 2004 B.C.E. in southern Iraq. And “a man from Meluhha” knocked out someone's tooth during an altercation and was made to pay a fine, according to a cuneiform text, hinting at a life that was neither faceless nor boring.

    Indus archaeologists still confront fundamental research questions, including how a far-flung array of cities adopted standardized measures. There is little or no data on how the Indus people governed themselves, what language they spoke, and whether they engaged in war. Some researchers envision a collection of city states, while others imagine regional powers that jockeyed for influence but generally cooperated. What is clear is that the organization differed from the pharaonic ways of Egypt and the rival kingdoms of Mesopotamia. “We don't need to use the models from the Near East,” says Kenoyer. “What was once seen as a monolithic state was actually a highly diverse set of multiple centers of power that negotiated across a large landscape.”

    With barely one-tenth of the 1000-plus known Indus sites examined, archaeologists say the next frontier is the smaller sites that could reveal more about day-to-day life. That could fill in the gaps about how the Indus people worshipped, traded, and governed themselves. “There are thousands of villages,” says Shinde during lunch break at the Farmana dig. “And it is our fault that we only go to the big sites.” Researchers are also bringing the latest archaeological tools to bear on Indus artifacts, closely examining the origins of stone used in beadwork, the prevalence of certain animals and plants, and even the methods used in butchering. Archaeologists also recognize an urgent need to chart climate change throughout the region during the Indus era. “It's a great tragedy,” says Bisht. “It is a book waiting to be read.” Whatever archaeologists uncover in coming years, the revised story of the Indus civilization is sure not to be a dull read.


    Buddhist Stupa or Indus Temple?

    1. Andrew Lawler

    A Buddhist stupa in the center of the largest Indus city may actually be a monument from Indus times. If so, it will force Indus scholars to rethink the religious and political nature of the civilization, long thought to lack grand temples and palaces (see main text).


    The domed structure at Mohenjo Daro may date to Indus times, not later.


    MOHENJO DARO, PAKISTAN—On the highest mound here rises a ruined dome—the most dramatic structure in the center of the largest Indus city, set in a courtyard once surrounded by buildings. But since the 1920s, archaeologists have considered the dome to be a much later Buddhist stupa ringed by cells of monks, built using Indus bricks 2 millennia after the city's demise. Now, University of Naples archaeologist Giovanni Verardi says that this magnificent structure may actually be a monument from Indus times. If he's right, it will force Indus scholars to rethink the religious and political nature of the civilization, long thought to lack grand temples and palaces (see main text).

    The original excavators assumed the dome was Buddhist in large part because buried coins dating to the Kushan Empire of the 2nd and 3rd century C.E. were found at the site. They did note that the stupa was not aligned in typical fashion, that the plinth was of unusual height, and that certain pottery shards predated the Kushan. Verardi, who carefully examined both the site and the original archaeological reports, argues that the coins likely were buried later and therefore are of little value in dating the structures. Based on preliminary excavation of the mound, he even theorizes that the original structure may have been a series of platforms, perhaps similar to the Ur ziggurat in Mesopotamia built around 2100 B.C., near the height of Indus urban life. Such platforms were common from Mesopotamia to Turkmenistan during that era, but none have been clearly identified in the Indus region.

    Other scholars are wary of the ziggurat idea but agree that the evidence supporting a stupa is slim. “I'm quite sure Verardi is right,” says Michael Jansen of RWTH Aachen University in Germany, who has worked here for years. “We did a very careful survey of the area around the citadel and found not a single Kushan shard.” Jansen also notes that Buddhist monks' cells of that period are not usually arranged around a stupa. “What's needed now is careful restudy,” says Jansen, who hopes to excavate at the site. After 2 decades, restoration work has at last stabilized the crumbling brick, and officials plan to reopen excavations (see p. 1284). “If it is indeed [Indus], then this will turn our interpretations upside down.”


    Indus Collapse: The End or the Beginning of an Asian Culture?

    1. Andrew Lawler

    The puzzling downfall of an ancient civilization more than 3 millennia ago sparks debate today in both scientific and political circles.

    The puzzling downfall of an ancient civilization more than 3 millennia ago sparks debate today in both scientific and political circles

    While Egypt was in chaos and the Akkadian Empire in Mesopotamia collapsed in the 22nd century B.C.E., the marketplaces of Mohenjo Daro in today's Pakistan were booming. Carts pulled by water buffalo jauntily decorated in henna carried luxury goods along the city's wide, paved streets. Artisans worked lapis lazuli from distant Afghanistan into beads and shaped local steatite into delicately carved seals. Citizens drew water from one of the city's 700 wells or relaxed under the colonnades around a large brick-and-tar lined bath in the center of town.

