"Hobbit" Humans Were Diseased Cretins, Study Suggests

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Several scientists called the paper an unsuccessful attempt to explain away the hobbit with yet another disease and pointed out features they believe uphold the unique-species designation.

One of these scientists is Matthew Tocheri, an anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

"New hypotheses of hobbit pathology arise every week, and they will continue to disappear just as quickly afterward," he commented via email.

Tocheri said his data published last year in Science refutes the claim put forth by Obendorf's team that a particular hobbit wrist bone called the trapezoid is actually separated into pieces.

Obendorf's team speculates this type of separation may be associated with cretinism and that a piece of the trapezoid is missing in the hobbit.

Tocheri said the bone lines up too well with other wrist bones to be missing a piece, and he added that it resembles those of chimpanzees and gorillas.

No documented evidence of this feature's association with cretinism exists, he noted.

Dean Falk, an anthropologist at Florida State University, has a bone to pick with the team's measurement of an indentation on the skull where the pituitary gland fits.

Cretinism leads to the enlargement of this gland.

"We think the thing the whole paper rests on is the claim about having a large pituitary and therefore the cradle it sits in, the pituitary fossa," she said.

Obendorf's team measured this indentation based on a 2-D picture of a 3-D skull reconstruction created by Falk's team and found it is 0.5 inch (12.9 millimeters) long.

Falk and colleagues measured the fossa in their 3-D reconstruction and found it is only 0.35 inch (9 millimeters) long and likely shorter.

Even if this latter measurement is correct, however, Obendorf said their measurement "doesn't blow us out of the water. What it means is this particular point of evidence is not as strong."

Sick and Abandoned

Falk's colleagues Charles Hildebolt and Kirk Smith at the Mallinckrodt Institute of Radiology in St. Louis, Missouri, also took issue with other interpretations of the skull and teeth.

Hildebolt suggested that defending the new-species designation comes with the territory.

"Any new fossil find such as this historically is met with skepticism," he said.

Obendorf argues that the new-species hypothesis has been weak from the beginning.

For one, he said, small-bodied modern humans were on the nearby island of Timor at least 42,000 years ago and made stone tools similar to those associated with the hobbits.

(See a National Geographic magazine feature: "Flores Find: The People That Time Forgot.")

More detailed studies of features such as wrist and teeth bones, he said, support the suggestion the hobbit was a diseased modern human.

From his perspective, that disease was cretinism. A malnourished 30-year-old cretin, he said, would become burdensome to a hunter-gatherer society on Flores.

"At some stage they would either be left in some suitable environment or just become estranged and find themselves left alone dying in a cave," he said.

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