30 October 2019

Is time on our side?

“The palaeontology research group in Maastricht? Hasn’t that been around for centuries?” If José Joordens and Leon Claessens have anything to say about it, in a decade’s time a comment like this will not be out of place. Where could be better for a flourishing department focused on ancient traces, from dodos and dinosaurs to the origins of human life, than Maastricht, the place where Neanderthals lived and a Mosasaurus seems to be unearthed every second day? The professors staked out their ground at the recent Opening of the Academic Year, which focused on gravitational waves and the origins of the universe.

joordens en claessens

Joordens followed in his footsteps, literally and figuratively, with a Nature publication in 2014 focusing on a shell that Dubois dug up on Java. After extensive research, she concluded that the inscription on the shell must have been made by homo erectus. This sensational finding did away with the prevailing idea that ‘we’ began to draw 75,000 years ago: another human species could already do so some half a million years ago. Claessens’s research triggered a similar paradigm shift. The dodo died out in the 17th century and only one complete skeleton remains. Focusing on this skeleton, Claessens led the international study that changed longstanding views about the dodo. Far from being slow, fat and stupid, the bird was clever and well-adapted.

The case of the dodo

Claessens is still conducting research in Mauritius, where the dodo lived before explorers laid anchor there. “I want to understand better how the dodo functioned. How was it able to grow so large? What caused it to die out so quickly after the Dutch settled the island?” In his view, the dodo is a case study that could tell us something about animal species threatened with extinction today. “It’s easy to think that palaeontology is only about old things, but actually it offers a view of the future.” He compares it to the study of political science: “Without knowledge of the past and the context, you’re blind if you try to extrapolate.”

Joordens recognises the sentiment. “We’re all still full of the traces of evolution, both physically and mentally. If we understand what happened in our past, we’re better able to deal with the future. This is why I’m also keen to collaborate with the Maastricht medical faculty. Many medical problems stem from the fact that we no longer exercise, eat and live as it was once intended.”

View to the future

Speaking of the future: how do palaeontologists view the current climate crisis? “Change is normal, as is extinction”, Claessens says. “Things are moving quickly at the moment, but I don’t lie awake at night thinking about it, because that’s not helpful. I prefer to do my research and gain new insights that way.” “The extinction of humanity is a very realistic prospect for me”, says Joordens cheerfully. Claessens: “Evolution is not like an iPhone, which is supposedly continually improving. Dumb luck also plays a big role.” Joordens: “Exactly! The dinosaur was a successful animal, but one day a comet comes rocketing out of the skies. That puts an end to the dinosaurs and makes way for other species. That’s Earth. It’s not obvious that we as a species are so great that we can solve every problem. Maybe. But you have to place yourself in the broader historical picture.”

By: Femke Kools (text), Arjen Schmitz (photography)