HONG KONG Small human-like skeletons found in a cave on a remote Indonesian island were actually human and their miniature features probably due to nutritional deficiency, some researchers in Australia say.
Writing in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, the scientists said these were more likely to be cretin offspring of normal mothers who suffered from iodine and other dietary deficiencies.
Cretinism is a condition of severely stunted physical and mental growth due to a congenital deficiency of thyroid hormones.
"We believe they were homo sapiens but with this disorder ... cretins born without the thyroid gland," said Peter Obendorf of the School of Applied Sciences at RMIT University in Melbourne.
"The mothers would be iodine and selenium deficient and would be exposed to certain plant food that would release cyanide into the body," he said in a telephone interview.
Obendorf said the fossils were found inland, where their communities were cut off from seafood, a key source of iodine.
They probably relied on bamboo shoots and certain tubers, which could have released cyanide into their bodies given the primitive cooking methods they were using.
These plants are still found in forests in Flores.
"When there's a drought, people utilize them. In modern times, they are cooked better," he said.
In recent years, other groups of scientists have put forward their hypotheses regarding these fossils, discovered in 2004 in Liang Bua on Flores island. The remains are estimated to date back some 15,000 to 18,000 years ago.
Some said they probably were 3-feet tall and had brains roughly the size of grapefruits when they were alive, and classified them as new species of human "Homo floresciensis".
But Obendorf and his colleagues believe they were cretin offspring of normal parents.
"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," Obendorf said.
The researchers said 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.
"The dwarf cretins in Europe have just the same structural rotation of the arm bone," Obendorf said.
(Reporting by Tan Ee Lyn; Editing by Jerry Norton)