    Yet 2 centuries later, the carefully planned metropolis was abandoned, and the number of settlements on its outskirts dwindled from 86 to a mere half-dozen. The cultures of Egypt and Mesopotamia recovered in time, but not so the Indus. Mohenjo Daro and other great cities were never rebuilt, a set of sophisticated symbols was forgotten, and vibrant urban life vanished from the Indian subcontinent until much later.

    This anomaly is the most puzzling and controversial issue surrounding the Indus civilization, which thrived from 2600 B.C.E. until 1900 B.C.E. (see timeline). Droughts, floods, tectonic shifts, ideological turmoil, and foreign invasions have all been invoked to explain a spectacular collapse that long appeared both sudden and total. But new research suggests that the end may not have been as dramatic or complete as scholars long assumed. Some cities lingered for up to 500 years after others were deserted, and the next wave of urbanism arose far earlier than once thought.


    The rise of Hindu nationalism in today's India has thrust this scholarly debate into the political spotlight. Hindu nationalists' push to see the roots of their religion in the 5000-year-old Indus civilization creates yet another barrier between Indian archaeologists and their mostly Muslim counterparts in Pakistan (see sidebar, p. 1282). “There is no place in the world where the people and culture of the 3rd millennium B.C.E. are more important,” says archaeologist Gregory Possehl of the University of Pennsylvania.

    Archaeologists have theorized about the end of the Indus for decades. In the 1940s, excavator Mortimer Wheeler suggested that Aryan tribes who swept in from the northwest triggered the downfall. These Aryans were long thought to have brought Vedic culture—considered the root of Hindu tradition—to India at the expense of the Indus people. “Indra stands accused,” Wheeler famously wrote, referring to the chief Aryan deity. But there is no archaeological evidence for an invasion during this period. Many scholars agree that people did migrate into the region from north and east but not until after the decline of the Indus.

    More recently, some researchers have proposed that climate indirectly affected the Indus. They postulate that the drought-related collapse of Egypt and Mesopotamia and the loss of those markets at the turn of the 2nd millennium B.C.E. led to an economic crisis that upended the Indus system a century or two later. Mentions of Meluhha, presumed to refer to the Indus, vanish from Mesopotamian texts about 2000 B.C.E., says Harvard University Assyriologist Piotr Steinkeller.

    Climate may have hit the Indus directly as well. According to a 2003 paper, cores drilled from the Arabian Sea indicate that during the 22nd century B.C.E., the Indus River and its tributaries discharged significantly less water, a sign of drought. By 2000 B.C.E., people near Harappa in today's Pakistan were trying to cope with a drying climate by planting different crops, according to recent research led by Rita Wright of New York University (Science, 18 May 2007, p. 978). “People were making adjustments; there was a change in their way of life,” Wright says, although she cautions against making sweeping claims because her data are from only one region.

    Although Wright and others argue that climate and society are deeply intertwined, Possehl scoffs at the idea that drought explains the collapse. “We should stop thinking about the physical world and start looking at the fabric of society,” he suggests. He believes that the end of the Indus was primarily a matter of ideology, like the collapse of the Soviet Union. Possehl and Michael Jansen of RWTH Aachen University in Germany note that the Great Bath at the center of Mohenjo Daro was abandoned a century or two before the city, suggesting change in a society that they say emphasized water-related rituals.

    In the end, Wright, Possehl, and other scholars acknowledge that they can't be sure what caused the Indus decline. “There are a lot of theories but little evidence,” complains Harvard archaeologist Richard Meadow, who co-directs current excavations at Harappa.

    Spinning wheel.

    Modern carts in today's Pakistan resemble toy carts (inset) crafted by Harappans thousands of years ago.


    But the collapse was likely as varied as the civilization itself. Mohenjo Daro and the region of Cholistan, between that city and Harappa, declined dramatically after 1900 B.C.E. However, while rural settlements near Harappa contracted from 18 to four at this time, life in the city surprisingly continued for at least another 500 years, says archaeologist Jonathan Kenoyer of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, co-director of the Harappa dig. And to the northeast, in today's India, the number of sites increased rapidly from 218 to 853 after 1900 B.C.E., according to data from surveys gathered by Possehl.

