Fifty years ago, a slender young Englishwoman was walking through a rainforest reserve at Gombe, in Tanzania, when she came across a dark figure hunched over a termite nest. A large male chimpanzee was foraging for food. So she stopped and watched the animal through her binoculars as he carefully took a twig, bent it, stripped it of its leaves and finally stuck it into the nest. Then he began to spoon termites into his mouth.
Thus Jane Goodall made one of the most important scientific observations of modern times in that remote African rainforest. She witnessed a creature, other than a human, in the act not just of using a tool but of making one.
“It was hard for me to believe,” she recalls. “At that time, it was thought that humans, and only humans, used and made tools. I had been told from school onwards that the best definition of a human being was man the tool-maker — yet I had just watched a chimp tool-maker in action. I remember that day as vividly as if it was yesterday.”
Goodall telegraphed her boss, the fossil-hunter Louis Leakey, with the news.
His response has since become the stuff of scientific legend: “Now we must redefine man, redefine tools or accept chimpanzees as humans.”
Leakey was exaggerating, but not by much. Certainly, there is little doubt about the importance of Goodall’s discovery five decades ago. As the distinguished Harvard palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould put it, this was “one of the great achievements of 20th-century scholarship.”
Goodall’s subsequent observations found that not only did Pan troglodytes — the chimpanzee — make and use tools but that our nearest evolutionary cousins embraced, hugged and kissed each other. They experienced adolescence, developed powerful mother-and-child bonds and used political chicanery to get what they wanted. They also made war, wiping out members of their own species with almost genocidal brutality on one occasion that was observed by Goodall.
This work has held up a mirror, albeit a blurred one, to our own species, suggesting that a great many of our behaviors once thought to be uniquely human, may have been inherited from the common ancestors that Homo sapiens shared with chimpanzees 6 million years ago.
We therefore have much to commemorate 50 years after Goodall began her strolls through Gombe. These celebrations began on Saturday at the Berlin film festival with the premiere of Lorenz Knauer’s documentary about Goodall, Jane’s Journey — which includes a walk-on part for Angelina Jolie — and will continue throughout the year.
Today, Goodall is a gracefully aged replica of the young woman who first set foot at Gombe five decades ago. Her long blond hair, tied back as usual, has turned silvery gray. Now aged 76, she exudes a calm confidence as she travels the world, promoting green causes established by the Jane Goodall Institute, which she set up in 1977 in order to promote research at Gombe and to protect chimpanzees and their habitats.
Fifty years ago, she looked an unlikely scientific pioneer. Goodall had no academic training, having grown up in the middle-class gentility of Bournemouth on the south coast of England in the postwar years, a time when women were expected to be wives and little else. However, she burned with two passions: a love of animals and a love of Africa.
“I got my love of animals from the Dr Dolittle books and my love of Africa from the Tarzan novels,” she says. “I remember my mum taking me to the first Tarzan film, which starred Johnny Weissmuller, and bursting into tears. It wasn’t what I had imagined at all.”