Science-- there's something for everyone

Monday, October 11, 2010

Hobbits in the family, take two

Hobbits, or more accurately, members of the species Homo floresiensis, are a group of small hominids that lived on the Indonesian island of Flores some 20,000 years ago. Because these creatures lived at the same time as modern humans, and over 20,000 years after the Neanderthals disappeared, there has been a great deal of controversy about what exactly they were. Were they oddly shaped modern humans, or were they a completely different species? About a year ago, I wrote that the problem had been solved, and that hobbits were in fact a separate species of hominid.

Not so fast, says Charles Oxnard of the University of Western Australia. According to his new paper, hobbits were modern humans after all. They were just suffering from a form of cretinism (a term that’s a bit hard to believe still exists in the medical literature) caused by iodine insufficiency. Hypothyroid cretinism does affect modern humans living in that region today, making it not unlikely that humans living 20,000 years ago could have suffered from a similar lack of iodine.

I don’t doubt that this new data will be carefully scrutinized and that new theories will emerge before the controversy is put to rest. And so, science marches on.

Homo floresiensis skull

Credit: Ryan Somma.