    In Gujarat in southwestern India, urban life and even trade with the Arabian side of the Persian Gulf appears to have continued well into the 2nd millennium B.C.E., although exactly how long is a matter of dispute. At the site of Pirak in eastern Baluchistan in today's Pakistan, a small town appears to have thrived continuously from 1800 B.C.E. to as late as the arrival of Alexander the Great in India in 325 B.C.E., says Meadow. Later settlements, however, lack the sophisticated urban planning of even smaller sites from the mature Indus phase.

    The persistence of settlements raises the question of how much of the Indus culture survived the urban decline. For decades, most archaeologists assumed that the Indus's abrupt end and long hiatus in urban life meant that few if any of its traditions survived. But now it appears that the Indus collapse drove people to the east, into the watershed of the Ganges, which spreads as far as the Bay of Bengal. Excavations along the Gangetic plain show that cities began to arise there starting about 1200 B.C.E., just a few centuries after Harappa was deserted and much earlier than once suspected. That means that some continuity between the first and second wave of Indian civilization is conceivable, says Possehl.

    Climate chronicler.

    Rita Wright tracks the Indus response to drought around Harappa.


    There is no doubt that the hallmarks of the Indus disappeared with its cities, including its unique set of specific symbols, sophisticated standardization of weights and bricks, and rectilinear urban planning. Later urban areas along the Ganges are radically different in layout; the new writing system that eventually emerged is unrelated to Indus symbols; and standardization is missing.

    But archaeologists such as Possehl see deeper connections. “There is continuity,” he says. A handful of Indus seals showing a deity with three faces in a yogic-style posture may link today's Hindu god Shiva and yoga practices with the Indus civilization. And a variety of technologies and traditions, such as tandoori ovens, oxcarts pulled by water buffalo, and cattle marked with henna are a regular part of village life around Mohenjo Daro even today. Traces of all these scenes can be found at Indus archaeological sites and imprinted upon seals.

    Did the Indus directly seed what eventually grew into the second wave of Indian civilization? That is a hot political as well as scholarly topic. “This plays a significant role in today's India,” says Possehl. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which ruled India from 1998 to 2004, declared the Indus to be the progenitor of Hindu civilization, a controversial claim in a country with a large Muslim population. While in power, BJP pumped additional funding into Indus-related digs, and its influence over archaeological matters remains strong. Last fall, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) was harshly criticized in Parliament for asserting in a report that the underwater ridge connecting India and Sri Lanka was natural rather than the remains of a bridge built by the traditional hero Rama. Under pressure, ASI suspended two senior employees involved in the report. In May, members of India's Supreme Court expressed sympathy for a lower court decision ordering ASI to investigate the formation.

    Some Indian scholars argue that early Hindu texts can be used as guides, much as the Bible has been used in Near Eastern archaeology. Respected ASI archaeologist R. S. Bisht, who excavated Dholavira and can quote long passages from Hindu scripture, suggests that the Indus people were one and the same as the Aryans whom Wheeler saw as invaders. That theory finds little purchase with foreign scholars. And one Western archaeologist complains that such talk makes for a volatile mix of science and religion that is “needlessly inflammatory to our Pakistani colleagues.”

    The intense emotion surrounding the debate is exacerbated by the many questions that remain about the Indus's decline. “There is no silver bullet; there were clearly multiple factors,” says Meadow. “And we still don't know what was the trigger.” But, he says, recognizing that complexity is itself a big step forward.


    Trench Warfare: Modern Borders Split the Indus

    1. Andrew Lawler

    The bitter partition of British India in 1947 created a fault line through the middle of what was once the Indus civilization (see main text) that to this day prevents Indian and Pakistani researchers working on Indus sites from collaborating with one another or even visiting each other's excavations.

    Farzand Masih, excavator at Ganweriwala, Pakistan. CREDIT: A. LAWLER/SCIENCE

    FARMANA, INDIA—Vasant Shinde and Farzand Masih work a mere 200 kilometers apart, each perhaps an hour or so from the border between India and Pakistan. But neither archaeologist can visit the site of the other. “I'm excavating at Farmana,” says Shinde of Deccan College in Pune, India. “On the other side is Ganweriwala—but I can't know what's going on there or talk to the archaeology team.” Masih of Punjab University in Lahore, Pakistan, leads that team and says he's eager for international collaboration, but for now including Indians is beyond his power. Nor can he visit Shinde's site.

