Four decades ago, a leading zoologist dismissed Jane Goodall as anamateur. She agreed. “My future is so ridiculous,” she wrote. “I justsquat here, chimp-like, on my rocks, pulling out prickles & thorns,and laugh to think of this unknown ‘Miss Goodall’ who is said to bedoing scientific research somewhere.”
But within a few months of beginning her study of chimpanzees in1960, insinuating herself into their lives in the forests of Africa,she made a shocking discovery: Chimpanzees construct tools. Legendaryanthropologist Louis Leakey announced that because of Goodall’sobservations, “we must redefine tool, redefine man, or acceptchimpanzees as human.” She soon gained entrance to a doctoral programat Cambridge University, even though her highest previous degree wasfrom a secretarial school, and was well on her way to becoming ascientific icon.
To this slim, ponytailed young woman, chimps looked more clever,more scary, and often more human than anyone had ever suspected. Theyhunt, sometimes engage in cannibalism, make war on each other, adoptorphans, and drum on tree roots and wave branches in ritual-likedisplays. Some chimps are cunning politicians; others seem devoted totheir families.
Fame and age have broadened Goodall’s focus. These days she spendsmost of her time on the road, lecturing and raising funds for the JaneGoodall Institute (check their blog) and its efforts to assist wild and rescuedchimpanzees. But she still keeps close tabs on her adopted family, theAfrican 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 seemedenormous at the time. I was only 23. I was invited to Africa by aschool friend whose parents had moved to Kenya. One of their friendssaid, “If you’re interested in animals, you should meet Dr. LouisLeakey.” So I went to see him at the Coryndon Museum [where Leakey wasdirector], and he ended up offering me a job as his secretary. Duringthe time I worked for him, I had the opportunity to go out on theSerengeti with him. He knew I didn’t care about clothes and hair,dresses and parties, and that I really, really, really wanted to livewith animals in the bush. And that I didn’t care about a degree—I justwanted to learn.
What is your fondest memory of observing the chimps in Tanzania?
When I would sit quietly with a family and watch the interactionsbetween mother and child, brothers and sisters. Yes, it was amazing tosee tool use for the first time, but it didn’t really surprise me thatthey could do that. I hadn’t been to college and didn’t realize howexciting 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 hisvisit to my camp, “If you see tool using and hunting, it will have madethe 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 meand the chimps and the forest. I just wanted to know what they werethinking and feeling, and what it felt like in the evening to be makinga nest, and what it felt like to be a female when a big male comesthundering in. Are you afraid or excited? It was impossible to tell.