News this Week

Science  28 May 2010:
Vol. 328, Issue 5982, pp. 1084

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  1. Climate Change Research

    Arduous Expedition to Sample Last Virgin Tropical Glaciers

    1. Richard Stone

    JAKARTA—For 25 years, Lonnie Thompson has longed to take a field crew to Papua, home to the only tropical glaciers west of the Andes and east of Mount Kilimanjaro. The glaciologist at Ohio State University's Byrd Polar Research Center (BPRC) in Columbus wants to retrieve ice from Puncak Jaya, a mountain in Indonesia's Papua Province, to glean insights into ancient climate and compare cores with records from the handful of other tropical glaciers. Next week, Thompson will get that chance—and not a moment too soon, as Papua's glaciers are almost gone. “The ice is melting very fast,” says team member Dodo Gunawan, a climatologist at Indonesia's Agency for Meteorology, Climatology, and Geophysics (BMKG). “It's a race against time.”

    Vanishing act.

    In a January aerial shot of Puncak Jaya (above), Northwall Firn is upper right and Carstensz is lower right. Close up, Northwall Firn appears severely ablated.


    Puncak Jaya is perched at a critical spot in the global climate system: the western edge of the Pacific Warm Pool, which pumps more heat into the atmosphere than any other source on Earth. Gas bubbles, chemical compounds, and organic matter trapped in the ice should offer a window into past cycles of the El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO), the periodic warming of tropical Pacific waters that wreaks havoc on climate, and on its capricious twin, La Niña, which brings cooler water. The ice should also provide clues into past ocean circulation and the Australasian monsoon rhythms.

    The Papua project poses daunting logistical challenges, and the payoff is far from certain. It's unknown, for instance, how far back in time the Puncak Jaya climate record runs. What is clear is that this is the last chance to get useful data from Papua, says Thompson, whose team includes colleagues from BPRC, Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, and BMKG. “Once the glaciers melt, the history in the ice will be gone forever,” he says.

    Papua is the final terra nova in tropical glaciology. Thompson's team has hauled back ice from the other comparable glacial fields: Kilimanjaro's summit in Tanzania and several locations in the Peruvian Andes, including one that last year produced a record 195-meter-long core. The Papua ice should complement the Andes record, he says.

    The expedition kicked off this week with an arduous and risky 2-day trek through rain forest, home to the Free Papua Movement, a long-running insurgency. The team will acclimate at a base camp some 4200 meters above sea level. Then drilling will commence at Carstensz glacier, 4884 meters high, and nearby Northwall Firn glacier. They plan to drill six cores down to bedrock.

    Since photographic records began in 1936, the Puncak Jaya glaciers have beaten a steady retreat, punctuated by a brief expansion from 1997 to 2000. Since then, losses have accelerated. Comparing photos from Puncak Jaya last year and fresh ones from his advance team, Thompson says “the difference is absolutely amazing. There's a clear and present danger of decapitation,” or loss of more recent data to melting.

    Another unknown is the age of the Puncak Jaya ice. Kilimanjaro's ice cap, a mere 50 meters thick, goes back 11,700 years, into the last Ice Age. But that ice is more than a kilometer higher than Papua's glaciers. One discouraging possibility is that Puncak Jaya's ice began to accumulate only after the Medieval Warm Period ended several hundred years ago, Thompson says.

    One challenge will be to get the cores back intact. Unlike treks in the Andes or Kilimanjaro, the team in Papua must make do without pack animals or porters. But they are getting crucial support from PT Freeport Indonesia, a company that operates a gold and copper mine near Puncak Jaya. The company will ferry the drilling equipment to the site by helicopter and then whisk chest freezers full of cores back to Tembagapura, a town halfway up the mountain, where they will be kept in an industrial-sized food locker before a series of flights gets them to Ohio for analysis. “If it wasn't for this city in the clouds, I don't know how we'd get the cores back,” Thompson says.

    Back in Ohio, the team will use a variety of techniques to date and analyze the ice. The first thing they will look for is radionuclides dispersed by Soviet atom bomb tests in the early 1960s. But even on Kilimanjaro, ablation had stripped away a half-century of ice by 2000. Volcanic dust could peg layers to massive eruptions of Mount Tambora in 1815 and Krakatau in 1883. Another possibility is to radiocarbon date insects and plants in the ice. And oxygen-18 levels can be compared with well-calibrated cores from Antarctica and Greenland. Gas concentrations are linked to regional temperatures and thus will be vital clues to past climates and the shifting currents of La Niña and El Niño. Core data may also serve as a proxy for the Indonesian Thoroughflow, which, as part of the global ocean conveyor belt, funnels warm water from the Pacific into the Indian Ocean and varies with ENSO conditions, says Columbia oceanographer and team member R. Dwi Susanto.

    The expedition marks a coming of age for climate change research in Indonesia. “For the first time, when we talk about global warming, we will talk about data from our own soil,” says Susanto, who is Indonesian. To help build capacity, two Indonesian graduate students at Ohio State will take the lead in analyzing the ice.

    Researchers are holding their breath about just what they will find at the top of Puncak Jaya. Thompson, who has a track record of coming back with valuable data, is optimistic. “The beauty of going to a place no one has gone,” he says, “is that we are sure to find something unexpected.”

  2. Climate Change

    NRC Reports Strongly Advocate Action on Global Warming

    1. Richard A. Kerr and
    2. Eli Kintisch

    The three reports released last week by the National Academies' National Research Council (NRC) had a familiar theme—the human-induced warming of the planet—but the tone, especially as presented to the public, was less familiar. The 2-year effort involving 90 scientists “emphasizes why the United States should act now,” Ralph Cicerone, president of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), said at a public briefing. The reports also have a few words about how the nation should act, which might influence a lively debate on a proposed Senate climate bill.

    The science supporting the why of action on climate change recalled the 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). “Climate change is occurring, Earth is warming,” said environmental scientist Pamela Matson of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, chair of the NRC panel on advancing the science of climate change, one of three separate panels that produced the trio of reports. “These climate changes are largely caused by human activities.”

    But this was no rehashing of the IPCC report, which has taken considerable flak of late. The new NRC reports draw on the past 5 years of peer-reviewed literature, which was published too late for inclusion in the IPCC analysis, Matson emphasized. They also reflect findings from more than a score of reports from the U.S. Global Change Research Program and earlier efforts from NAS. The membership of the three NRC panels also had little overlap with that of the IPCC's working groups, says economist Gary Yohe of Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, an IPCC veteran who was on the NRC panel on adapting to climate change. Yohe says he was surprised to find at the panel's inaugural meeting that three-quarters of his fellow members were unfamiliar to him.

    Call to action.

    Ralph Cicerone introduced climate reports detailing why the nation should act now.


    Although NRC tasked the panel on limiting the magnitude of future climate change with providing “policy-relevant (but not policy-prescriptive) input,” the panel did recommend that “the United States set a future greenhouse gas emissions target in the form of an emissions budget,” said panel chair Robert Fri of Resources for the Future in Washington, D.C. And the NAS press release said a “reasonable goal” would be emissions of 170 to 200 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2012 through 2050.

    In recommending a carbon budget and a target range, the panels “did go farther than IPCC could,” says climate scientist Stephen Schneider of Stanford University, who was not involved in the NRC reports. “There were more words like ‘should’ than you normally have with IPCC.” And the press release takes the emission budget goal a step further, noting that it is “a goal that is roughly in line with the range of emission reduction targets proposed recently by the Obama Administration and members of Congress.”

    But can the report help bolster the proposals' chances of becoming law? “That's the $64,000 question,” says ecologist Peter Frumhoff of the Union of Concerned Scientists in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The House of Representatives passed a bill that would probably keep the United States under the emissions budget, but action has been slow in the Senate. There, senators John Kerry (D–MA) and Joe Lieberman (ID–CT) have introduced a package with the same goals as the House version's but more flexibility and with subsidies for nuclear and fossil fuel industries. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D–NV) recently announced a go-slow approach, which might see votes as late as July. But elections loom in the fall, and climate lobbyists worry that the closer elections get, the more hyperpartisan the atmosphere will be.

    It's unclear whether science can change that. Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., rattles off a number of Democrats in the House who supported last year's bill but have either publicly repudiated their vote or retired. “Cap-and-trade is dead,” he says. Said a Senate staffer: “I'm hoping this will help push the issue, but I don't think we are at a place where scientific reports can find that influence.”

