Jane Goodall arrived in Africa, full of dreams. Even as a child, she’d dreamed of living among wild animals and writing about them.Tarzan and Dr. Dolittle were her favorite books, and she knew she’d be a much better jungle companion for Tarzan than that other Jane. African wildlife adventures were an unlikely calling for a little girl in the 1930s and 1940s. But from the beginning, Jane’s mother, Vanne, was encouraging. “You can do whatever you set your mind to,” she said.
When Jane was 22 and working as an assistant in a London film studio, an opportunity arose. Her friend Clo sent a letter, inviting Jane to her family’s new farm in Kenya. Jane wasted no time moving back home, to Bournemouth, so she could earn money as a waitress and save up for the round-trip passage to Africa. Every night after work, she put her earnings under the carpet in the drawing room.
In 1957, she set sail. The Kenya Castle docked in Mombasa on April 2. Within weeks, Jane met Louis S. B. Leakey, famed archaeologist and paleontologist. He was taken with Jane’s energy, general knowledge and avid interest in animals. He hired her as an assistant and eventually asked Jane to undertake a study of a group of wild chimpanzees living on a lakeshore in Tanzania. He reasoned that knowledge about wild chimpanzees, who were little-understood at the time, could shed light on our evolutionary past.
In July 1960, Jane stepped onto the beach at Gombe. Her mother had traveled with her, to satisfy British authorities who didn’t want a young woman living alone in the jungle (Tanzania was “Tanganyika” at that time -- a British protectorate).
The first weeks at Gombe were frustrating for Jane. The chimpanzees were very shy and fled whenever they saw her. Jane was discouraged, but one day found a good vantage point, high on the highest peak, to observe the chimps’ comings and goings with her binoculars.
Chimps were thought to be vegetarians, but one day from her peak, Jane saw a chimpanzee, David Greybeard, feeding on a baby bush pig, sharing the flesh with a female. She would see chimpanzees hunting monkeys and other small mammals many times at Gombe.
Within two weeks of that first meat-eating, Jane saw something that excited her even more. She was hiking up to the peak when she saw a chimp through the undergrowth. It was David again, this time at a termite mound. He was using a long flexible probe to fish termites out of their nests. Jane made a rough hide of some palm fronds so she could observe the action the next time chimps came to the termite nests. Sure enough, David came back, this time with a big chimp named Goliath. Jane watched, breathless, as they stripped leaves off the stems to fashion the fishing tools. Into the holes went the probes. Out they came with termites clinging to them–tasty snacks for the two chimps. David and Goliath were making and using tools.
Up until that point, anthropologists saw tool-making as a defining trait of mankind. When Jane wrote Louis Leakey of her discovery, he replied: “Now we must redefine ‘tool,’ redefine ‘man’ or accept chimpanzees as humans.”
The distinction between man and ape was blurring. Leakey was ecstatic. He obtained further funding for Jane’s study and arranged for Jane, who had no degree, to enroll in Cambridge University as a doctoral student.
Personalities, minds and emotions
Jane worked hard to deepen her knowledge and write up her observations. Her view of the chimps – as individuals with distinct personalities, minds and emotions – did not always mesh with the views of her ethologist colleagues who understood animal behavior in a more impersonal way. But even as Jane’s professors mentored her in formal scientific methodology and helped her to lay a firm foundation for the long-term data collection at Gombe, she insisted on the validity of her observations. She also insisted on giving the chimpanzees names instead of numbers in her writings. This was unheard of at that time.
Jane traveled back and forth to Gombe and began to form a clearer image of chimp society. She saw that, unlike many primates, chimps don’t travel as a troop. They forage alone or in small parties -- a mother with her children, or 2 or 3 friendly males. Often these groups come together where food is plentiful.
