RMIT University researchers have joined the worldwide debate over the hobbit-like fossils found on the Indonesian island of Flores, with a controversial new theory suggesting their primitive features are the result of a medical condition.
Dr Peter Obendorf and Dr Ben Kefford, from the School of Applied Sciences, worked with the University of Western Australia’s Emeritus Professor Charles Oxnard on a paper just published in the British journal, Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.
The small human-like fossils were said to represent a primitive species completely new to science when they were discovered in 2004.
But Dr Obendorf said comparisons of the fossils with modern bones suggested that they were actually human, with their small stature and distinctive features the result of a condition related to severe iodine deficiency.
“Dwarf cretinism can cause features very similar to those of the Flores hobbits,” the Senior Lecturer said.
“This extreme form of cretinism is the result of severe iodine deficiency in pregnancy in combination with a number of other environmental factors, such as eating foods that release cyanide into the body and increase serum thiocyanate.
“Dwarf cretins grow to not much more than one metre and their bones have distinctive characteristics.
“Our research suggests these fossils are not a new species but rather the remains of human hunter-gatherers that suffered from this condition.”
Dr Obendorf began working with Professor Oxnard soon after an Australasian Society for Human Biology conference, where the RMIT researcher noticed a similarity between illustrations of the Flores fossils and historic pictures of cretins. Dr Kefford joined the project a year later, contributing his ability to undertake multivariate analyses.
Cretinism has been largely wiped out from the western world through the addition of iodine to food but still occurs in developing countries where environmental factors result in populations suffering from substantial iodine deficiency.
Professor Oxnard said most people who had studied the Flores fossils were looking at genetics and heredity to account for their distinctive features.
“Almost all the people who have looked at these fossils have been coming from an evolutionary perspective,” he said.
“Our idea is that this was an environmentally caused problem.”
Dr Obendorf said the theory corresponded with the Flores islanders’ oral tradition, which includes stories of “little people” whose features were remarkably similar to those of dwarf cretins.
“Some of the traditional stories of the local people may be an ancient memory of an otherwise forgotten time, when cretins were a common part of the human population on Flores,” he said.
The paper, “Are the small human-like fossils found on Flores human endemic cretins?” was published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. http://journals.royalsociety.org/content/jl77276376781n87/
Cite This Page: