Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Fifty years at Gombe

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the research, begun by Jane Goodall, on the chimpanzees that inhabit the Gombe Stream area on the shores of Lake Tanganyika in Tanzania. This groundbreaking, dare I say it, ethnographic study of this community of chimps has contributed enormously to our knowledge about these cousins of ours.

One of the stars of the research was Flo (ca. 1929–1972), the matriarch of the "F Family," pictured here. She is the only chimpanzee to have an obituary published in the Times of London. She's shown here fishing for termites, one of the cultural activities possessed by this community that anthropologists were not aware of prior to this research.

As reported on the Smithsonian Magazine web site, the Gombe chimps have taught us lots of interesting things about chimps, including the following (the bolded lead is from the web site; the comments that follow are mine):
  • Chimpanzees eat meat.  Not all chimp communities do this, but at Gombe and in other places both males and females hunt monkeys, small antelopes, and other game, and then share the meat afterwards.
  • Chimpanzees use tools.  These include chewed up leaves for sponges, plant stems for termite fishing, and even stones for breaking open certain hard-shelled fruits. Again, the exact repertoire varies from group to group and reflects social learning passed on mostly from mothers to their offspring.
  • Chimpanzees engage in warfare.  I'm not sure I'd call it warfare, but yes, the group at Gombe sends out its males from time to patrol the borders of their territory, and they have been known to systematically attack and kill members of neighboring communities.
  • Chimpanzees can be cannibals.  As can humans.  This is apparently extremely rare, though, and involved a mother and daughter stealing infants and killing and eating them.
  • Chimpanzees have complex social relationships.  Chimps live in ranked societies. There is a hierarchy for females as well as males, and the highest ranking males are usually the sons of high-ranking females. The core of the group is a mother and her children. Chimps are promiscuous, and while chimps normally know very well who their mothers are, they do not know their fathers. They also know their siblings, and sex between siblings, as well as between mothers and sons, is very rare. Females frequently seek a male from a neighboring group to mate with.
All in all, the Gombe chimps have shown us that these fellow primates have individual personalities, socially transmitted culture*, and complex lives.  Let's hope we don't send them into oblivion with our homocentric arrogance and short-sightedness.

*Really, proto-culture, that is, culture without language.

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