    That's because the fault line resulting from the bitter partition of British India in 1947 runs through the middle of what was once the Indus civilization, one of the world's first great urban societies from 2600 B.C.E. to its puzzling collapse in about 1800 B.C.E. (see main text). Back then, Indus merchants may have traveled freely over the region's plains and hills. But today the Indus's 1 million square kilometers are split between Pakistan and western India (see map, p. 1276). The cities of Mohenjo Daro, Harappa, and Ganweriwala are in Pakistan, while Dholavira, Rakhigarhi, and Farmana lie just across the border in India. Hundreds of other settlements are spread across the Indus plain in one nation or the other.

    Each country has fought serious skirmishes in the Himalaya, built nuclear weapons with their adversary in mind, and laid claim to the Indian state of Kashmir. The politics make it difficult if not impossible for archaeologists from one side to roam the countryside of the other. “Secret police would follow us every step—if we could get a visa,” says one South Asian archaeologist.

    Scientists on both sides say that a host of research topics would make more sense if done collaboratively. For example, understanding the complex geomorphology of the Indus and its tributaries can't be done without cross-border studies. Comprehensive analyses of ancient climate require regional sampling. And because the research communities are so divided, discoveries in one country may go unnoticed in the other; archaeologists say they have little knowledge of what takes place across the border. Given the lack of published papers and personal connections, even digital and virtual collaboration is rare.

    Foreigners can make the trip between the two countries with relative ease, and a few European, Japanese, and American researchers frequently work on both sides. But archaeologists from India and Pakistan have only rare and fleeting opportunities to meet, such as at international conferences. “We need to be able to put together all the pieces,” says Qasid Mallah, a professor at Shah Abdul Latif University in Khairpur, Pakistan. “That includes the Indian portion too.” Adds Shinde: “It would be more beneficial if we could all work in both India and Pakistan, particularly for the students.”

    Politicians and administrators in both countries have shown little interest in using archaeology as a tool for détente. The director general of the Archaeological Survey of India, Anshu Vaish, says her organization has no plans to push for more cooperation. And the recent elections in Pakistan, which resulted in an uneasy coalition, make dramatic initiatives from that side unlikely.

    Vasant Shinde, excavator at Farmana, India. CREDIT: A. LAWLER/SCIENCE

    To circumvent the political reality, Shinde helped create the Society of South Asian Archaeologists in 2005. Most Indian and Pakistani archaeologists couldn't afford to go to international conferences, so he proposed a new organization—registered under the Indian government but classed as a private group—to hold meetings closer to home. For the first conference in Mumbai in 2006, a few Pakistanis secured visas, although others did not. The second meeting was held 25 to 27 May in Shiraz, Iran, on neutral ground, and the next gathering is to be held in Sri Lanka in 2010. Shinde says that despite growing pains, the group now has 400 members from six countries. In the meantime, he and Masih will go about their respective business, so close, and yet so far.


    Trying to Make Way for the Old

    1. Andrew Lawler

    Archaeologists battle looters and sometimes locals in both Pakistan and India as they seek to excavate before modern development swallows Indus cities.

    Archaeologists battle looters and sometimes locals in both Pakistan and India as they seek to excavate before modern development swallows Indus cities

    SUKKUR, PAKISTAN—It's dusk in a grim industrial area on the outskirts of this southern Pakistani city, and archaeologist Qasid Mallah of Shah Abdul Latif University in Khairpur stands in a vacant lot, full of anger and dismay. “This is the murder of heritage,” he says bitterly, gesturing at the metal rebar sprouting from recently dug trenches. “In spite of all our efforts, this will be gone.” Just a few months ago, the construction site was a barren field containing some of the last remains of a 5000-year-old city known as Lakhanjo Daro. Now, even this last patch is threatened by development; the work is a harbinger of yet another factory.

    Rescue squad.

    A Latif University team digs at Lakhanjo Daro, a site now largely destroyed.


    Destroying ancient sites to make way for the new is old business here. In the 1860s, before the Indus city of Harappa was even excavated, British engineers seized thousands of baked bricks to build a railway bed and passenger stations. Only later did archaeologists recognize the site as one of the premier metropolises of an ancient civilization. But the threat to what remains of the Indus comes not just from development. Rakhigarhi, a recently excavated site in western India, supports a lively trade in looted antiquities. And at Mohenjo Daro in Pakistan, where scientists have recently managed to stop water-related destruction, thieves brazenly raided the site museum in 2002. Such varied dangers threaten the heritage of both countries and pose yet another challenge for Pakistan's struggling archaeological community (see sidebar, p. 1285).