  3. Particle Physics

    Hints of Greater Matter-Antimatter Asymmetry Challenge Theorists

    1. Adrian Cho

    The universe is chock-full of matter and devoid of antimatter, and physicists can't say why. They think that matter piled up after the big bang thanks to a slight asymmetry, called charge-parity (CP) violation, in the way matter and antimatter behave, but the effects seen so far are too small to do the job. So when a team reported last week that certain particles showed a huge matter-antimatter asymmetry, physicists—and the front page of The New York Times—took note, as it could be a sign of new particles. But the marginal result could be a fluke, and theorists say it's difficult to explain why the effect is so big in this study and so small in earlier work on related particles.

    “I take this as a provocative result rather than a discovery,” says Chris Quigg, a theorist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) in Batavia, Illinois.


    A B meson becomes an anti–B meson as its quark and antiquark exchange massive W bosons and top quarks.


    To spot the asymmetry, experimenters working with Fermilab's D0 particle detector studied particles called B mesons, which flash into existence as Fermilab's Tevatron collider smashes protons into antiprotons. Each B meson contains a massive particle called a bottom quark bound to a lighter antiquark. Bizarrely, it can transform into an anti–B meson containing a bottom antiquark and a light quark through a process called “mixing.” If matter and antimatter behaved symmetrically, then the anti–B meson should mix back into a B meson at the same rate, creating an even oscillation. Instead, the D0 team found that a B meson “prefers to exist a little longer in the matter state than the antimatter state,” says Fermilab's Dmitri Denisov, co-spokesperson for the team.

    The key to the experiment was that B mesons are born in the Tevatron's collisions in meson-antimeson pairs. So if an event contained a pair of B mesons or a pair of anti–B mesons, mixing must have occurred, and the D0 researchers could probe it by tallying such pairs. They did that by exploiting the fact that a B meson can decay into an easily spotted particle called a muon, whereas an anti–B meson decays into an antimuon. Two-muon events outnumbered two-antimuon events by 1%—a bias toward matter 40 times larger than the standard model of particle physics predicts, the team reports in a paper submitted to Physical Review D.

    Here's the tricky part. B mesons come in two types: Bd mesons that contain a down antiquark and Bs mesons that contain strange antiquark. Counting muon pairs, the D0 team cannot tell the two apart, but studies elsewhere found no similar asymmetry in Bd mesons (although a small asymmetry appeared when Bd mesons were measured another way). So D0 researchers ascribe the skewing they see to the Bs mesons alone.

    But it's not easy to whip up extra asymmetry for just Bs mesons. Mixing arises when the bottom quark and the lighter antiquark within a meson exchange other particles, which thanks to quantum uncertainty can be much more massive than the meson itself (see figure). So still-undiscovered massive particles could join in and pump up the asymmetry. But it's hard to explain why they would affect Bs mesons so strongly but leave Bd mesons alone, says Yosef Nir, a theorist at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel. “There are models that do it,” he says. “But I would say that in the preferred models, the influence on Bs and Bd would be the same.”

    The result may soon be tested. The more-powerful Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at the European laboratory, CERN, near Geneva, Switzerland, feeds a detector named LHCb that's designed to study B mesons, and it should soon compete with Fermilab's D0 and CDF detectors in “B physics,” says Sheldon Stone, an LHCb team member from Syracuse University in New York: “With any luck we will catch them by the end of the year, and by the end of next year we'll be way ahead.”


    From Science's Online Daily News Site

    Genetic Discovery Promises to Boost Rice Yields Some agricultural experts believe worldwide crop yields need to double by 2050 to avert a global food crisis. And improving yields of rice is deemed particularly important because rice is the staple food for nearly half of the world's population. Two groups working independently have now identified a variant of a gene in rice plants that could boost rice yields by 10%, though they must still demonstrate that their experimental breakthrough will pay off in farmers' fields.

    Animal Reserves Can Be Good for People, Too Creating a national park or other reserve can help protect animals and plants. But what about the people who live in the area? A new study of Costa Rica and Thailand suggests that neighbors are better off economically than people who don't have parks nearby.

    Body Temperature Time Machine It's not quite as easy as putting thermometers under their tongues and waiting 30 seconds, but scientists have discovered a way to measure the average body temperature of animals that lived millions of years ago. The findings will help biologists learn more about extinct animals' physiology and give paleoclimatologists a powerful new tool for gauging ancient environmental temperatures.

    Life's Pageant Not So Rich How many kinds of bugs are there? A new estimate, based on mathematical modeling and a major bug-counting effort in New Guinea, puts the number of arthropod species in the tropics—which account for most of the animal species in the world—at about 3.7 million, well below the 30 million once suggested. The results could help scientists 6get a better sense of how many species are disappearing in the current human-caused mass extinction.

    Read the full postings, comments, and more at

  5. Infectious Diseases

    Fears of Lax Surveillance if CDC Program Cut

    1. Jennifer Couzin-Frankel

    A proposal to stop funneling dollars directly to U.S. surveillance and research for most mosquito and other vector-borne diseases such as West Nile virus and dengue has scientists wringing their hands. They are concerned that if the plan sticks, the country will be ill-prepared to handle new emerging diseases and manage existing ones. The proposal in President Barack Obama's 2011 budget for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, combined with a $15.7 million cut for infectious disease work generally, would virtually eliminate the vector-borne program. Currently, CDC funds mosquito testing for a variety of diseases and investigations into patterns of disease spread in the United States.

    The budget recommended removing $26.7 million from the vector-borne program, along with $8.6 million from antimicrobial research, and partially offsetting that with an increase of $19.6 million to emerging infectious diseases. Since the cut was recommended earlier this year, several professional groups have urged Congress to override it and continue directing money to vector-borne diseases. If the vector-borne program is eliminated, they argue, CDC would likely respond only when disease surges.

    “Everybody's looking for opportunities to save” money, says Ali Khan, acting deputy director at CDC's National Center for Emerging & Zoonotic Infectious Diseases. But although “we do support the president's budget, … if all these dollars are eliminated, there's no doubt this would have a profound effect.” As an example of the importance of continued surveillance, some are pointing to the detection of 28 cases of dengue fever in Florida since last fall. These are the first cases in the continental United States since the 1940s, except for a few along the Texas-Mexico border. Although dengue is also raging in Puerto Rico.

    Although the cut is a tiny part of CDC's $6.6 billion proposed budget, it has jolted a number of societies into action. The American Society for Microbiology submitted written testimony to Congress last month, as did the American Red Cross and other blood bankers. Other groups focused on epidemiology, public health, and mosquito control have either written to or met with congressional staff. It's not clear yet what impact those objections will have: Congressional appropriators won't finalize the budget until later this year.

    Dengue on the upswing.

    Cases of the disease, transmitted by Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, have been rising, but CDC's dengue branch in Puerto Rico is threatened by possible budget cuts.


    In the past, the budget has allocated money to vector-borne diseases within the United States as a group and separately to malaria and to Lyme disease; those two are unaffected by the proposed cuts. The vector-borne program is a catchall for many diseases transmitted mostly by mosquitoes, although the list shifts as new conditions surface and some diseases become less common. The current vector-borne program began in 1999 when the first cases of West Nile virus showed up unexpectedly in crows and then people. Its finances have held mostly steady, with occasional cuts in recent years as West Nile cases have dropped in some areas and the virus has faded from public attention. About $13 million of the nearly $27 million is distributed to state and local health departments, and Khan estimates that 100 state employees and 24 at CDC would lose their job if the cuts go through. Most severely affected would be CDC's Dengue Branch in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and another branch of the Division of Vector-Borne Infectious Diseases in Fort Collins, Colorado, which could lose more than half its funding. Rather than allocate money specifically to vector-borne diseases, the 2011 budget recommends a new tack: pooling money for infectious diseases more generally and consolidating the work in one center instead of two.

    But many say that removing dedicated funds for vector-borne diseases is short-sighted and could gut the strong surveillance programs that state and local health departments have built, making CDC reactive rather than proactive. “If you're not doing surveillance, … you're going to miss these things until you have a major outbreak,” says Laura Kramer, a virologist at the New York State Department of Health in Albany. The current program supports seasonal testing of mosquitoes and other potential vectors, such as ticks, along with testing of dead birds. It has also supported studies into the evolution of West Nile virus and the genetics of the mosquitoes that transmit it.

    Justifying all this when there's little illness—West Nile cases plunged last year—leads people to ask, “Why are we doing this?” Kramer says. Although the proposed budget allows money to be funneled back to vector-borne diseases if they resurface, Kramer says that's less efficient than sustaining the program. “The people who have been trained to do the work in the labs and the field aren't going to be there” anymore, she says.