Females and their young form the most basic units of chimp society. Males compete vigorously for status and for access to estrus females. Chimpanzee females in estrus flaunt pink genital swellings, and attract large numbers of males, with whom they mate promiscuously. Males assert themselves with impressive “charging displays”. He who can intimidate all others and win their submissive “pant-grunts” is known as the alpha male.
Through the years Jane would see a succession of alphas – power transfers accompanied by much drama. When Jane began her study, Goliath was alpha male. He was bold, with a fast charging display, and he had an important adult male ally, David Greybeard. But a small, low-ranking chimpanzee named Mike proved to be smarter. Mike’s displays weren’t particularly impressive until the day he incorporated an empty 5-gallon kerosene can into his act. There were always plenty of these empty cans around camp. The loud clanging terrified the other chimps. By the time Mike could kick three cans in front of him as he blasted through a group, he’d become alpha male. Even though the Gombe staff took his cans away, Mike was alpha for six years.
Jane’s observations were published in National Geographic, with captivating photos by filmmaker/photographer Hugo van Lawick, who became Jane’s first husband. As the level of support for the Gombe study increased, Jane and Hugo were able to build a permanent camp with chimp-proof buildings and to hire more researchers. The Gombe Stream Research Center was born.
“Just as awful”
As the Gombe study continued into the 1970s, events revealed the darker side of chimp nature. Jane says, “When I first started at Gombe,” Jane said, “I thought the chimps were nicer than we are. But time has revealed that they are not. They can be just as awful. ”Mike’s six-year reign as alpha male ended when the younger, larger and very aggressive Humphrey charged him and pounded on him. At about the same time, seven of the 16 community males withdrew from the central Kasakela area or the park to the southern part of their range, Kahama.
Conflict between the Kasakela chimps and the splinter group erupted and escalated over time. Figan had defeated Humphrey and won the submission of all the Kasakela males. Now he took them to “war” against Kahama. Their strategy was simple: hunt the enemy down, one at a time, attack them brutally, and leave them to die of their wounds. Within four years, they eliminated all seven Kahama males and at least one of the females.
Violent events were taking place among the Kasakela females as well. Passion, one of the high-ranking females, and her daughter, Pom, developed an abnormal taste for other females’ babies. In a 3-year span, they killed and ate between 5 and 10 newborn infants. While this was extreme, other high-ranking females have also been seen attacking new mothers and taking their infants.
While such brutality is disturbing, Jane is quick to point out that chimpanzees are also capable of altruism. For example, two infants, Mel and Darbee, each about 3 1/2 years old, were orphaned by a pneumonia epidemic. Both orphans were at first adopted by unrelated adolescent males, Spindle and Beethoven, who had themselves lost their mothers. Spindle would even share his night nest and allow Mel to ride clinging to his belly if it was rainy and cold.
Through the decades, the Gombe Stream Research Center grew. Jane and fellow researchers continued to look at chimpanzee feeding behavior, ecology, infant development, aggression, as well as other primate species. They also were able to document details of chimpanzee “consortships” -- periods in which males take females away from other community males for unchallenged mating time. Jane suggests that chimpanzees thus show a latent capacity to develop more permanent bonds similar to monogamy or serial monogamy.
Jane continued to spend time at Gombe, even as she began to travel widely promoting conservation. But her main priority was to analyze and write up 25 years’ worth of Gombe research. Her book The Chimpanzees of Gombe: Patterns of Behavior was published in 1986. Its publication was celebrated by a conference in Chicago, “Understanding Chimpanzees”, which brought together many chimp biologists. They were fascinated by one another’s findings, but alarmed to realize how widespread and urgent were the threats facing wild chimps.
The message was clear: We understand chimps much better now. They are more like us than we ever imagined. But now we must help save them. Jane had gone into the conference as a scientist. She left as an activist, determined to save the amazing creatures who she knew so well.
Photos, top-bottom: Hugo van Lawick, Bill Wallauer, Hugo van Lawick, Andy Nelson, Bill Wallauer, David Holloway