News of the week: Yet another Hobbit tale

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This week’s been abuzz with another Hobbit story again, this time saying that the diminutive bones belong to malnourished humans rather than a new species. The paper, written by two Australian researchers in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, B: Biological Sciences, posits a new theory that the hobbits were sufferers of dwarf cretinism.

photo credit: Rosino

Are the small human-like fossils found on Flores human endemic cretins?
Peter J. Obendorf, Charles E. Oxnard, Ben J. Kefford

Fossils from Liang Bua (LB) on Flores, Indonesia, including a nearly complete skeleton (LB1) dated to 18kyr BP, were assigned to a new species, Homo floresiensis. We hypothesize that these individuals are myxoedematous endemic (ME) cretins, part of an inland population of (mostly unaffected) Homo sapiens. ME cretins are born without a functioning thyroid; their congenital hypothyroidism leads to severe dwarfism and reduced brain size, but less severe mental retardation and motor disability than neurological endemic cretins. 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. We find that the null hypothesis (that LB1 is not a cretin) is rejected by the pituitary fossa size of LB1, and by multivariate analyses of cranial measures. We show that critical environmental factors were potentially present on Flores, how remains of cretins but not of unaffected individuals could be preserved in caves, and that extant oral traditions may provide a record of cretinism.

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