for National Geographic News
The fossils of hobbit-like humans discovered on the Indonesian island of Flores in 2003 may have been severely malnourished modern humans, a controversial new study suggests.
The hypothesis is the latest in a string of diseases proposed to explain the small-bodied fossils.
The scientists who originally discovered the remains hailed them as representing a heretofore unknown species, Homo floresiensis, that lived at the same time as modern humans 18,000 years ago.
Since then researchers have squared off against each other, poring over skeletal traits, regional histories, and the medical literature to argue for or against the unique-species designation.
Peter Obendorf of RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, decided to enter the fray after noticing the hobbits looked similar to people with a disorder of the thyroid gland called cretinism.
Cretinism can cause dwarfing and mental retardation, and is related to nutritional deficiencies, primarily a lack of iodine.
"Very quickly I found there were some quite surprising similarities between the dwarf cretins and these little people of Flores," Obendorf said.
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Among the key similarities are a particular type of arrested bone growth that leads to shorter but thicker bones, a twisting of the arm bone, and certain features in the wrist and skull.
The findings are based on a comparison of images and descriptions of the Flores remains with previously published data on dwarf cretins.
Obendorf and colleagues Charles Oxnard from the University of Western Australia and Ben Kefford at RMIT University did not study the original hobbit fossils.
Their analysis was published Wednesday in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.
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