Four decades ago, a leading zoologist dismissed Jane Goodall as an amateur. She agreed. “My future is so ridiculous,” she wrote. “I just squat here, chimp-like, on my rocks, pulling out prickles and thorns, and laugh to think of this unknown ‘Miss Goodall’ who is said to be doing scientific research somewhere.”
But within a few months of beginning her study of chimpanzees in 1960, insinuating herself into their lives in the forests of Africa,she made a shocking discovery: Chimpanzees construct tools. Legendary anthropologist Louis Leakey announced that because of Goodall’s observations, “we must redefine tool, redefine man, or accept chimpanzees as human.” She soon gained entrance to a doctoral program at Cambridge University, even though her highest previous degree was from a secretarial school, and was well on her way to becoming a scientific icon.
To this slim, ponytailed young woman, chimps looked more clever, more scary, and often more human than anyone had ever suspected. They hunt, sometimes engage in cannibalism, make war on each other, adopt orphans, and drum on tree roots and wave branches in ritual-like displays. Some chimps are cunning politicians; others seem devoted to their families.
Fame and age have broadened Goodall’s focus. These days she spends most of her time on the road, lecturing and raising funds for the Jane Goodall Institute (check their blog) and its efforts to assist wild and rescued chimpanzees. But she still keeps close tabs on her adopted family, the African primates who took her in.
When you arrived in Africa, did you imagine you’d be spending 47 years involved with chimpanzees?
No [laughs]. How could I have back then? One year there seemed enormous at the time. I was only 23. I was invited to Africa by a school friend whose parents had moved to Kenya. One of their friends said, “If you’re interested in animals, you should meet Dr. Louis Leakey.” So I went to see him at the Coryndon Museum [where Leakey was director], and he ended up offering me a job as his secretary. During the time I worked for him, I had the opportunity to go out on the Serengeti with him. He knew I didn’t care about clothes and hair,dresses and parties, and that I really, really, really wanted to live with animals in the bush. And that I didn’t care about a degree—I just wanted to learn.
What is your fondest memory of observing the chimps in Tanzania?
When I would sit quietly with a family and watch the interactions between mother and child, brothers and sisters. Yes, it was amazing to see tool use for the first time, but it didn’t really surprise me that they could do that. I hadn’t been to college and didn’t realize how exciting this observation was. Ironically, about three weeks after[field biologist] George Schaller visited me for the first time, I saw[chimpanzee] David Greybeard using a tool. George had said during his visit to my camp, “If you see tool using and hunting, it will have made the whole study worthwhile.” Within a month, I’d seen both.
Watching the chimpanzees, did you ever long to be one?
Sometimes I did, especially in the early days when it was just me and the chimps and the forest. I just wanted to know what they were thinking and feeling, and what it felt like in the evening to be making a nest, and what it felt like to be a female when a big male comes thundering in. Are you afraid or excited? It was impossible to tell.