    There would be other effects as well. “We rely on [CDC's surveillance] data to mold … our testing policies,” says Roger Dodd, vice president of research and development at the American Red Cross in Rockville, Maryland. In times and regions where West Nile is surging, the Red Cross tests every blood unit for the virus rather than pooling blood for a less sensitive test, as it usually does. The Red Cross is also concerned about dengue virus because two transfusion cases have been reported, both in Asia.

    Khan says CDC will find money for vector-borne diseases somehow, no matter how the budget shakes out. “This is a priority for us, and we will support” it, he says. “However, we are all very conscious and honest that you can't get all [you need] out of these cuts.”

  6. Science Awards

    Efforts to Stop UNESCO Science Award in Honor of African Dictator

    1. Martin Enserink

    Unless human-rights organizations score a last-minute victory, one or more life scientists could find themselves in an awkward spot next month: to be awarded a prize by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) that is named after one of Africa's most infamous dictators.

    As Science went to press, behind-the-scenes discussions about the award, named after President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea, were still going on at UNESCO, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) were increasing the pressure to stop, or at least postpone, what they see as a major embarrassment. But a UNESCO spokesperson said the five-member jury has already made its choice, and UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova could adopt their recommendations as early as this week. Prize rules stipulate that up to three researchers, groups, or institutions can share the $300,000 award.

    Obiang, who came to power in a 1979 coup against his uncle, has ruled his small West African country of fewer than 1 million people with an iron fist. A U.S. Department of State report issued last year cites many human-rights violations, including unlawful killings by security forces, government-sanctioned kidnappings, systematic torture of prisoners and detainees, and arbitrary arrests. A 2004 U.S. Senate investigation also cited evidence of corruption by Obiang and his family, which enjoys a very lavish lifestyle. Equatorial Guinea became very wealthy after oil was discovered in its waters in the 1990s, but more than half the population still lives in extreme poverty.

    Prize fight.

    A $300,000 award named after president Teodoro Obiang put UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova in a difficult position.


    The Obiang government proposed the prize for “scientific achievements that improve the quality of human life” in 2007 and put $3 million on the table in award money and administrative costs for the first 5 years. When the proposal came before UNESCO's Executive Board—on which 58 of the agency's 193 member states have a seat—in October 2008, many Western countries opposed it, but they didn't ask for a vote because they knew they would be defeated, says one diplomat. “It was the first African science prize. African countries were all in favor, and they had enough supporters among the G77,” a coalition of developing nations, the diplomat says.

    The award puts Bokova, a Bulgarian diplomat elected in 2009 on a platform to reform the heavily politicized agency, in a difficult position. She appears to have signaled her own reservations about the idea in a speech at an April meeting of the Executive Board, when she said that she had “received criticism” about the prize, which she had passed on to the board.

    Bokova has also asked a task force to look at the procedure for new prizes. She wants “to make sure there is real consensus about the creation of these awards,” a spokes person says. But the review, whose outcomes probably won't be known until this fall, comes too late to affect the Obiang prize. Early this week, Gavin Hayman, campaign director of Global Witness, said he still held out hope that the prize would be canceled or postponed—or that the laureate, or laureates, will refuse it. “It would be a brave person to accept this prize,” he adds.

    Sylvie Rano, a member of Equatorial Guinea's delegation to UNESCO, says she is “sorry” that NGOs are trying to block the award. But she would not comment further and referred Science to President Obiang's office. Rano says Obiang plans to come to Paris for the June ceremony if his agenda permits it.

  7. ScienceInsider

    From the Science Policy Blog

    Dedicated team coverage of the Gulf Oil spill included a critical look at the much-ballyhooed risk that the Loop Current would drive the oil to Florida. An expert said the amount of oil involved and the predicted behavior of the current made that unlikely. The 20 biologists working for Louisiana have found oil on the state's beaches for the first time; experts hope tall reeds can survive the slick on the surface. Scientists explained why so much of the oil has remained under the surface of the ocean and when it might rise.

    In a Q&A, research policy expert Mary Moran explained the rationale behind the PDP+ Fund, proposed by the International Aids Vaccine Initiative and partners. The fund would pool money from government and private sources, and even bonds or grants to support existing “Product Development Partnerships” to develop treatments for neglected diseases. Some 140 such efforts exist, said Moran, but they are underfunded and don't last long enough.

    Forty-one prominent anthropologists have written a letter of complaint to the U.S. Department of the Interior about a proposed new rule on human remains. The ruling would allow groups to file requests to bury human remains held by scientists at universities or other research institutions even if the groups are unconnected to the remains.

    After the announcement of the creation of a synthetic genome, President Barack Obama has ordered a 6-month study of the topic from his bioethics commission.

    British scientists appear to have avoided £6 billion (about $9 billon) in cuts to this year's budget passed by the new Conservative–Liberal Democrat governing coalition. The former government had planned to spend £230 million on the UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation in the 2010–11 budget, but the funding will be allotted more slowly.

    See the full postings and more at

  8. Newsmaker Interview

    Francis Collins: On Recruiting Varmus, Discovering Drugs, the Funding Cliff

    1. Jocelyn Kaiser

    He may be working a 100-hour week, but human geneticist Francis Collins is clearly enjoying running the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Since he began last August, he has pushed out the door the $10.4 billion that NIH got in last year's stimulus package, fleshed out five strategic themes for NIH (Science, 1 January, p. 36), and put his stamp on the president's proposed 2011 budget.

    Collins's passion is to expand NIH's emphasis on translational research. He wants to give basic researchers the tools to convert their discoveries into therapies, he says. He is also an enthusiastic proponent of a new drug-development program at NIH called the Cures Acceleration Network. The program, approved for $500 million a year but not yet funded, was added to the health reform bill by biomedical research champion Senator Arlen Specter (D–PA).

    Last week in an interview at NIH with several Science staffers, Collins said he was “grieving” about Specter's loss in the Democratic primary. He discussed NIH's budget prospects for next year and spoke of his role in luring former NIH director Harold Varmus back to Bethesda to head the National Cancer Institute (NCI).

    Here are his comments, edited for brevity and clarity. On Science online, this article links to a full transcript.

    Q:What has it been like going from directing the genome institute to running the whole NIH?

    F.C.:When I ran the genome institute, I felt I could pretty much get my head around most of the major issues that we needed to attend to on any given day. Here, it's quite a stretch. The hours are long; I'm probably working 100 hours a week in an average week.

    Q:Regarding the budget and grant funding, you've said that you expect very low success rates in 2011, 15%. What's this going to mean?

    F.C.:We don't know what the budget will end up being. Obviously, the signs are not particularly good that the Congress will do better than the president's budget [a 3.2% increase]. Some noises might even indicate that they'll do worse.

    We will undoubtedly have to look at draconian things like downward negotiations, which means cutting the budgets of approved grants in order to try to free up dollars to fund more grants. We are trying to protect certain parts of the enterprise. Postdoc training slots, for instance. But I'm sorry, I can't come up with a magic solution here that is going to reduce all of the pain.


    Q:Some researchers are worried that your emphasis on translational research and big goals will mean cutting back on investigator-initiated grants.

    F.C.:I don't think they should be very worried. Everybody's going to be stressed, so it will be tempting if your grant didn't get funded to look around for some reason other than the fact that it was a tough year budgetarily. The amount of additional funds that might go into focusing on translation are going to be maybe 1% or thereabouts of the overall NIH effort. That shouldn't have a very big effect.

    Q:Does that mean 1% less for investigator-initiated research?

    F.C.:I would argue that if NIH simply said we're going to keep doing what we've been doing all along, we're not in a very good position then to ask the Administration or the Congress to give us more resources.

    The translational goals get a lot of traction with the Congress, with the public. They should. I mean, we're the National Institutes of Health. We are supposed to be coming up with ways to prevent and treat disease.

    Q:As part of this, you're investing more and more in drug discovery and development. Why?

    F.C.:Let's talk about TRND [Therapeutics for Rare and Neglected Diseases]. In terms of dollars, it's pretty puny. Fiscal year 2010: $24 million. What's in the president's budget for FY '11 is $50 million. On the scale of $31 billion to $32 billion, it is a pretty tiny blip.

    It is high-risk for sure. Why should we do it at all? Well, if you're talking about rare diseases, or diseases of the developing world that don't have much of an economic market, if the government doesn't get invested in those therapeutic efforts, they're not going to happen.

    We've arrived at the point scientifically where we've discovered the molecular basis of hundreds of diseases, and academic investigators [can] turn that into a high-throughput screen that yields up a small molecule that looks like it might be promising. And what TRND offers is to go one step beyond that into the preclinical phase to take some of those promising compounds and see whether you could get them all the way to FDA approval and a clinical trial. … So all of that I think is very defensible.

