Living with chimps
In 1960, Jane Goodall travelled to Africa with the aim of integrating herself into a community of wild chimps. Now nearly 60 years on, her observations have transformed the way we see our primate cousins. She met up with Sarah Begum to look back over her
Iconic conservationist Jane chimps4 Goodall chats to us about , women in science, and why we should look up from our phones.
How did your journey begin?
I was born loving animals. I had a supportive mother – she found books for me to read about animals, thinking that I’d learn to read more quickly. I read Tarzan when I was 10, and that’s when my dream began: to go to Africa, live with wild animals and write books about them. I never thought about being a scientist, because there weren’t women scientists doing those things in those days. It was wartime, we had little money and my father was off fighting, so Africa was a long way away.
I hadn’t been to college – I couldn’t afford it. We had just enough money for a secretarial course, so I got a job in London as a secretary. When I was 23, I was invited to visit a schoolfriend in Kenya, so I gave that job up, moved back home and worked as a waitress in Bournemouth to save money for the sea voyage. It was in Kenya that I met the palaeoanthropologist Dr Louis Leakey. Somebody suggested I see him if I was interested in animals. Guess what? He needed a secretary. So that boring old course led me to a job with him. He was interested in knowing the similarities between early humans and chimps, and he eventually decided that I was the person he’d been looking for, for 10 years, to go to Tanzania to study chimps.
What do you think has been your greatest discovery relating to chimpanzees?
It’s hard to say. I mean, the discovery that led to press coverage in National Geographic magazine was chimpanzees using and making tools, at the Gombe National Park in Tanzania. The chimps used grass stems to fish for termites, and leafy twigs where they removed the leaves to turn it into a tool. This was in 1960, and at that time, it was thought that only humans used and made tools.
What’s your favourite memory of your time spent with chimpanzees?
One really special memory was the first chimp to lose his fear – David Greybeard. He showed me tool use and finally allowed me to follow him in the Gombe forest. I was crawling after him through thick bushes and brambles, and there he was looking back as though he was waiting for me. There was a ripe, red palm nut on the ground. I held him and held the nut out on my hand. He reached, took the nut, dropped it because he didn’t want it, but he gently squeezed my hand, which is how chimps reassure each other. In that moment, I knew that he
knew my gesture was good. That was communication at a pre-human level.
What was your most challenging moment?
It was getting the chimps not to run away. When I started my research, I wasn’t allowed to be alone in the field – the British government wouldn’t allow it – so I arrived on the shore of the Gombe with my mum and a cook. But the chimps kept running away: they’d never seen a white ape before! I’d get back from my observations depressed, and Mum would always point out what I was discovering: how they move around alone or in little groups, sometimes all joined together if they see a new, ripe fruit; how they make beds at night in the trees by bending over the branches; how they make tools. She boosted my morale. To get the chimps used to me, I wore the same coloured clothes every day. I didn’t try to get too close too quickly. And I was patient. It took over a year for them to accept me.
You became close to the chimpanzees you studied. Is this something you felt was necessary to understand the animals?
I think you couldn’t possibly understand them if you didn’t know them, didn’t know their personalities. And with them not minding me being there, watching them, that was the key. Yes, it was necessary. David Greybeard helped me in a way. Usually, when I arrived, the other chimps would be ready to run. But if David was there, they’d just look from him to me and I suppose they thought, “well, she’s not too frightening after all”.
Is there anything that, with hindsight, you would have done differently?
I made mistakes, but I learned from them. Today, we wouldn’t feed the chimps bananas – we try not to interact with them directly because diseases can transfer. Back then, nobody had done this before. I think I was rather like an anthropologist, meeting an uncontacted tribe, giving them gifts. The bananas got the chimps close, and if the chimps hadn’t come close, National Geographic wouldn’t have sent a photographer, the behaviour wouldn’t have been filmed, and the study would have ended. It would be a mistake today, but I don’t believe it was a mistake then.
Do you think your time with chimpanzees has shaped how you view humans, too?
In airports, I’m watching the different ways mothers cope with fractious children, the way young men and women behave when they’re about to separate or when they reunite. I watch people becoming angry and shouting because their plane is delayed, even though the people they are shouting at can’t help it. I’m just watching how people behave in different situations as though they’re chimps.
