March 5, 2008

New Study Reopens Debate on ‘Hobbit’ Fossils

A recent study is bringing new perspective to the debate over whether miniature bone fossils found in the Liang Bua Cave belonged to a new human species or not.

In the study, published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, researchers hypothesized that the bones found on Flores, Indonesia belonged to myxoedematous endemic cretins who were born with a type of dwarfism.

"Our research suggests that these fossils are not a new species but rather the remains of human hunter-gatherers that suffered from this condition," Dr Peter Obendorf from the School of Applied Science at RMIT University, Melbourne said.

They noted that most of the inland population was unaffected by the disease.

The team compared the skulls of the Flores fossils with museum owned skulls of humans that suffered from congenital hypothyroidism.

"We show that the fossils display many signs of congenital hypothyroidism, including enlarged pituitary fossa, and that distinctive primitive features of LB1 such as the double rooted lower premolar and the primitive wrist morphology are consistent with the hypothesis," researchers wrote.

They claim that environmental factors led to nutritional deficiencies in some humans which kept them from growing to a normal size.

Professor Peter Brown of the University of New England in Armidale, Australia was one of the original members of the team that discovered the remains. He said he is skeptical about the claims made in the study.

"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."

Dr Jeremy Austin, deputy director of the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA at Adelaide University, said the results could potentially explain the evolutionary relationship between the Hobbit (Homo floresiensis) and modern humans.

He said conclusive evidence has been hard to find because many of the samples found in Liang Bua have been contaminated by human DNA or have not been properly conserved.

"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," he said.


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School of Applied Science at RMIT University