    Q:Have genomewide association studies (GWAS) paid off?

    F.C.:We're approaching 1000 validated genetic variations associated with a common disease. Most of them with very small odds ratios [as a cause of disease]. So probably not of much use for making predictions about future risk.

    But I see no reason why there should be any connection at all between the strength of a variant as far as its risk on future illness and whether it is pointing you towards a target that could be very valuable for new drug development. So I think we have 1000 new drug targets sitting in front of us. I get a little bit frustrated when people say, “Oh, GWAS has been a bust.”

    Q:Was it hard to persuade Harold Varmus to come back [to NIH]?

    F.C.:You know, initially Harold was helping with the search process. Which had to be informal because this was a presidential appointment, but he obviously knew the field and so he and a few others were helping me with the trolling of the landscape. After a couple, three, months, it became more and more clear to all of us that there was a really perfect candidate right there in our midst.

    Obviously, this is a big investment for him to come back to NIH, for a guy who loves New York City, and to take this on. But he's got a lot of ideas, a lot of fire in the belly. It's going to be wonderful having him here.

    Q:There seems to be paranoia that you and Varmus want to take away the special status of NCI.

    F.C.:The [Institute of Medicine] in [a] report back in 2003 concluded that the special status of the NCI has been more of a negative than a positive. So what is it that people are worried about here? That not having the ability to submit the bypass budget is going to have a big effect on cancer research? As far as I can tell, the bypass budget has no effect on anything.

    Are they worried that not having a presidentially appointed institute director is going to do damage to the leadership of the institute? Well, look back over time and you decide whether that presidential appointment, which means it becomes a political issue, has been a good thing or not. I think Harold and I have the same view here, that this is a big place with a lot of smart people, and the best outcomes are generally when you don't have walls between parts of the organization that prevent people from learning from each other.

    Q:How much time do you get in your own lab?

    F.C.:I try to be over there on Monday mornings. I have about 10 people in my lab, three projects: diabetes, progeria, and asthma. It's great for me, it's like a wonderful respite from dealing with lots of other issues to actually look at data and talk to young scientists about where they're going. And I would argue it also makes me a little bit more effective as an NIH director to be anchored in the reality of what science is all about instead of just reading it in journals. It works out. It wouldn't work out if I wasn't willing to work 100 hours a week.

    Extended Interview

    In a full transcript from this 53-minute interview, Collins touches on proposals to restructure parts of the National Institutes of Health, why new therapies cost so much, the future of human genomics, and why it's so hard to recruit institute directors.

  9. National Institutes of Health

    Lowering the Boom on Financial Conflicts

    1. Jocelyn Kaiser

    After a year of review, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has unveiled a plan for cracking down on conflicts of interest in biomedical research. Pressured by Congress, NIH last week released proposed changes to a 15-year-old regulation affecting everybody who receives U.S. Public Health Service money—about 40,500 grantees. The changes would require researchers to report more financial information to their employers, have the institutions and not researchers decide when a conflict exists, and make some of the reported information public.

    NIH Director Francis Collins explained that although “partnerships between NIH-funded researchers and industry are essential,” public trust is essential, too. Even if it means more paperwork, “we cannot afford to take any chances with the integrity of the research process.”

    Watchdog groups and the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) generally praised the revisions. Senator Charles Grassley (R–IA), who has been investigating conflicts in academic medicine, called the changes “an important step in the right direction.”

    NIH is responding to growing controversy over the influence of drug money in biomedicine, including allegations by Grassley's staff that several NIH-funded psychiatrists failed to disclose consulting income (Science, 3 July, p. 28). The revised rules would lower the threshold for “significant,” hence reportable, outside income or equity from $10,000 to $5000 and remove entirely the 5% threshold for reportable equity in a nonpublicly traded company. Investigators would inform their institutions about all significant financial interests related to their “institutional responsibilities”—so that administrators, not the investigator, would decide if any are related to a specific NIH-funded project.

    For the first time, institutions would have to send NIH a detailed report on the amount of money involved and how the conflict is being managed. This would help NIH make sure institutions are following the regulation, said NIH Acting Deputy Director for Extramural Research Sally Rockey. And institutions would be required to disclose senior investigators' significant conflicts related to an NIH grant to the public on a Web site.

    Key Changes to PHS Conflict-of-Interest Rule

    The changes fall short of what some experts wanted. The Institute of Medicine (IOM), for example, had recommended that researchers should report all industry financial relationships to their institutions, with no minimum dollar threshold. The highest level of public disclosure is an open-ended “above $250,000.” That means the public won't know if the amount is $250,000 or $2 million, says Allan Coukell of the Pew Prescription Project in Boston. However, Coukell calls the rules “pretty solid” overall.

    “It's definitely an improvement in terms of disclosure,” agrees Lisa Bero, a conflict-of-interest expert at the University of California, San Francisco. But she points out that responsibility for handling conflicts hasn't changed: It will still lie with institutions—and NIH hasn't given them much specific guidance. For example, the rules don't say that conflicts should be avoided in human subjects research, which IOM and AAMC have urged. “I think there's going to be a lot of variability” in how institutions implement the rules, Bero says.

    NIH will take comments for the next 60 days before issuing a final regulation.

  10. A Forgotten Corridor Rediscovered

    1. Andrew Lawler

    As the world's first civilizations emerged in the 3rd millennium B.C.E., an obscure region in eastern Arabia served as a crucial trade link while developing a surprisingly sophisticated independent culture of its own.

    BAT, OMAN—To a layperson, the three broken bits of red-and-black pottery, which fit in the palm of one hand, all look similar. But for 31-year-old archaeologist Chris Thornton, each piece tells a remarkable and distinct story of the time when humans first began to travel and trade over a vast area.

    Rocks of ages.

    Five-millennia-old Hafit tombs like these dot the rugged hills of Oman.


    One angular piece shows that some 4500 years ago, traders carrying pots created across the sea in Iran's distant Kerman Province came to this small oasis in a remote corner of Oman in sortheastern Arabia. A second piece hails all the way from the Indus River civilization, some 1500 kilometers to the east. And the third piece is a local imitation of the imported Indusware, not quite as sophisticated as the original. The modest sherds are clear evidence that in the 3rd millennium B.C.E., this dry and rugged region of the Arabian Peninsula was an important trading crossroads.

    Clues like these are remaking our understanding of the first civilizations and the networks that bound them together. The urban centers of Mesopotamia, Iran, and the Indus River were connected in a web encompassing much of southern Asia, including places like Bat that were long considered backwaters. “This is a quite dynamic world filled with people moving about,” says archaeologist Gregory Possehl of the University of Pennsylvania, who directs the dig at Bat. “There were a number of chainlike networks. The whole place was quite lively.”

    That's a far cry from the traditional view in which the world's first civilizations—Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the Indus—were largely isolated by sparsely populated deserts, seas, and mountains. Recent digs in Iran and Central Asia, however, have uncovered a plethora of ancient cities that traded goods and technologies overland with one another and their more famous neighbors (Science, 3 August 2007, p. 586). Now discoveries in Oman and the neighboring United Arab Emirates (UAE) are beginning to show that there was a southern sea route as well, which funneled raw materials such as copper and manufactured goods such as textiles across the Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf.

    Trading place.

    Arabia was perfectly positioned to be the linchpin of trade among the world's first great civilizations.


    Those links reached deep into the eastern Arabian Peninsula to sites such as Bat, a modest settlement that by 2400 B.C.E. boasted massive round stone towers and tombs, a clever system to manage scarce water, and exotic goods.

    Much is still unknown, including whether Indus traders actually penetrated deep into Arabia, the identities of the sailors who first plied the Indian Ocean, and just how extensive that contact was. But clues continue to emerge from numerous archaeological digs in Oman and the UAE, a region that has become a hotbed of excavation (see p. 1098). Work here and in the western Persian Gulf, Iran, Pakistan, and India reveals that this early Arabian culture was a nexus point for the far-flung civilizations of the 3rd millennium B.C.E. “Arabia is the hinge,” says Maurizio Tosi, an archaeologist at the University of Bologna in Italy who has conducted pioneering work in the region.

    Sailing away

    While vacationing in 1981 on a cliff-ringed beach on the easternmost cape of Arabia, 200 kilometers east of Bat, Tosi stumbled on a 4500-year-old settlement. Over the next decade, he and his late colleague Serge Cleuziou of CNRS in Paris dug the site, called R'as al Jinz, and eventually uncovered ivory combs and potsherds marked with distinctive signs from the Indus River civilization, all buried in a modest mud-brick house.

