Mark Hans had never been inside a cave before, let alone one that had been sealed for more than 20,000 years. That all changed when the 58-year-old chair of Case Western Reserve University's orthodontics department first descended into the cavern under the mountainous village of Manot, Israel, last December. Inside, he found water dripping from mineral formations and an ancient fire pit filled with animal bones.
"It was hard to breath," Hans recalls. "My impression was, It's way bigger than I thought. I mean the thing is huge. It's about 30 meters high."
The cave had been unearthed by accident during a construction project in 2008, and the first workman to enter found a human skull lying on the ground inside.
Through Hans' friend and fellow professor Bruce Latimer, the Case School of Dental Medicine landed a partnership with Tel Aviv University to give Case dental and anthropology students an archaeological experience each summer over the next 10 years at the largest prehistoric cave ever discovered in Israel.
Hans and Latimer believe the cave could include the remains of both Neanderthals and early Homo sapiens. They hope their findings will contribute to their department's extensive work in human evolution and its connection to modern dental problems, such as crooked teeth, tooth decay and gum disease.
"The fossil record is so spotty that the more we can fill it in, the better we might understand that," Hans says. "Dentists and scientists are interested in things besides cavities and teeth. [We're] also interested in evolutionary biology and anatomy. They have a clinical significance. We're just naturally curious scientists."
Eight Case students, Hans, Latimer and other faculty began a three-week trip to the excavation site on July 8 to dig for fossils at the nearly untouched cave. Latimer, an experienced field anthropologist who worked on the groundbreaking Lucy fossils in the 1970s, says the students could be on-hand during a monumental discovery.
"I've never seen a site that has as much potential as this, because it's been sealed," he says. "We already have a human skull that was sitting on the ground. So this is a really exciting project."