Canberra, April 21 : The discovery of a root canal in the remains of a 'hobbit', a tiny prehistoric human, has fuelled speculations among scientists that the skeleton might not have represented an 18,000-year-old new species, but was just a modern human with a growth disorder.
The 'hobbits' have been named after the diminutive characters of famous author J.R.R.Tolkein's epic saga "Lord of the Rings".
Most paleoanthropologists believe that the hobbit belongs to a new species of human, Homo floresiensis.
But now comes word that the specimen used to define the species - a largely complete female skeleton known as LB1 - appears to have had some dental work.
If so, it would mean that, rather than being an 18,000-year-old representative of a new species, the hobbit was just a modern human with a growth disorder that left it with a brain the size of a grapefruit, among other odd traits, which is what critics have argued all along.
Maciej Henneberg, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Adelaide in Australia contends on the basis of photographs that LB1 had a filling, and possibly a root canal, in its lower left first molar (technically known as the M1).
He believes the tooth was drilled and the cavity filled with a kind of dental cement that was used by Indonesian dentists in the 1930s.
Henneberg pointed out the color of the alleged filling, which differed from that of the enamel. He also noted that the putative filling appeared to be more worn than the surrounding enamel.
But, some experts have refuted Henneberg's claim.
According to Peter Brown of the University of New England in Armidale, Australia, who led the initial analysis of LB1, said that his own photograph of the occlusal (chewing) surface shows there is no filling.
"There are no dental materials or dentists who can color match and hide a cavity in a molar to the degree that would be necessary," he said.
Brown has also examined CT (computed tomography) scans of LB1's teeth, which reveal normal, bifurcating roots in the M1.
"The CT scans, when combined with the detailed occlusal view, totally refute Henneberg's claim," he asserted.