    They also excavated lumps of bitumen, an oil-based substance common in Mesopotamia, covered in barnacles. One piece still had the impressions of rope. The bitumen provided convincing proof for ocean-going boats made from reeds or planks sewn together and slathered with the imported waterproof substance—at the astonishingly early date of 2200 B.C.E. Excavators also found a piece of broken pottery chemically determined to come from Mesopotamia. Thus this single site demonstrated maritime connections with the two largest civilizations of the day.

    The finds stunned archaeologists, who had long assumed that mariners did not master the secrets of the Indian Ocean's monsoon winds until 1000 or more years later (see p. 1094). And it forced them to rethink trade connections between the Indus and its western neighbors. When the evidence was presented at a meeting in the early 1980s, “it was a very dramatic moment,” recalls New York University's Rita Wright. “We were all dumbfounded.”

    The discovery put the spotlight on an area mostly neglected by archaeologists. But given its modest houses and size, R'as al Jinz was almost certainly a fishing village rather than an international port. So where did ships from the Indus dock? To find out, researchers have moved a short drive up the dramatic coast to a series of sites at R'as al Hadd, where they are finding even earlier settlements.

    Current excavations by Maurizio Cattani, also from the University of Bologna, are exposing a rudimentary settlement dating back to the end of the 4th millennium B.C.E. By 3000 B.C.E.—centuries before Indus goods arrived at R'as al Jinz—the inhabitants here suddenly enclosed a 60-meter-by-40-meter area with a 1.5-meter-high stone wall. The settlers imported clay for their floors and built mud-brick structures using bricks of identical size to those at Hili, a distant oasis town just west of the Oman border in Abu Dhabi. One building exposed this season has a tripartite structure reminiscent of those found in Mesopotamia in that era. “The transformation is so fast,” says Cattani. “It went directly from poor huts to stone structures— almost as if it is a kind of colonization, or a push from outsiders.”

    Tomb rater.

    At R'as al Hadd, Cattani seeks clues to Arabia's great transformation.


    Just who those outsiders might have been is unclear. The huge number of fish bones—the area is renowned even today for the size and variety of its fish—suggests that inhabitants salted fish to trade with peoples living inland on the southern slopes of Oman's Hajar Mountains. Donkey bones, date pits, and copper pieces are signs of a robust trade with those interior settlements by the middle of the 3rd millennium B.C.E., prior to the arrival of Indus goods. But there is no sign here of a port that might have served oceangoing ships later in the 3rd millennium B.C.E. Tosi and Cattani suspect that it may still lie in the vicinity: The current lagoon has shifted over the millennia, they think, and the port may be lost or lie under the town's medieval fort. But some other archaeologists theorize that international trade here may have been restricted to an exchange of pots for supplies by roving Indus fishers. Indus pots were likely highly prized luxury items, given that Arabians made few ceramics themselves until well into the 3rd millennium B.C.E., typically preferring skins, like their Bedouin descendants. The question of just how extensive the trade here was remains unresolved.

    Another puzzle is the sudden sophistication that appears at both coastal sites like R'as al Hadd and R'as al Hamra near Oman's capital of Muscat as well as at interior eastern Arabia settlements like Bat. What Tosi calls “the great transformation” predates the rise of the Indus civilization. Although a scattering of small Mesopotamian pots dating to 3000 B.C.E. demonstrates a link with that society, the changes wrought in Oman appear to have been largely homegrown.

    Whatever the extent of trade at R'as al Jinz itself, evidence from elsewhere makes it clear that global trade took off in the middle of the 3rd millennium B.C.E. By then, inhabitants in Oman were apparently ready to participate as important players. Cuneiform tablets from Mesopotamian cities detail huge amounts of copper coming from the land of Magan, believed by many scholars to be Oman. Ports on the Persian Gulf, along the coast of today's UAE, transported metals from deep in the interior, and manufactured goods such as textiles were provided in exchange, says Piotr Steinkeller, an Assyriologist at Harvard University.

    Going to Bat

    Hints of this ancient trade are emerging in an unlikely spot: Bat, a small village set amid a palm grove deep in Oman's interior. To the north and east, the Hajar Mountains form a spine separating the area from the coast along the Gulf of Oman. To the south and west lies the fearsome Empty Quarter, one of the world's harshest deserts, peopled today only by intrepid Bedouins.


    This Indus sherd and ivory comb were found on the Arabian shore at R'as al Jinz.


    Archaeologists have long suspected that this copper-rich region was important to 3rd millennium B.C.E. civilization, given the frequent mention of Magan in cuneiform texts. Until Oman began to open its doors to outsiders after 1970, however, the area's past was almost completely unknown.

    When they did begin to explore, archaeologists were amazed by what they found: As many as 100,000 ancient round stone tombs and monuments pepper the region. A series of surveys and excavations conducted across the arc along the southern foothills of the Hajar reveal an advanced indigenous culture previously unknown. In the earliest period that began during about 3100 B.C.E. and is dubbed the Hafit, impressive single-chamber tombs as high as 5 meters were built in lines along ridges of hills and mountains. Some include small, elaborate pots made in Mesopotamia.

    Just as at R'as al Hadd and R'as al Hamra on the coast, “there's an explosion of social complexity” by the start of the 3rd millennium B.C.E., says Thornton. During about 2700 B.C.E., at the start of what researchers call the Umm an-Nar culture, more elaborate multichambered stone tombs were built—usually on a plain and sometimes faced with carefully dressed limestone quarried 30 kilometers or more from the site. These were typically common graves in which dozens—and occasionally more than 100—bodies were interred over time; some tombs include valuable objects such as ivory combs, copper daggers and ornaments, gold diadems, silver, gold, carnelian beads, and Indus pottery—all signs of economic prosperity and long-distance connections.

    Arabian sights.

    Possehl's team digs near one of the tower structures at Bat.


    Royal Ghazal, a University of Chicago graduate student working in Oman, says the common burials may reflect attempts to limit social stratification. Despite the wealth, there are few signs of the strict hierarchy typical of graves in ancient Egypt or Mesopotamia. There are only hints about Magan's social and political structure in Mesopotamian texts, such as one in which Naram-Sin, leader of the Akkadian empire circa 2150 B.C.E., boasts of having captured several Magan cities as well as its king. He may have been a temporary leader, because the Umm an-Nar people apparently eschewed the hierarchical systems of contemporary Egypt and Mesopotamia in favor of strong clanlike organizations that still have their echoes in modern Oman.

    The tombs carry a wealth of information, but until recently, few settlement sites were known that could provide important data on day-to-day life. Archaeologists now are focusing on the dozens of squat stone structures strewn across the southern slopes of the Hajar. Bat hosts one of the largest concentrations of these structures or towers, which average 20 meters across and a few meters high and include half-ton stone blocks. They usually have a well in their center and are frequently divided into small chambers.

    Possehl's team is now conducting a thorough examination of three of the five towers at Bat as well as geomorphologic and archaeobotanical studies of the area. Radiocarbon dates on charcoal and other organic material date the structures to between 2800 and 2450 B.C.E. Thornton has found contemporaneous buildings nestled against one tower.

    Grave goods.

    A restored Umm an-Nar tomb at Bat demonstrates the skill of ancient stone workers.


    Archaeologists have variously theorized that the towers are fortified wells, watchtowers, platforms, or storage bins. Possehl's team has recently shown that at least two at Bat were built over earlier Hafit settlements and that the tower architecture evolved over time. One of the later structures has vertical crenellations, the only decorative pattern seen on any Umm an-Nar towers. Thornton believes the structures are too low to serve as forts or watchtowers. Instead, he sees them as platforms used for public rituals, “a wonderful expression of social and political complexity.”

    Although lacking the cities and large populations in other parts of contemporaneous southern Asia, the region shared remarkably similar styles and goods. At Bisya, south of Bat, Jeffery and Jocelyn Orchard of the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom are working at a site with more than a half-dozen towers, including one they believe had a spiral ramp that led to a long-vanished temple, similar to the temple-topped ziggurats of Mesopotamia. They postulate that the southern Hajar during the Umm an-Nar time was linked through a series of oasis towns, some 200 to 400 hectares in size.

    Possehl and Thornton, however, insist that the evidence for towns is still lacking. They see small settlements of farmers and pastoralists who impounded water for growing wheat, barley, and date palms and herded goats. Bat's connection with the outside world is due in large part to geography, says Possehl: It lies at the conjunction of a path over the Hajar to the northern coast of Oman and another that stretches from the Arabian Sea to the east to the Persian Gulf on the west. These trade routes connected Bat to the wider 3rd millennium B.C.E. network.

