A group of Oz researchers has thrown its hat into the Flores "Hobbit" ring by claiming the diminutive inhabitants of the Indonesian island were not a new species at all but rather "cretin offspring of normal mothers".
The first Hobbit skeleton, dating back 15,000 to 18,000 years, turned up in a cave back in 2003. Its discovery provoked a lively debate as to whether it was nothing more than a dwarf human or the hitherto unknown Homo Floresiensis - a descendant of Homo erectus which shrank due to the natural process of "island dwarfing".
New species sceptics suggested the individual - a female dubbed LB1 - may have been a human suffering from microencephaly. Early in 2007, backers of Homo Floresiensis retaliated by presenting a CT scan of LB1's brain cavity, showing she did "did not have the characteristic traits of a microcephalic human".
In September 2007, detailed analysis of the wrist bones of LB1's skeleton showed they were "not quite the same as those of modern humans, and share some characteristics with older human species, and the great apes", something which backed the Homo Floresiensis theory.
However, scientists at the School of Applied Sciences at RMIT University in Melbourne have now claimed LB1 actually suffered cretinism - a condition of "severely stunted physical and mental growth due to a congenital deficiency of thyroid hormones" - provoked by her mother's "iodine and other dietary deficiencies".
The school's Peter Obendorf told Reuters: "We believe they were homo sapiens but with this disorder. The mothers would be iodine and selenium deficient and would be exposed to certain plant food that would release cyanide into the body."
Obendorf noted that LB1's community lived inland, and were therefore deprived of seafood - a good source of iodine. It probably subsisted on bamboo shoots and tubers, which "could have released cyanide into their bodies given the primitive cooking methods they were using".
Obendorf added: "We think the population was normal, but many of the women had goiter. In the middle of a drought, some were forced to eat unsuitable food ... and they had cretin children."
The researchers, whose findings are published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, conclude by noting that "certain structures of the fossils, such as the arm bone, matched descriptions contained in medical literature of cretin skeletons found in Europe, especially Germany and Switzerland".
Obendorf rested his case with: "The dwarf cretins in Europe have just the same structural rotation of the arm bone." ®