    Despite its large size, Lakhanjo Daro wasn't even recognized as an Indus site until the 1980s, when local students brought material to Latif in nearby Khairpur. The Indus River squeezes through the stony Rohri Hills here, making the location a strategic center. The area around Lakhanjo Daro was set aside for industrial development in the 1980s, when the population surged above 500,000; it is now at 1.8 million.

    When government officials moved to protect the area, local developers used political connections and lawsuits to oppose the move. So Latif archaeologist and current Vice Chancellor Nilofer Shaikh compromised by setting aside specific vacant lots. “I had to demark some limits, or we would not have gotten anything,” Shaikh says. A Latif team, including Shaikh and Mallah, spent four seasons from 1994 to 2006 probing five mounds as factories sprang up around them, uncovering shell bangles, terra cotta animal figurines, and a rare copper spearhead along with the rectilinear architecture and pottery typical of an Indus site. Now construction is encroaching on even those remaining lots.

    The researchers have only hints of what is being lost to development. Climbing through thorny brush in a nearby ravine, Mallah points his flashlight at a dressed limestone block—an unusual feature for an Indus site—alongside Indus-style bricks. “This city could have been 1 square kilometer in size, or even larger,” he says. “But it is going fast.” He says further excavation is unlikely, given how disturbed the area is now.

    Fifty kilometers to the southwest, the largest of Indus cities, Mohenjo Daro, confronts a different set of problems. In 1980, the year it was named a World Heritage Site, a United Nations report warned that the city was “in danger of total destruction” due to rising water levels. UNESCO began a massive project to divert the Indus River and drain water from the site, involving more than 50 costly water pumps and later a series of canals. But high soil moisture continued to draw out salts that ate away at the brick foundations. Officials spent years arguing over what to do. In the meantime, new digs at the site—less than 10% of which has been excavated—were banned.

    Researchers eventually discovered that the soil moisture was due primarily to cold, humid air during the winter. The pumps were turned off in 2003, and workers put a thin layer of clay over the original bricks. Now when salt crystallizes in the heavy dews of winter, it eats away this layer instead. “I'm extremely happy; the site is very stable,” says Michael Jansen, a member of the UNESCO team and an archaeologist at RWTH Aachen University in Germany, who visited the site in March. “It is the first time in 20 years that there's not a newly endangered wall.” Pakistan's director general for archaeology, Fazal Dad Kakar, says he intends to lift the ban on excavations now that the crisis is over.

    But expanding villages pose a new threat. While diverting water from the site in the late 1980s, workers uncovered evidence of Indusera buildings 1.5 kilometers from the city center. And throughout the area, workers digging wells have found Indusera bricks, suggesting a city potentially twice as large as the 150 hectares long estimated. “Mohenjo Daro is far larger than we anticipated,” says Jansen. “If the city is 300 hectares in size, it is enormous, comparable to Ur” at the same period in Mesopotamia. Archaeologists from UNESCO, Pakistan, and other countries hope to begin a series of test drills to determine the city's extent, but the project has been hampered by lack of funding and repeated bureaucratic delays.

    Hidden treasure.

    Wazir Chand Saroae, with Indus figurine, says looting continues at Rakhigarhi.


    The site faces an even more complex challenge from lawlessness. In 2002, thieves were bold enough to steal 40 seals and copper tablets from the Mohenjo Daro museum, where a sign now warns that “Weapons are not allowed in the museum.” A curator says the site is not fenced and admits that there is “some looting.” Although a relatively peaceful area local officials say bandits and the occasional terrorist make roads unsafe after nightfall.

    At Harappa, nearly 600 kilometers to the north, the problems are more prosaic but just as challenging. Local villagers own half the land area of the sprawling ancient city and are loath to be bought out by the government. They have begun to turn part of the land into a cemetery, and a mosque built 5 centuries ago with Indus brick sits on a prominent spur of the ancient city. Those areas will remain off-limits to archaeologists. “When it comes to religion, people get emotional,” says Aasim Dogar, who directs the site. Passing by the mosque, an old man shouts an epithet at Dogar, who grumbles in reply—a sign of the contentious relationship between officials and locals. But Dogar is optimistic the deal will be closed soon, allowing a fence to be put in place to protect the mounds.

    Across the border in India, villagers are similarly resentful of archaeologists. Half of the large Indus city of Rakhigarhi is in the hands of private owners, and the town covers several of the largest mounds. Excavations by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) began in 1997 but ground to a halt in 2000, partly because of disputes with inhabitants. “The villagers are afraid that the government will grab their land,” says Tejas Garge, who worked as a graduate student for ASI excavating at the site. He recalls village women throwing stones at him: “It was horrible. At one point, a dozen villagers came with sticks and ordered us to stop.” The team eventually abandoned their effort. Fences are going up around unoccupied mounds, and one senior ASI official says the goal is to buy out the locals and remove the village. “Only then can you dig,” he says, adding that the bureaucratic and financial obstacles to doing so are huge.