    The wealth of interior Oman derived from local, regional, and international trade centered on copper, limestone, the soft-stone called chlorite, and the hard-stone diorite favored by Sumerian sculptors. Along with Indus pots, carnelian beads manufactured in what is today western India are scattered across the southern Hajar. Perishable goods such as wine, oil, and grains were also likely part of that commerce, though their remains have yet to be proven. And by 2400 B.C.E., “Indus pottery is everywhere,” Thornton says, holding out a black-slipped sherd in the team's nearby laboratory.

    Whether this means that Indus traders or even potters traversed the arc between the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf is controversial. Pots may have been passed along from sites like R'as al Jinz, or Indus traders may have brought them along as they moved into the interior trading for copper. However it happened, “these people have incorporated Indus culture into their own,” says Charlotte Marie Cable of Michigan State University in East Lansing, who is part of Possehl's team.

    Sophie Méry, an archaeologist at the University of Paris who has closely studied Indus remains in Arabia, matched the clay used to manufacture the vessels with soil from the Indus area around Mohenjo Daro and to the south. Similar analyses demonstrate that other pots were fashioned from local clay in the Indus style, “but the [Hajar] potters did not master the techniques of wheel throwing as the Indus potters did.” She finds it unlikely that itinerant Indus potters or traders were making their way across Oman. “I see local networks passing goods on rather than Indus caravans,” she says. Others agree. “We don't imagine Indus traders traveling inland,” says archaeologist Hans-Peter Uerpmann of the University of Tübingen in Germany, who is digging in the UAE. But Possehl says that the occasional Indus donkey caravan might have worked its way from oasis to oasis. And Daniel Potts of the University of Sydney in Australia thinks it “very likely” that Indus agents as well as local traders were involved in the Arabian economy. The only agreement is that there is not enough data yet to say for sure.

    Even if ancient sailors had mastered the seas, why not sail directly from India into the Persian Gulf, bypassing the challenging overland route via Bat? Thomas Vosmer, an expert in ancient boats who lives in Oman, says that contrary winds make it difficult for rudimentary sailing ships to pass through the Strait of Hormuz (see map, p. 1093). And Possehl argues that Oman's copper and other minerals made it worthwhile for at least a limited number to traipse across the paths connecting the oases. To him, the oasis path is a “portage,” a land crossing between the two bodies of water.

    Broken hinge

    Whether Indus traders physically made that trek, there is a consensus among archaeologists that the corridor was an important element in the economic circuit of the 3rd millennium B.C.E., funneling raw materials to Mesopotamia and serving as a transshipment point for Indus goods. On the Persian Gulf coast, at the site near Abu Dhabi called Umm an-Nar which gave the culture its name, inhabitants built a dozen stone houses dating to about 2500 B.C.E., worked copper into usable products, and weighed their goods with a collection of weights corresponding with northern Syrian standards. Along with Indus pottery, archaeologists found the impression made by a northern Syrian cylinder seal, demonstrating links with that distant area.

    At other sites such as Tell Abraq, farther north on the coast, locals built a tower 40 meters in diameter between 2200 and 2000 B.C.E. Artifacts testify to links with eastern Iran, Central Asia, Bahrain, the Indus, and Mesopotamia in the late 3rd millennium B.C.E., as well as with important settlements in the interior such as Hili, which is strategically set between Bat and Umm an-Nar. Several Persian Gulf sites include scatterings of Indus pottery, a likely sign of visiting trading boats. These settlements were clearly tied to the ancient emporium of Dilmun, an area mentioned frequently in Mesopotamian texts that likely thrived in today's Bahrain and the adjacent Saudi Arabian coast between Oman and Iraq, explains Harvard's Steinkeller.

    Shell game.

    Marcucci shows off finds at the R'as al Hamra coastal site near Oman's capital.


    Tell Abraq continued as a modest port until 500 B.C.E., but most of the other sites along the Hajar corridor underwent a dramatic change during about 2000 B.C.E. “They fell like dominoes,” says Uerpmann, though no one knows just why. The important Mesopotamian city of Ur surrendered to invaders at that time, and trade circuits across southwest Asia appear to have disintegrated quickly. Iranian cities collapsed, and the Indus civilization soon fell into ruin. A drying climate, increased warfare, and an unstable economic system may have been factors.

    Adrian Parker, an archaeologist at Oxford Brookes University, Headington, in the U.K., sees evidence of a “mega-drought” in eastern Arabia during about 2000 B.C.E., based in part on unpublished data showing that vegetation vanished and sand dunes began to move and grow. “The extreme climate would have had significant impact on the copper trade and routes from the Hajar to Mesopotamia,” he says. Those data match a radical change in life apparent in Oman and the UAE excavations, where the Umm an-Nar tradition gives way to the Wadi Suq culture at the start of the 2nd millennium B.C.E. Indus pottery in the interior nearly vanishes. Tombs are cruder and have fewer grave goods than the preceding two periods. Locals casually robbed stones from earlier tombs to house their own dead, which Thornton argues demonstrates a dramatic cultural break with the past.

    Within a century or two, eastern Arabia reverted to a simpler culture based on agriculture and herding, largely cut off from the outside world. When an Arabian revival came 1000 years later, it was centered far to the west on the lucrative incense trade that moved up the peninsula via Yemen to the Near East (see sidebar, p. 1099). Not until medieval times did the area around Oman once again participate so fully in the global economy. But for that brief millennium in the Bronze Age, this area long ignored by archaeologists was a key player in the emergence of the first civilizations. “There is so much back and forth,” says Thornton, tucking his sherds back into a plastic bag at the Bat dig house. “It is much more complicated than we thought.”

  11. The Shipping News, Circa 2200 B.C.E

    1. Andrew Lawler

    Archaeological discoveries show a maritime link between the Indus, Arabia, and Mesopotamia in what may have been the world's first oceangoing vessels. But debate continues over the design of what may have been the world's first oceangoing vessels.

    MUSCAT, OMAN—As a team of senior archaeologists watched in horror from the deck of the sultan's yacht, the reed vessel it was accompanying began to sink. The 13-meter-long, 11-ton craft, the Magan III, had been launched from the harbor here and was aiming at the Indian port of Mandvi, 1000 kilometers away. But after just several dozen kilometers, the vessel took on water and eventually foundered. The crew was rescued, but the debacle on 7 September 2005 ended an unusual research experiment aimed at understanding how ancient mariners made the passage from the Arabian coast to the Indus River civilization more than 4000 years ago.

    The project was sparked by archaeological discoveries that show a maritime link between the Indus, Arabia, and Mesopotamia in what may have been the world's first oceangoing vessels (see main text, p. 1092). But debate continues over the design of what may have been the world's first oceangoing vessels.


    This piece of bitumen documented ancient sea trade.


    Boats were used in the Persian Gulf as early as 5000 B.C.E., based on recent excavations in Kuwait. By 2500 B.C.E., pharaohs buried themselves with impressive craft, Mesopotamian tombs contained models of large ships, and Indus sites preserve models and images of boats. In addition, Mesopotamian texts from the 21st century B.C.E. mention construction of massive vessels that consumed huge numbers of palm, tamarisk, and pine trees, along with enormous quantities of reeds, ox hides, goat's hair, and fish oil and asphaltlike bitumen to coat the exterior. The discovery of pieces of what appears to be a large boat on the eastern shore of Oman—the first clear evidence for oceangoing trade, dated to 2200 B.C.E.—inspired a small group of archaeologists and boat builders to try to recreate such a vessel.

    The effort differed from Thor Heyerdahl's Tigris reed raft, which the Norwegian sailed from Basra, Iraq, to Muscat, and then on to Pakistan in the late 1970s. Many archaeologists dismissed that effort as a stunt that did little to enhance our understanding of ancient technology, given the dearth of data on construction and sailing techniques. The Magan III was based instead on the recent finds as well as 400 models, clay seals, and drawings of the 3rd millennium B.C.E.

    Unlike a raft, the Magan III was made up of reed bundles shaped as planks, with a leather gunwale and a tapered bow and stern. A crew of eight was to subsist on a 2200 B.C.E. diet of dates, honey, pulses, and dried fish during the estimated 10-day voyage. Thomas Vosmer of Muscat, an American-born Australian who specializes in ancient boatbuilding, experimented with several smaller versions before settling on a design; the Omani government agreed to cover construction costs.

    With guidance from archaeologists such as Maurizio Tosi of the University of Bologna and Gregory Possehl of the University of Pennsylvania, Vosmer's team set out to build the Magan III as authentically as possible. A coating of bitumen, along with calcium carbonate from crushed seashells and fish oil, made a waterproof seal. The sail was made from hand-woven goat hair. "We had five sea trials for 25 days, and we plugged a lot of holes," recalls archaeologist Alessandro Ghidoni of Muscat, who was a construction supervisor and crew member.

