This week in science history: Jane Goodall is born

Jane Goodall turns 84 on April 3. In March 1957, aged 22, she departed London on her first trip to Africa. Many years later she told the New York Times that as a child, inspired by the Tarzan and Dr Doolittle stories, she resolved to live in Africa one day.

Just a couple of months after arriving in Nairobi, Goodall met the renowned palaeontologist Louis Leakey, who offered her a job at the natural history museum where he was curator. 

The work included a summer expedition to Olduvai Gorge, where Leakey’s wife, Mary, also a palaeontologist, would later find the hominin fossils that proved the African origins of Homo sapiens

She also absorbed Leakey’s theories about physical anthropology and his ideas of how they might be proved. He subscribed to Charles Darwin’s hypothesis that humans and chimpanzees shared an evolutionary ancestor. He thought close study of chimps- in the wild might tell us something about that common progenitor. {%recommended 4973%}

He further told Goodall that he knew just the place for these observations: Gombe Stream Chimpanzee Reserve, in the British colony of Tanganyika (now Tanzania). 

In July 1960, accompanied by her mother and an African cook, Goodall arrived on the shore of Lake Tanganyika in the Gombe Stream Reserve,

Goodall, without formal educational qualifications, approached her observations of chimpanzees in ways that upset many traditional anthropologists. She indulged in anthropomorphism, giving names to many of her subjects, rather than the more usual method of assigning them numbers; and she gave them food as a means of winning their trust and allowing close contact.

Goodall responded to her critics in a 1995 article in which she wrote: “When, in the early 1960s, I brazenly used such words as ‘childhood’, ‘adolescence’, ‘motivation’, ‘excitement’, and ‘mood’, I was much criticised. Even worse was my crime of suggesting that chimpanzees had ‘personalities’. I was ascribing human characteristics to non-human animals and was thus guilty of that worst of ethological sins – anthropomorphism.”

But regardless of her methods, she observed chimpanzee behaviours previously unrecorded. Her key finding, published in the journal Nature in 1964, that chimpanzees use tools – using blades of grass to pull termites from a mound – was profoundly important: humans were no longer alone as users of tools. 

In her book Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey, Goodall said she telegraphed Leakey with the news. He responded: “Now we must redefine man, redefine tools, or accept chimpanzees as humans.”

She also discovered that chimpanzees are omnivorous, not vegetarian as had been supposed. She observed the chimps hunting and eating small mammals. 

She also made note of their complex social structures.

Goodall in later years has become a campaigner for environmental conservation, speaking out against the use of animals in medical research, zoos and sport. A vegetarian, she advocates the diet for ethical, environmental, and health reasons. 

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