The hobbit-like creatures discovered on the Indonesian island for Flores in 2003 have caused yet another scientific ruckus, this time over a claim they were modern people with an iodine deficiency.
The startling suggestion that the creature, named Homo floresiensis, was not a previously unkown species of early human as most scientists now believe comes from Australian researchers led by human ecologist Peter Obendorf of RMIT University in Melbourne.
Writing Wednesday in the British journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Obendorf and his colleagues argue the hobbit's short stature and primitive anatomical features can be explained as dwarf cretinism caused by the dietary deficit.
Aware that the idea will be widely dismissed, Obendorf said he hoped researchers would keep an open mind: "Nobody has previously considered dwarf cretinism, so it's time that they did."
The notion's been ignored for good reason, said evolutionary anatomist and paleoanthropolgist William Jungers of the State University of New York at Stony Brook.
"The cretin and hobbit [body types] exhibit virtually no similarities except for short stature. That is, they're both short. End of story," said Jungers, who has studied the hobbit remains firsthand.
"The only merit to this paper is their correct dismissal of a competing 'pathology du jour' called Laron Syndrome (which causes skeletal deformities). The rest is a rather large and stinky pile of misinformation and wild speculation," he claimed.
Undaunted, Obendorf stood by his conclusion, countering that critics like Jungers had "misinterpreted" the fossil data.
Not so, replied Sydney University forensic archeologist Richard Wright.
In 2006 he and colleagues compared skeletons of the hobbit, modern pygmies, people with a deformity called microcephaly and several types of pre-humans, including Australopithecus, Paranthropus and Homo erectus.
"I was unable to distinguish [the hobbit] from a Homo erectus," he said, adding that Dr Obendorf's group ignored the published findings. "Why did they omit this?"
According to the Australian leader of the hobbit discovery team, University of Wollongong archaeologist Mike Morwood, the cretin idea makes no sense as modern people first arrived in the region 50,000 years ago, at the earliest.
"We have the remains of at least 12 [hobbits] spanning 95,000 to 12,000 years. The 95,000 arrival is too early for modern humans, normal or pathological," he said.
A final kick came from biological anthropologist Colin Groves of the Canberra's Australian National University: "I recall spending an hour or so in the pub with Peter Obendorf about three years ago when he confided to me about this latest bee in his bonnet."
"As fast as he produced supposed similarities I put stumbling blocks in his way. I warned him that he would simply be laughed to scorn if he produce what is mainly idle speculation," Groves claimed.