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Last Updated: Wednesday, 5 March 2008, 10:48 GMT
New twist in Hobbit-human debate
Cave where remains were found (Science Photo Library)
The 18,000-year-old remains were found in this cave
The row over the origins of "Hobbit" fossils found on the Indonesian island of Flores has taken a new twist.

An Australian team claims the little people were not a new human species, but modern humans with a form of dwarfism caused by poor nutrition.

In 2004, international researchers announced the discovery of the ancient remains in the Liang Bua Cave.

There has been debate since then over whether the bones are from diseased humans or a new human "cousin".

The latest theory, published in the scientific journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, claims the Hobbits were true humans, but did not grow to normal size because of environmental factors.

The conclusions in this paper are not supported by the facts
Professor Peter Brown

Dr Peter Obendorf from the School of Applied Science at RMIT University, Melbourne, and colleagues, believe the little people developed a dwarfism condition because of severe nutritional deficiencies.

Environmental link

Severe iodine deficiency in pregnancy can cause people to grow little more than a metre tall with bone characteristics very similar to those of the Flores hobbits, said Dr Obendorf.

Hobbit fossil (PA)
The hobbit skull (left) compared with a modern human

He added: "Our research suggests that these fossils are not a new species but rather the remains of human hunter-gatherers that suffered from this condition."

They came to this conclusion after studying images of skulls of the Flores fossils. Anatomical features were compared with museum specimens of humans suffering from a condition known as congenital hypothyroidism. The Australian group did not examine the original fossils.

The hypothesis has been described as "sheer speculation" by some experts, including Professor Peter Brown of the University of New England in Armidale, Australia, one of the original members of the team that discovered the remains.

"The conclusions in this paper are not supported by the facts," he said. "The authors have not examined the original fossil, have little and no experience with fossil hominids and depend upon data obtained by others."

Genetic clue

Dr Jeremy Austin, deputy director of the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA at Adelaide University, said genetic data might provide the "casting vote" in the debate.

It would clarify the evolutionary relationship between the Hobbit (Homo floresiensis) and modern humans, he said.

Genetic data has not been forthcoming so far, he admitted, mainly due to poor preservation of the Liang Bua material and extensive contamination by modern human DNA of material recovered from the site.

"Collection of fresh, better preserved, Hobbit remains using strict anti-contamination measures currently is the best hope for testing the status of Homo floresiensis using genetic data," said Dr Austin.

The little people were nicknamed Hobbits after the fictional creatures in the writings of JRR Tolkien.

They were about a metre tall, with a brain about the size of a chimpanzee's.



SEE ALSO
'Hobbit' human 'is a new species'
29 Jan 07 |  Science/Nature
New twist in 'hobbit' human story
31 May 06 |  Science/Nature
'Hobbit' wrists 'were primitive'
20 Sep 07 |  Science/Nature

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