News this Week

Science  03 Jan 2014:
Vol. 343, Issue 6166, pp. 10
  1. A Look Ahead for 2014

    Gulf Coast, United States
    Costs of BP Oil Spill Revealed
    California
    Stem Cell Funder Faces Uncertain Future
    China
    New Hunt for Submerged Relics
    India
    Three Years Polio-Free
    United States
    BRAIN Initiative Funding Starts to Flow
    Mars
    Indian Orbiter on Steady Course
    United States
    Bring Back the Budget Wars
    United States
    Will Congress Re-COMPETE?
    Italy
    Fight Over Stem Cell Therapy Endures
    European Union
    Overhaul for Clinical Trial Rules
    Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko
    Rosetta Springs to Action
    Antarctica
    Groundbreaking on the Ice

    Gulf Coast, United States

    Costs of BP Oil Spill Revealed

    CREDIT: GERALD HERBERT/AP IMAGES

    Advocates for restoring ecosystems around the Gulf of Mexico are watching for two big breaks that could come in 2014. A federal court is expected to decide how much the oil giant BP will have to pay in Clean Water Act fines for the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill. The total could exceed $15 billion, and 80% of the funds will be spent on economic and ecological restoration in the five Gulf Coast states. Meanwhile, a separate government-led process will determine how much damage the spill caused to natural resources and how much oil companies owe to repair it. That sum is also expected to run in the billions.

    California

    Stem Cell Funder Faces Uncertain Future

    The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine is pondering its future as it looks for a new director. Created by California voters in 2004 in part to sidestep federal restrictions on embryonic stem cell work, the funding agency will get its last annual installment of about $300 million from the state this year. It has enough money stockpiled to last a few more years, but to stay in business longer, it could seek funds from another state referendum, as early as this November. Some advocate that the institute, which has lately favored clinical trials over basic research, instead seek money from industrial partnerships.

    China

    New Hunt for Submerged Relics

    China is expected to launch its first dedicated underwater archaeology ship in early 2014 as part of an ambitious push into marine archaeology. The $98.8 million, 500-ton vessel will scour for wrecks in coastal Chinese waters and in the South China Sea, according to state news agency Xinhua. Control of that area is disputed by several Asian nations, prompting concern that China is using exploration as a pretext for flexing its naval muscle. Officials counter that the ship is intended to bolster appreciation of the country's cultural heritage by excavating historical relics.

    India

    Three Years Polio-Free

    CREDIT: BIKAS DAS/AP IMAGES

    Barring any surprises, on 13 January India will have gone 3 years without a case of polio, an achievement many never thought possible. With its astounding birthrate, population density, and poverty, India was long considered the most biologically challenging country in which to eradicate the virus. But after a few weeks of additional surveillance for undetected cases, the country is set to be certified polio-free. Massive vaccination campaigns will still continue; as long as polio is still circulating anywhere, as it is in neighboring Pakistan, the country is at risk of reinfection.

    United States

    BRAIN Initiative Funding Starts to Flow

    The Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, an ambitious U.S. effort to find new ways to study the brain in action, will start in earnest this year as roughly $110 million in federal funding begins to flow to researchers. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency will dole out $70 million in 5-year grants to teams working on devices to cure neurological disorders and restore memory loss. And in December, the National Institutes of Health released a call for grant applications for $40 million in six "high-priority" fundamental research areas, including novel methods of classifying types of brain cells and determining their role in specific neural circuits.

    Mars

    Indian Orbiter on Steady Course

    CREDIT: ISRO
    CREDIT: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

    India's maiden mission to Mars, the satellite known as Mangalyaan, is healthy and cruising toward a September rendezvous with the Red Planet, says the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). The $70 million mission, launched on 5 November, will spend its projected 6-month sojourn measuring atmospheric composition and mapping surface features. Among Mangalyaan's instruments is the first dedicated methane sensor for Mars, which will estimate the presence or absence of the gas—possibly indicative of carbon-based life—on a planetary scale. But more than anything, says ISRO Chair K. Radhakrishnan, the mission is intended to "demonstrate India's technological prowess" for future interplanetary missions.

    United States

    Bring Back the Budget Wars

    As much as scientists hated the chronic gridlock on the federal budget, they may soon develop second thoughts about the recently passed 2-year agreement that staves off the budget cuts known as sequestration until 2016. The agreement still gives powerful interests, like the military, the chance to argue for changes to spending provisions they don't like. And while everybody likes science, no one makes it their top priority.

    President Barack Obama's upcoming 2015 budget request will again propose a healthy increase for research. But his requests haven't fared well in years past, and there's little reason to expect a better result this time around.

