Maastricht University students step back in time to explore the letters of Eugène Dubois

Eugène Dubois

Within the history of discovering evolution, there are a few names that stand out: Charles Darwin, Thomas Huxley, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck or Ernst Mayr. However, few are aware of a local scientist who ultimately provided the first evidence of the evolutionary transition from apes to humans. Eugène Dubois (1858 – 1940), born and raised in Eijsden, Limburg, was a paleoanthropologist and geologist who spent time in Indonesia (the former Dutch East Indies) studying and excavating human bones.

In November 2021, four students of Maastricht University were selected to participate in an exclusive masterclass at the Maastricht Science Programme. Led by Goldschmidt, the students were given the opportunity to study the letters of Dubois. Previously contained within the sealed archives of Naturalis, these private letters Dubois wrote to his scientific colleagues described his excavations and discoveries. Within this masterclass, Goldschmidt and his students discussed a number of topics, including human and animal evolution, tropical ecology, climate change and even the impact of alien species on an ecosystem.
Tijs Goldschmidt

Following the discussions, the students were invited to write a letter addressed to Goldschmidt reflecting on the letters of Dubois. Described as an “eye-opening workshop”, the students were given the opportunity to explore a now dying skill of letter writing whilst furthering their knowledge of Dubois and his works. Goldschmidt, a “natural storyteller”, created a comfortable environment for the students to express their opinions freely. He even responded to each students’ letter with his input and comments, a truly fitting format for providing feedback.


Vincent Bijman, a PhD candidate at FASoS whose research focuses on the history of endangered species, explained how the masterclass allowed him to step out of the traditional academic way of writing and encouraged a more creative approach. Bijman hopes to incorporate this new skill into his future academic writing. Eva (FASoS) enjoyed the engaging interdisciplinary approach of the class. This was concurred by Anna (UCM), as she frequently likes to “walk the line” between the various disciplines at the University College Maastricht and felt the masterclass allowed for a mix of the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences in a new format. David (MSP), who grew up in Maastricht, had not heard of Dubois before the class. Therefore, he enjoyed learning about a local celebrity of sorts. He also explained how he discussed the life and works of this local scientist with his friends and parents, who had not previously shown much interest in his studies in Physics and Mathematics at university. Similarly, Eva explained how she loved repeating the stories of Dubois to her father, who has a keen interest in palaeontology and anthropology.

Following the class, the students were presented with a certificate to mark their course completion. Much to the students’ excitement, their letters and an essay from Goldschmidt will be compiled into a book.

Special thanks from Tijs Goldschmidt:

  • to Jose Joordens for suggesting the use of  Dubois’ letters.
  • to Paul Albers, who meticulously transcribed Dubois’ letters, for providing access to the unpublished letters.

Source: Maastricht University website.

Photos: Sueli Brodin, Eugène Dubois Foundation