    Meanwhile, archaeologists say there has been extensive looting here over the years; according to one recent rumor, a villager found and sold 30 Indus seals. That traffic has almost stopped, insists the site's lone guard. But local schoolteacher Wazir Chand Saroae disagrees. In his modest home nearby, he shows off an impressive array of pots, bangles, ivory and lapis lazuli beads, and animal figurines carefully wrapped in newspaper and numbered according to his own archival system. Saroae is an outspoken advocate for site protection and says he does not sell his finds. “The situation has not improved much,” he says ruefully. “Villagers are still digging, and the single watchman is not effective over such a large area.”

    Some archaeologists call for tougher penalties for looting, but others say the key is to educate the population. “At least one man in the village has developed a passion for this,” Garge says optimistically as he leaves Saroae's home. Just a few meters away, he points out a 17-meter-high cliff studded with 5000-year-old potsherds and bricks; an ancient mound has been sliced away for a village road. Pigeons are busy roosting, digging holes into the layers. But the site is owned by villagers and so strictly off-limits to the spades of archaeologists.


    Pakistani Archaeology Faces Issues Old and New

    1. Andrew Lawler

    Finds in Pakistan are opening a new window on the Indus civilization, showing that this remote region was settled for thousands of years. But there are tight constraints on where archaeologists can operate.

    KHAIRPUR, PAKISTAN—Ghulam Mohiuddin Veesar doesn't have to commute to find remains of the past. Just a short walk beyond his mud-brick village in southeastern Pakistan rises a small mound covered with stone tools, pottery shards, and the occasional shell bead fashionable during the glory days of the Indus civilization. A 47-year-old archaeologist at nearby Shah Abdul Latif University, the quiet and wiry Veesar has led Pakistani and Italian colleagues to hundreds of ancient sites here on the edge of the rugged Thar Desert, without needing global positioning systems, survey maps, or other tools. This is home turf. As a teenager, he rode his motorcycle up and down these sand dunes.

    The finds are opening a new window on the Indus civilization, showing that this remote region was settled for thousands of years. Veesar's Latif colleague and friend Qasid Mallah argues that the enormous variety of sites offers a rich opportunity to understand the Indus hinterland. What's needed, Mallah says, are massive surveys and pinpointed excavations, as well as a way to protect sites from development and looting (see main text). Given the size of the area and its harsh terrain, “it's really a huge task,” Mallah says. With support from their vice chancellor Nilofer Shaikh, herself an Indus archaeologist, they have begun the job and hope to lure foreign archaeologists to assist. “Tell people to come and research,” Mallah says. “Everyone is welcome.”

    Nomad's land.

    Ghulam Veesar (right) consults with a local shepherd in the Thar Desert.


    The optimism and enthusiasm at Latif, a growing rural university that is 2 decades old, is one of a few bright spots for archaeology in Pakistan. The University of the Punjab in Lahore, the country's largest, recently organized its first archaeology department, and a scattering of other universities conduct excavations, mostly working with foreign teams. But Pakistan has long been hampered by loss of expertise when the country was created in 1947 and severed ties with the Archaeological Survey of India. “We had to start from scratch,” says Anjum Javaid, assistant curator at the Lahore Fort in the northern city of Lahore.

    Now Pakistani researchers face new problems. “We get peanuts for excavations, we're losing all our experienced archaeologists, and the new generation is not getting trained,” frets Javaid. Most recently, Pakistan's provinces have been pressuring the federal government in Islamabad to abolish national control over archaeological sites. Javaid fears this could lead to abolition of the central archaeology department, which would likely diminish the budget and authority of archaeologists and make it more difficult to protect sites, he says.

    Already, there are tight constraints on where archaeologists can operate. Most foreign researchers steer clear of the country at the moment. And some areas rich in sites—such as Baluchistan to the west and the North-West Frontier Province—are off-limits to both Pakistani and foreign excavators. But here in Sindh province and in other areas in the east, the countryside remains relatively peaceful. Whether or not foreigners come, Veesar says he will continue to seek new sites to catalog and dig in the Thar Desert, rattling over high sand dunes in an old jeep with Mallah. “This is not only our heritage, it's the world's,” he says.