    United States

    Will Congress Re-COMPETE?

    Beyond allocating money, Congress can shape U.S. science policy by creating or killing programs at individual agencies and altering their priorities. This year, Congress is scheduled to take up such a bill, a successor to America COMPETES, that provides guidance to the National Science Foundation (NSF) and several other research agencies. Science lobbyists expect the Senate to reaffirm federal support for research and science education, but they fear the House of Representatives will push for language that alters peer-review guidelines and hampers NSF's ability to fund the best research. If that happens, many believe that no bill would be better than a bad bill.

    Italy

    Fight Over Stem Cell Therapy Endures

    Human stem cells

    The tumult surrounding a controversial Italian stem cell therapy is set to continue. Patients have lobbied hard for the government to fund the therapy, designed by the Stamina Foundation to treat neurodegenerative diseases. In October, the government scrapped a publicly funded clinical trial after a panel concluded that the treatment had no scientific merit. Then last month, in a ruling that shocked many scientists, an Italian court said that the panel wasn't impartial. This year, the government is expected to ask a new expert group to study the treatment's validity before deciding whether to pull the plug again.

    European Union

    Overhaul for Clinical Trial Rules

    Before May, the European Union is slated to approve a revamp of its unpopular 2001 clinical trials directive. The new regulation will cut down on red tape and require results from every trial to be uploaded to an E.U.-wide database. In a similar vein, the European Medicines Agency has promised to push ahead with its plans to open to the public and scientists its treasure chest of clinical data from marketing authorization applications. But these plans have already been delayed: In particular, two drug companies have sued the agency for divulging data to competitors.

    Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko

    Rosetta Springs to Action

    Europe's Rosetta spacecraft has been speeding across the solar system for nearly a decade in pursuit of comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Like the stone that decoded Egyptian hieroglyphics, Rosetta will this year seek to decode the origins of the solar system. Waking on 20 January from 957 days of hibernation, it will close in for an August rendezvous and begin observing the comet, then dispatch a lander called Philae to ride with the nucleus hopefully as long as its close encounter with the sun in mid-2015. Comets are ancient relics of the solar system and may have seeded planets like Earth with water and even the building blocks of life.

    Antarctica

    Groundbreaking on the Ice

    CREDIT: YONHAP/EPA/NEWSCOM

    Two new Antarctic research stations are rising as China and South Korea stake their claims on polar research. A Chinese team reached East Antarctica last month to start building the nation's fourth Antarctic base, called Taishan. Researchers from many countries are eager to use the summer-only outpost as a launch pad for probing the geological history of the Grove Mountains and the glaciology of the Amery Ice Shelf. Taishan's main building is expected to be completed next month, and a permanent runway should open in about 2 years. Chinese scientists are also surveying along the western coast of the Ross Sea this season for a place to build their third year-round station.

    Meanwhile, the Korean Polar Research Institute plans to open its Jang Bogo research center at Terra Nova Bay in February. The roughly 4000-square-meter facility—South Korea's second year-round station—is designed to house 16 people in the winter and 60 in the summer. Among the key scientific tasks at Jang Bogo will be monitoring regional climate change.

  2. Life and Death at Stonehenge

    1. Michael Balter

    Studies offer new insight into the great monument's ritual purpose and meaning.

    Ritual landscape.

    Durrington Walls (land of the living) and Stonehenge (resting place of the dead) were linked by the Avon River; other monuments, such as the Greater Cursus, were nearby.

    CREDIT: © PETER DUNN/ENGLISH HERITAGE

    DURRINGTON WALLS, U.K.—From all over Britain they came by the thousands, with their families, their pigs, and their cattle, to this huge complex of earthen and wooden monuments by the River Avon, known today as Durrington Walls. Inside a circular earthen bank and ditch, 500 meters in diameter, stood a smaller circle of dozens of stout, upstanding timbers. In the center, the body of a venerated chief lay in state. The pilgrims feasted to his triumphs and to his memory, roasted their cattle and their pigs, and then the procession began.

    Thousands marched down the short avenue to the river. The chief's body was loaded into a waiting boat, and a smaller contingent pushed off down this tortuous stretch of the Avon. A few hours later, the burial party alighted on the riverbank, joined by new throngs. Together they marched down another, longer avenue to the somber stone megalith now called Stonehenge. There, the body of the chief was placed atop a flaming pyre, and his spirit joined the ancestors.

    Celebrating the sun.

    The winter solstice may have been a time for rituals at Stonehenge and Durrington Walls.

