Researchers from RMIT University and The University of Western Australia have put forward a new theory for the origins of the hobbit-like fossils found on the Indonesian island of Flores, suggesting their primitive features are the result of environmental nutritional deficiency.
Dr Peter Obendorf and Dr Ben Kefford, from RMIT's School of Applied Science, worked with The University of Western Australia's Emeritus Professor Charles Oxnard on the theory for a paper to be published in the prestigious 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 is the result of severe iodine deficiency in pregnancy in combination with a number of other environmental factors," Dr Obendorf said.
"Dwarf cretins grow not much more than one metre and their bones have distinctive characteristics very similar to those of the Flores hobbits. Our research suggests these fossils are not a new species but rather the remains of human hunter-gatherers that suffered from this condition."
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."
The paper will be published online on March 5.
Janine MacDonald (UWA Public Affairs) 61 8 6488 5563 / 0432 637 716
Gosia Kaszubska (RMIT University Media and Communications) 61 3 9925 3176
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