    Once on the rough open sea, however, the ship began to take on water in the stern, forcing sailors to abandon ship. By the next day, it had sunk completely. Ghidoni says that the pressure from ocean swells softened the bitumen, creating gaps in the hull. "We sank because it was too flexible," he says. Both he and Vosmer note that the team was under intense pressure to complete the project quickly, contributing to a failure to spot design flaws. Vosmer, who admits that his errors played a role, says now that there was simply not enough data to recreate the vessel faithfully.

    Trials at sea.

    The Magan III sank long before it reached India.


    As with any good experiment, the Magan III's failure provided new insights. Ghidoni is no longer convinced that reed boats could weather the open sea, and he adds that bitumen was far too valuable a substance to slather liberally on merchant or fishing craft. Sewn-plank boats were more likely the vessel of choice, though finding the necessary wood in either Mesopotamia or Arabia would have been challenging. More likely, he says, ships were built of timber floated down the Indus River. So far, however, no early Bronze Age shipyards there—or in Oman or Mesopotamia—have been found. So the identity of the Bronze Age sailors remains unclear. But for now, says Possehl dryly, "there are no more plans for reed boats."

  12. Exploring the Virgin Country

    1. Andrew Lawler

    Omani soil is providing a bevy of archaeological surprises, but researchers there also struggle with rapid development and a lack of homegrown expertise.

    Ocean view.

    Development threatens sites such as R'as al Hamra (on promontory to right).


    MUSCAT, OMAN—Until 1970, Oman rivaled Tibet as one of the world's most inaccessible countries. Even the renowned British explorer Wilfred Thesiger, who spoke fluent Arabic and traveled on camel with Bedouins, was barred from the country 20 years earlier. Few nations on Earth have changed so dramatically since. The sultanate, run by the monarch Qaboos bin Said for the past 40 years, now welcomes not only investors eager to benefit from the country's oil revenues but also archaeologists seeking to study everything from medieval forts to evidence of early oceangoing ships.

    A dozen foreign teams are at work in this boomerang-shaped nation, which was a surprisingly sophisticated player in global trade 4000 years ago and also the center of the incense trade (see sidebar, p. 1099). Researchers are taking advantage of a stable political system, generous help from the central government, and a landscape that until recently was remarkably unmarred by modern development. “Here all is visible and untouched; you can find 5th and 4th millennium B.C.E. sites everywhere,” marvels Maurizio Cattani, a Paris-based archaeologist and dig director at R'as al Hadd on the country's east coast. “The whole country from north to south is full of archaeological remains,” agrees Hassan Mohammad Ali al-Lawati, Oman's director general of archaeology and museums at the Ministry of Culture. “We call ourselves a virgin country.”

    Yet the quickening pace of development threatens many sites, and local champions of archaeology are few and politically vulnerable. “We don't want to be called anti-development,” al-Lawati says during an interview in his Muscat office.

    All the same, Oman today is an oasis of Arabian archaeological research. Wary of outsiders, its larger neighbor Saudi Arabia, with which Oman shares a long border and large oil reserves, grants few excavation permits to foreigners, although that country has its own cadre of domestic archaeologists. Meanwhile, political troubles restrict excavations in countries from Yemen to Iran. The United Arab Emirates welcomes archaeologists, but its borders are limited largely to the Persian Gulf shore. Oman, by contrast, not only is vast and archaeologically diverse but also helps foreign teams financially. “We provide logistical support, accommodations in Muscat, workers, cars, petrol, and labor” to supplement funds provided by outside teams, says Biubwa Ali Al-Sabri, who heads the excavation and archaeological department at the ministry. She says that interest in excavating in Oman has increased dramatically since the 1980s.

    But development has also increased dramatically since that time. New highways, urban sprawl, copper mining, and beach resorts are the primary threats. Al-Lawati says his ministry, which oversees archaeology, is in a delicate position. “We need schools and roads. And at the same time, we don't want to be soft and spoil our archaeological heritage. But there are a lot of stakeholders.”

    Those stakeholders include a host of influential members of the government. Several are building seaside villas on a dramatic cape called R'as al Hamra, just a short drive from al-Lawati's office at the Ministry of Culture's headquarters in Muscat. A large new home is rising there on a 5th millennium B.C.E. village that provided the country's earliest evidence of copper, Oman's signature export. In the surrounding few hectares, 10 of 12 prehistoric sites have been destroyed in recent years. One of the surviving sites bordered a mangrove swamp and was difficult to develop; the second was slated to be part of a luxury-home community until Italian archaeologists made a media fuss that stopped the project in 2005.

    On that site—now perched next to a luxury hotel—a team led by Lapo Marcucci of the Italian archaeological mission in Oman found 120 graves, nine phases of occupation, and important insights into the transition from a hunter-gathering culture to the more sophisticated Hafit culture that emerged at the end of the 4th millennium B.C.E. This and the other remaining site, which dates from 1000 years earlier, may soon form the nucleus of an innovative archaeological park proposed by a team of Italian architects and landscape designers. Al-Lawati says he hopes to win government approval this year to spend $1.3 million on the first phase of the project. And he cites other successes, such as preventing construction of a copper mine that would have destroyed several prehistoric settlements and ensuring that a new highway from Muscat to Sur avoided archaeological sites, even at the cost of millions of dollars and months of construction time.

    Such efforts are hampered in part by the lack of homegrown archaeologists. The university in Muscat, the country's leading academic institution, closed its archaeology degree program decades ago and now offers only the occasional course. Those interested in pursuing degrees must go abroad. Two Omani archaeology teams are at work, but their efforts are dwarfed by those of foreign groups. “We are trying to put together a plan with the Ministry of Education” to reestablish a program, al-Lawati says.

    One foreign scientist, who requested anonymity, says archaeology in Oman suffers from a tradition of ministries run like fiefdoms, limiting cooperation. With its relatively small budget and political pull, the Ministry of Culture is among the least influential parts of the government. “We always get the smallest share,” al-Lawati acknowledges. But he is also confident that new rules requiring archaeological surveys before construction, along with the introduction of archaeological parks, will boost awareness of the country's rich past. A dose of national pride may help as well. “We once had an important civilization,” says Al-Sabri. “And we need to know more.”

  13. Hot on the Incense Trail

    1. Andrew Lawler

    Researchers long assumed that the frankincense trade did not flourish until 1000 B.C.E. or later. But Oman is providing an unusual combination of textual evidence, remote-sensing data, and careful excavations. The data suggest that the trade sprang up far earlier.

    Digging deep.

    Dhofar's deputy governor, Sheikh Suhaiyl Musallam al-Rojdi (left) examines dig by McCorriston's team.


    SALALAH, OMAN—A cool mist hangs over the Dhofar Mountains close to the Yemen border, turning bare hillsides an English-meadow green as the rest of Arabia swelters in the summer heat. It is this moisture, the only finger of the Asian monsoon to touch the peninsula, that makes these mountains the perfect habitat for the scraggly frankincense tree, which oozes a gooey and aromatic resin when cut. The tree grows only in this Dhofar region of Oman, its likely ancestral home, and parts of Yemen and Somalia.

    Frankincense was the ancient world's most lucrative product, essential in temple rituals throughout the Mediterranean and Southwest Asia, prescribed by doctors for digestive problems, and turned to ash for eyeliner among Egyptian gentry. Yet the origin of its trade remains only dimly understood, in part because the mostly nomadic inhabitants here closely guarded their secret and left few artifacts and no texts behind. Researchers long assumed that the frankincense trade did not flourish until 1000 B.C.E. or later. But a country now welcoming archaeologists is providing an unusual combination of textual evidence, remote-sensing data, and careful excavations (see main text, p. 1098). The data suggest that the trade sprang up far earlier, says archaeologist Juris Zarins, who lives in Dhofar's sleepy provincial capital, Salalah.

    According to Zarins, long-distance trade itself—in seashells—began here as early as the 5th or 6th millennium B.C.E. Then, far to the northeast at R'as al Jinz, Italian excavators found what appears to be a frankincense burner dating to about 2200 B.C.E. Resins from Egyptian tombs date to about this time and may signal maritime connections across the Red Sea. For overland travel, donkeys, which by this period were in use, may have made the journey north. And Mesopotamian texts from this same era mention a trade in “aromatics,” likely frankincense.

