CWRU Researchers Join Excavation in Israel To Study Early Human Craniofacial Development

News Release: March 17, 2011

Case Western Reserve University dental students and researchers will travel this coming summer to Israel to make a house call on their oldest patient yet— ancestors who lived between 300,000 and 20,000 BP.

All that remains is the skull, considered one of the most complete fossils of an early human skull from Israel.

Researchers, along with six Case Western Reserve University students, will search for additional remains in a cave that opened its ceiling in 2008 after being sealed for 20,000 years. The cave is below a foundation being excavated in Manot, Israel, in the western Galilee area.

“It turned out to be a treasure chest of the skull, stone tools and animal bones. They were scattered on the surface of the cave floor,” said Bruce Latimer, director of Case Western Reserve University’s Center for Human Origins and Department of Anthropology. He is collaborating with Israel Hershkovitz from the University of Tel Aviv’s anatomy department.

It’s unusual for dental researchers to join excavation teams, but Latimer is interested in learning how the head evolved. Clues gathered in the field will shed light on the lifestyle of this hominid and offer an opportunity to study human craniofacial formation, said Mark Hans, chair of the department of orthodontics at the Case Western Reserve.

Hans will travel to the site in September and examine the craniofacial formation of the skull, comparing differences between modern man and this early ancestor. Hans is particularly interested in analyzing the skull’s chin for information about how it developed.

Two theories exist: first, that as the teeth recessed, the chin became more prominent; second, that the chin is its own entity and evolved over time.

Researchers also will focus on how gender has influenced chin development and will look into whether a more prominent chin leads to identifying these remains as a male or a smaller chin of a female.

Fossils and other artifacts from the site will be photographed, x-rayed and, in some cases, cast so that researchers will have something to take with them to continue their studies.

“What is important about this cave is that it has been closed for 20,000 years,” Latimer said.

One task will be to open the entrance now closed by stalagmites and stalactites. Currently researchers have to rappel through the cave’s ceiling to gather to conduct their work.

This site offers an important glimpse at life during the Upper and Middle Paleolithic eras. It was an important “bus stop” during the second major migration of hominids out of Africa to northern areas. It was also a site where Neanderthals periodically migrated to warmer southern areas when northern climates cooled.

CWRU Researchers Join Excavation in Israel To Study Early Human Craniofacial Development

Posted by: Susan Griffith, March 17, 2011 12:10 PM | News Topics: Official Release