Leading an archaeological dig in a northern Israeli cave, researchers from Case Western Reserve University School of Dental Medicine have unearthed clues about early man’s lifestyle in an important area along the transcontinental path from Africa to Eurasia.
Researchers found teeth from an adult, a 10-year-old child and an infant that provide information about how human teeth have evolved over tens of thousands of years. Also uncovered were several foot bones and a portion of a human breastbone called the manubrium.
They also found thousands of bones that reveal that the mainstay diet for northern Israeli cave dwellers from 20,000 to 200,000 years ago was deer and gazelle. In addition, they discovered hundreds of near-pristine stone tools.
The dental school teamed with the University of Tel Aviv, Ben Gurion University and the Israeli Antiquity Authority to excavate the seven-story, terraced cave that stretches about 450 feet on a hillside in Manot, Israel.
The cave’s existence was unknown until its roof collapsed during a construction project in 2008. This summer was the dental school’s second trip to the site to dig for evidence of early humans.
What’s special about the site, said Dean Jerold Goldberg, is that, to his knowledge, the School of Dental Medicine is now the only dental school to have a field research cave to explore early man’s teeth.
Mark Hans and Bruce Latimer, from the Department of Orthodontics at the dental school, led this summer’s expedition. Field supervisors for the dig are J. Martin Palomo, program director in Department of Orthodontics, and Leena Palomo, associate professor in the Department of Periodontics.
Bones tell much about the cave dwellers’ hunting and gathering lifestyle, but potential DNA from the teeth may provide additional information about the cave dwellers’ ancestry.
A dental analysis of the teeth will take place at the dental school once Israel releases the teeth for study in the U.S., Hans said.
In particular, researchers plan to compare the genetic material in the teeth to that recently found in European Neanderthals. As much as 4 percent of modern Europeans’ DNA is associated with Neanderthals indicating that interbreeding occurred between the two groups—perhaps in this area of Israel where Neanderthals and modern humans coexisted, according to Latimer.
“We found remains of animals that are locally extinct in Manot,” said Yvonne McDermott, a biology graduate student in paleoanthropology and human origins, who received the Eva La Pancoast Memorial Fellowship for travel expenses. “We can extrapolate what the environment of Manot was like in the past.”
The cave, sealed by a rock fall for around 20,000 years, protected the tools and bones from deterioration, said Latimer, a paleoanthropologist who has worked on many digs for early human fossils and teaches anatomy at the dental school.
The archaeological dig will continue next year July 6-17. Students, faculty and staff interested in participating should contact Hans (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Latimer (email@example.com) for details on how to apply.