Do you think that we’re still evolving ?
I don’t think we’re evolving. I think technology is evolving and changing people. It’s not the kind of evolution that has brought us to be what we’ve become. Little kids of three are given video games; children on a bus text each other, rather than speak. They’re not interacting with nature at all. This is a tragedy because there’s proof that children need contact with nature for good psychological development.
What if this continues?
I don’t know, I don’t want to think. My Roots & Shoots programme is trying to get children back out into nature, or bringing nature into the classrooms, encouraging curiosity and hands-on exploration rather than doing everything virtually. Wherever I go, I see little bits of nature, little bits of animal behaviour. And nobody else is watching because they spend nearly all their day on some kind of technology – they’re missing out on an awful lot of enjoyment and fun.
As a woman in science, did you encounter any barriers?
I did, but I don’t think it had anything to do with being a woman. I went to Cambridge to do my PhD in 1961, but
I had no undergraduate degree, so my professors were a bit nervous. They told me I had done everything wrong in my field research: I shouldn’t have given the chimps names, they should have had numbers. I couldn’t talk about their personalities, their minds or their emotions because those things were unique to us. In my first scientific paper, every time I put ‘he’ or ‘she’, the editor crossed it out and put ‘its’ and ‘which’. I was furious, so I put them back in. You can’t deny that chimps have sexual differences. I had a wonderful supervisor, Robert Hinde, who was very critical, but then he came to Gombe and he could no longer dispute what I said.
“Many young people have told me that they have lost hope because we’ve compromised their future and there’s nothing they can do about it”
Do you think young female researchers today face barriers?
Women can do many things now that were frowned upon back then. When I was 16, 17, 18, my friends at school were planning to become a secretary, air hostess, nurse or missionary’s wife. I was lucky because Louis Leakey felt that women were better in the field. He believed we were more observant – that, evolutionarily speaking, women need to be good mothers, and to be a good mother, you need to be patient. He was right, but he also wanted somebody who hadn’t been to university, someone whose mind was free from the restrictive training at the time. That was why he chose me. Today, there are hundreds of doors open to women. It may be more of a struggle for them to go through than for a man, but doors are open.
What would be your advice to women who want to follow in your footsteps?
Work hard, take advantage of opportunity, and never give up. You’ve got to really want to do this because there’s a lot of competition and it’s hard to get money for research, so you’d better really be passionate about it.
Having travelled the world for so many years, what changes have you seen?
Humans are destroying the planet very, very fast. We’re cutting down the rainforests, covering huge areas of land with development and concrete. We’re penning animals into factory farms with unspeakable cruelty, destroying environments to grow grains to feed those animals. We’re using masses of fossil fuels to transport the grains to the animals, who get slaughtered into meat at the table. It’s adding to the CO released into the atmosphere by our fossil fuels. The sea is increasingly polluted. The ice is melting and the sea levels are rising. We’re using up nature’s resources as though they’re unlimited, and they’re not. Many young people have told me that they have lost hope because we’ve compromised their future and there’s nothing they can do about it. We have compromised their future, but I think there’s a window of time to try and heal some of those scars.
Do you feel hopeful for the future?
I think the human brain has the power to come up with technological solutions to these problems. Nature is also resilient: I think that places that we’ve destroyed can once again be restored, and animals on the brink of extinction can be given another chance. Another hope is social media, which is effective in uniting people from all around the world to protest about plastic pollution and similar issues. I think there’s an indomitable human spirit, which taps into what seems impossible and inspires us not to give up.
Where should we focus our efforts?
Everyone should realise that every single day we live, we make some impact. If it was just you picking up plastic, just you turning off the lights, just you walking instead of driving, then it wouldn’t make much of a difference. But if it’s millions and then billions of people making ethical choices – what they buy, what they wear, what they eat, how they behave, how they treat animals – then the world would start moving towards a better way. We should think of the consequences of the little choices we make each day, and how that will affect future generations.
In 1965, National Geographic produced its first film, Miss Goodall And TheWild Chimpanzees, which followed Jane and her research
Taking field notes on chimpanzees in 1987