    CREDIT: ROB WHITWORTH/ALAMY

    This scenario is imaginary, but it's also completely consistent with new studies of the monuments and the animal teeth and bones buried among them. The findings are finally bringing Stonehenge, the most dramatic expression of the megalith movement that swept the British Isles 5000 years ago (see main story), out of the realm of mystery, and they are confirming new ideas about its ritual purpose. "It's nice to think that what started out as a theory turned into fact," says archaeologist Michael Parker Pearson of University College London (UCL), who has led digs around Stonehenge.

    Celebrated circle.

    Henge monuments like Stonehenge include a circular earthen bank and ditch, with the great standing stones in the middle.

    CREDIT: ADAM STANFORD/AERIAL-CAM LTD

    The new data support Parker Pearson's picture of Stonehenge as the place of the dead, and Durrington Walls as the place of the living. At Stonehenge, archaeologists have found more than 60 cremation burials, for example, but few animal bones or residences. At Durrington Walls, they have recovered more than 80,000 pig and cattle bones, but only three fragments of human remains. Stonehenge and Durrington Walls "were exactly the opposite," Parker Pearson says.

    The two monuments, 3 kilometers apart as the crow flies, were built about the same time, 4600 years ago, according to dates on a pig bone and antler pick, first reported in 2008 (Science, 27 June 2008, p. 1704). Researchers also discovered a short earthen roadway from Durrington Walls to the Avon, resembling Stonehenge's longer avenue to the river and showing that both monuments were connected to the river and so to each other. The life versus death model "holds up very well," says Joshua Pollard, an archaeologist at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom.

    The rituals at the monuments were sometimes accompanied by great feasts, possibly around the winter solstices. (Stonehenge is aligned to the winter and summer solstices.) Zooarchaeologists can estimate when a pig was killed by the amount of wear on its teeth, and unpublished results show that most were killed in winter, says zooarchaeologist Umberto Albarella of the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom.

    Right next to Durrington Walls, excavators have found a village with a population that might have been in the thousands, with houses built in a style—including the placement of the beds and a central dresser—that apparently originated in far-off Orkney. Parker Pearson and others are confident that the people who lived there helped build the monuments, and the huge number of animal remains suggests that whoever was in charge of the vast project had to keep them well-fed. Other researchers have found that pottery from the village—manufactured in the Grooved Ware style first seen in Orkney—held rich traces of both dairy products and pig fat.

    New evidence also supports the idea that Durrington Walls and Stonehenge served the ritual needs of a widespread population. Albarella and his Sheffield colleague Sarah Viner analyzed strontium isotope ratios in cattle teeth from the site, which vary in different geological landscapes and so can indicate where animals were raised. They found that fewer than 20 of nearly 70 tested teeth came from the chalklands around Stonehenge; the rest came from elsewhere in England and Wales. A more precise analysis using ratios of oxygen isotopes, which can reveal the location of the water the cattle drank, suggested that many came from Wales and Scotland. "Cattle will not have traveled alone," Albarella says. "There was a gathering of people coming from many different regions, thus supporting the view of the site as potentially ceremonial." The one human tooth found at Durrington Walls also originated far from the site, although the team can't pinpoint just where.

    These results have sparked hypotheses that far-flung hierarchies and social stratification might have been the driving forces behind the monuments. "The burials at Stonehenge might reflect some kind of royal dynasty, and Stonehenge [itself] reflect some kind of political unification," says archaeologist Alasdair Whittle of Cardiff University in the United Kingdom.

    Stonehenge and Durrington Walls might have been a unifying center for all of prehistoric Britain, or at least its southern half, Parker Pearson says. That might explain why Stonehenge's bluestones—so named because the dolerite and rhyolite blocks take on a slight blue sheen when wet—were either dragged, transported on boats, or both, all the way from the Preseli Hills in Wales. Geologists Richard Bevins of the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff and Rob Ixer, now at UCL, put bluestone samples under the microscope and were able to tie them to a handful of outcrops in the hills' northern slopes. The rhyolite bluestones came from a Preseli outcrop called Craig Rhos-yfelin, the pair suggested last year. Most of the dolerite bluestones came from another outcrop called Carn Goedog, the researchers report in a paper in press in the Journal of Archaeological Science and published online in November. There, bluestone pillars cling to a hillside, ripe for quarrying.

    Parker Pearson and his colleagues are now excavating in the Preselis, looking for the very quarries where the bluestones began their journeys to Stonehenge, some 225 kilometers away. They conclude that the prehistoric people of Wales knew about far-off Stonehenge, and its rituals for the living, and for the dead.

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