On his first visit to the Manot Cave dig site in northern Israel’s Western Galilee region, Mark Hans decided that the excavation offered a virtual treasure trove for evidence of humanity’s Paleolithic past. Within only an hour of digging, Hans had already unearthed several ancient tools and animal bones.
Hans, chair of Case Western Reserve University’s Orthodontics Department, has worked with more than 20 international researchers on a decade-long excavation project, led by Tel Aviv University anthropologist Israel Hershkovitz. Last week, the team published the analysis of their most intriguing find: a 55,000-year-old partial skull belonging to an adult human.
The skull presents the first fossil evidence of humanity’s hypothesized migration out of Africa in the Middle Paleolithic period. The fossil’s appearance in place and time suggests that humans could have interbred with Neanderthals 10,000 years earlier than previously thought.
“It has been suspected that modern man and Neanderthals were in the same place at the same time, but we didn’t have the physical evidence,” said physical anthropologist Bruce Latimer, one of the contributors to the study and director of CWRU’s Center for Human Origins, to The Daily. “Now we do have it in the new skull fossil.”
CWRU’s Dental School partnered with Tel Aviv University and other institutions on an excavation of the cave in 2012. Latimer and Hans contributed their expertise in characterizing the shape and morphology of the skull.
For Hans, an orthodontist, examining the skull provided a unique opportunity to learn more about evolutionary dentistry, or how modern dental problems tie to their origins in our ancestors.
“Physical anthropology is a close science to orthodontics,” said Hans. “Both [sciences] study facial shape and form.”
In addition to the skull, the Manot Cave site has yielded human teeth, a breast bone and a heel bone that belonged to other individuals. Hans hopes that as the excavation enters its sixth dig season this July, researchers will find more bones to create more complete skeletons.
Hans and Latimer lead volunteer student expeditions every July to participate in the dig. To Hans the remarkable density of material in the cave opened up the exciting possibility for the cave to provide students an opportunity to unearth their own finds.
“If students are interested in going, this is one of the few archaeological digs where you are almost guaranteed to find evidence of human activity,” Hans said.
The cave, discovered by accident in 2008 during the construction of a sewer line, has already yielded a tremendous number of artifacts. Since excavation began in 2010, finds have included numerous burnt animal bones, tools, human bones and teeth.
“The fun is in the find,” said Hans. “If you like a little bit of adventure, you might even make history.”
Hans encourages any students interested in participating in the Manot Cave dig to contact him (firstname.lastname@example.org). The trip lasts two weeks in July near a resort area on the Mediterranean coast of Northern Israel.