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Dentists dig for clues into human evolution

Thousands of miles from home and 90 feet underground, Case Western Reserve University dental students and faculty are traveling through the past to learn how evolution ties to today’s maladies of the mouth.

58,000-year-old partial skull

Working with peers at the University of Tel Aviv, researchers have turned a subterranean cave in Israel into an archeological exploration rich with insight on human evolution and the connection between bone structure and health conditions.

“Hidden below the ground’s surface in this Israeli cave are hundreds of thousands of years of remains,” says anthropologist Bruce Latimer, PhD, “that can provide valuable insights into the development of the human face and teeth.”

The cave is beneath the northern Israeli city of Manot, near the Lebanese border. First discovered in 2008, the site includes skeletal remains, including a 58,000-year-old partial skull, along with tools and other revelatory debris reaching back up to 200,000 years.

“Throughout the cave lie hint after hint about how the Neanderthals lived, and about their dramatically different facial and dental structures compared to modern humans,” says Mark Hans, DDS, chair of the dental school’s orthodontics program, who also has participated in the excavation. Hans says modern people have a more vertical face, in contrast with the early humans’ jaws, which protruded farther forward.

A person’s craniofacial structure has health implications, Hans explains, as it fundamentally influences our lives, down to how we eat and breathe. It also has implications for the interrupted breathing in sleep apnea and obstruction that causes choking.

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