    By the height of the Umm an-Nar period at the end of the 3rd millennium B.C.E., when Indus goods were arriving in Arabia and Omani copper was being shipped to Mesopotamia, distant Dhofar and its frankincense seem to have been part of the first international trade system (see p. 1092). “There's abundant evidence of goods exchange,” says Joy McCorriston of Ohio State University in Columbus. She and her colleagues are mapping thousands of uncataloged tombs in the region to gather data on population and trade routes.

    Precious resin.

    Incense was made from the frankincense tree and burned as early as 2200 B.C.E. (inset).


    Both teams are finding evidence that Dhofar's frankincense made it a player in the early economic network. But even as that origin comes to light, the 4-millennia-old tradition is nearing its end. The stalls of Salalah today are still filled with bags of frankincense. But buyer beware. “Now it all comes from Somalia,” says Zarins.

  14. The Coastal Indus Looks West

    1. Andrew Lawler

    Fortified coastal settlements suggest that the Indus Civilization, once considered an insular society, shipped goods to the east.

    Playing defense.

    Kanmer's thick walls protected the small settlement from prying eyes.


    DHOLAVIRA, INDIA—Most of the year, this small island near the Pakistan border is surrounded by thick salt flats in the estuary called the Rann of Kutch. In late January, the midday heat is already intense, and the land is brown and barren. Yet more than 4000 years ago, architects and engineers designed a vast city here with high stone battlements, deep wells, huge water basins, and wide and straight streets. Extending over 100 hectares and excavated only in the 1990s, the site was clearly an important metropolis during the height of the Indus River, or Harappan, civilization.

    And yet Dholavira is hundreds of kilometers from the cities long considered the heart of the Indus River Valley civilization, Harappa and Mohenjo Daro, which lie far upstream on the Indus River in modern-day Pakistan. But recent digs and surveys in India's western-most province of Gujarat show that sites like Dholavira may be the critical link between the heart of the Indus and Arabia and Mesopotamia in the 3rd millennium B.C.E. At a recent conference in the nearby city of Bhuj, archaeologists compared notes on the mounting evidence that this area played an important role in long-distance trade at the dawn of civilization. “There are more than 60 Harappan sites in Kutch,” says Y. S. Rawat, head of archaeology in Gujarat Province. “Most are near the coast, and some are heavily fortified.”

    Shifting currents.

    Sites in the province of Gujarat in western India are yielding new data on Indus life and trade.


    There's no doubt there were maritime connections; Indus seals and artifacts have been found on the Arabian coast and in Sumerian port cities like Ur (see p. 1092). And although evidence of foreign material in Indus sites is scarce, seals from the area around today's Bahrain on the Persian Gulf coast have been found at a small site called Lothal, 50 kilometers east of Dholavira and 270 kilometers from Mohenjo Daro. In 1954, Indian excavators here unearthed a massive brick-lined basin that they claimed was a harbor bordered by warehouses. Twice as long as a football field and nearly 40 meters wide, the structure was built in the second half of the 3rd millennium B.C.E., the heyday of trade with the West. But many Western archaeologists don't think it was a harbor. “It was a tank” for storing water insists Gregory Possehl, an archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania. An Italian team led by Dennys Frenez of the University of Bologna in Italy hopes to resolve the matter; recently, they found hints that a wide canal connected the basin with the sea, supporting the port theory.

    Meanwhile, a team of Japanese and Indian excavators is focusing on a fortified village called Kanmer that likely housed between 400 and 500 people during its heyday between 2600 B.C.E. and 1900 B.C.E. Behind 20-meter-thick and 10-meter-high walls, residents were busy making tens of thousands of beads from many kinds of stones, such as carnelian, lapis, and agate, which were used in jewelry exported across the region. They also found three unique round pendants carrying Indus script and the familiar Indus image of the unicorn. Dig director Toshiki Osada, an archaeologist with Kyoto's National Institutes for the Humanities, believes the pendants might be a kind of passport used in trade.

    Indus passports?

    Kanmer's odd-shaped pendants may have been related to trade and travel.


    In recent years, dozens of Indus sites have come to light in this coastal area, which was once considered on the distant periphery of the Indus. Most are modest in size like Kanmer. “We're finding small sites with massive fortifications, where raw materials are stored,” says Osada. He suggests that these settlements were an important link in the chain of commerce reaching from the Himalayas to Mesopotamia. Such fortifications are rare elsewhere in the Indus. Kuldeep Bhan of India's Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, who is excavating a nearby site called Shikarpur, says that the fortifications could be a sign of conflict with locals who refused to adopt Indus ways, or the walls may have helped to protect goods from attackers by land or sea. “Craft may have been heavily controlled,” he says. Even today, Bhan notes, there are closely held secrets in Gujarati bead production. Just as excavators in Arabia are seeking the port where Indus traders unloaded their pots, Bhan hopes to find clear evidence of maritime life at Shikarpur, which sits within a few kilometers of the sea. He has found a dozen or so Indus seals but is on the lookout for material that might hint at the multicultural nature of a port town. One of the great mysteries of the 3rd millennium B.C.E. is who built and sailed the ships that connected the Indus, the Persian Gulf, and Mesopotamia. Excavators like Bhan hope this harsh landscape will soon reveal their identities.

  15. Profile: Maurizio Tosi

    'The Cobra' Uncovers Ancient Civilizations—And Cold War Political Secrets

    1. Andrew Lawler

    In 1981, archaeologist Maurizio Tosi discovered Indus material in Oman, sparking a revolution in archaeology in that country, and he continues to study connections between the Indus and Arabia.

    He told colleagues he was looking for ancient lapis lazuli mines. But when Maurizio Tosi crossed into Afghanistan at the height of the war between the Soviet Union and the mujahedin in 1984, his real goal was to locate wooden boxes that had once contained American-supplied Stinger missiles. Those missiles threatened Soviet helicopters, and Moscow was eager to trace the route they had taken into Pakistan.

    As Tosi tells it, Soviet operatives asked him to investigate, and the dutiful Marxist, who is also a University of Bologna professor, went to Pakistan and crossed by car into southern Afghanistan, then controlled largely by rebels. Instead of Stinger boxes, however, he saw only masses of child graves, and he decided to swear off the spy business, in which he had participated off and on for 2 decades.

    Tosi has been a peripatetic and influential archaeologist, excavating from Iran to Sicily and shaping new ideas about how humans first began to live in cities and trade over vast areas. As a young man, he dug at Shahr-i Sokhta in southeastern Iran, exposing one of the world's largest urban centers in the 3rd millennium B.C.E., far from the known big-three civilizations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the Indus. And in 1981, he discovered Indus material in Oman, sparking a revolution in archaeology in that country, and he continues to study connections between the Indus and Arabia (see main text, p. 1100).

    The son of a senior government official in Mussolini's fascist Italy, Tosi turned communist as a teenager in Rome during the 1960s and studied paleontology and archaeology. By then, he says, he had already been recruited by the Cominform, the organization that coordinated efforts among Soviet-influenced communist parties. Tosi says he only performed “four or five operations.” But the communist connection also served his professional life. A 1969 visit to Moscow introduced him to Soviet archaeologists who were making important discoveries in Central Asia, contacts that proved influential in Tosi's later ideas about interconnected societies.

    Cold warrior.

    Tosi successfully lobbied for a new view of ancient Asia.


    When Tosi and the late Serge Cleuziou of the French National Center for Scientific Research in Paris began to work in Oman in the 1980s, they abandoned the old way of seeing the emergence of civilization from a center to a periphery. Instead they postulated a network of linked societies including Mesopotamia, Arabia, Central Asia, and the Indus, each with a unique culture but sharing goods, ideas, and technologies. Tosi helped create a regular conference to discuss what he named the Middle Asian Interaction Sphere, and the idea, once considered fringe, is now mainstream.

    Tosi's politics, sharp mind, many wives (including a former Soviet political commissar), and often-brusque personality make him a controversial figure. “A brilliant monster,” says one colleague, who declines to be named. Although he has many enemies, few dispute his intellectual capacity. Tosi revels in what he claims is his nickname in the field—the cobra. In his many intellectual contests, he claims victory. “I've been in so many battles and never lost a fight,” he boasts.

    “Maurizio's contributions have been immense,” says archaeologist Philip Kohl of Wellesley College in Massachusetts. “He's one of the smartest and most knowledgeable persons I've ever met, but I also feel he could have accomplished even more if he had control over his personal life. But then he wouldn't be Maurizio.”

    A heart operation has slowed Tosi of late, but during a recent visit to India he was busy organizing a meeting to bring modern experts in port facilities together with archaeologists to understand how ancient Indus harbors may have operated—and by so doing, forge economic connections between today's Italy and India. “You must have an open mind,” says Tosi. “I'm just curious.”