DUKE (US) — In July 1960, Jane Goodall began meticulously recording the behavior of chimpanzees in Africa. That effort has continued uninterrupted for 50 years, and now the resulting data is being digitized for future generations.
The collection includes all of Goodall’s notes, including her very first observation, along with narratives in English and Swahili, check-sheets, hand-drawn maps, video, and photographs.
“Jane Goodall’s contribution to primate studies simply cannot be overstated,” says Anne Pusey, who began working with Goodall in Africa in 1970 and will oversee the project housed at Duke University.
“She helped establish a new way of studying animals in the wild, and inspired countless others to follow in her footsteps. We’re delighted to have Dr. Goodall visiting us to see what we’re doing with her data, and to meet with the students and faculty who are making the work she started even more valuable,” adds Pusey, chair of evolutionary anthropology.
The digital project, known as the Jane Goodall Institute Research Center, continues to receive new data from the study in what is now Gombe National Park in Tanzania on a regular basis in paper and digital forms.
Embedded with the chimps
At 26, Goodall arrived at Gombe Stream on the east shore of Lake Tanganyika in July 1960 to observe one of humankind’s closest relatives in the wild. She had little training and no fixed methodology, but she was blessed with a keen eye for observation and endless patience. At first from a distance and then close up, she took meticulous notes of everything she observed chimpanzees doing.
“At 2:00 Flint suckled from the right breast—2 mins. paused for half a min and then he suckled for another 1 1/2 mins. same breast. He then sucked his own thumb.”
To build rapport with the chimpanzees and be able to observe them closely for longer periods, Goodall used bananas at a feeding station, a practice that has since been discontinued. Longhand notes gave way to audio transcriptions, typed each night on carbon paper copies. Narrative became grids of abbreviated data called “check-sheets.”
Students and Tanzanian field staff joined the data collection. As the chimpanzees became more accustomed to these strange apes, their human observers were able to track them into the steep and tangled terrain surrounding the camp.
“7:08 … FD raise a hand and shake branch calling SA, SA follow quickly and present her genitals to FD who mates her with copulation sounds. FD finish and then continue to feed.”
Simply by watching carefully, Goodall revolutionized our understanding of chimpanzees: They make and use tools. They mate promiscuously, but have lifelong bonds with their mothers. They laugh and play. They have shifting political alliances and wage violent battles over territory. They hunt monkeys and bush pigs in organized groups and eat their meat.
“15:31 … KS follows a female colubus (monkey) who was carrying a baby monkey on tummy. Grabs the baby and takes it in the bushes and feeds on the colubus. Other chimps continue to hunt.”
“If you really want to understand how the minds of animals work, you have to go out and see how they behave in their natural environment,” says Brian Hare, an assistant professor of evolutionary anthropology and director of the Hominoid Psychology Research Group at Duke. “(Goodall) challenged us to think about how their minds work in the real world. That’s the major contribution Jane made.”
Taking the long view
The Gombe archive is priceless for several reasons. First and foremost, it is only by watching a long-lived species for entire lifetimes that we can see the larger patterns created by social bonds and family relationships, says Duke biologist Susan Alberts, who has been studying baboons in Kenya for nearly 30 years.
And while each day of tracking data by itself may not add up to much, there are rare events and subtle patterns in the day-to-day events that can only be discerned by taking the long view, Pusey says.
“Just by watching animals over time you can learn so much,” adds Anne Yoder, director of the Duke Lemur Center, which has a 40-year database of captive lemurs. “That informs your questions, so that the questions that you ask are really powerful. And the more you know, the more powerful the questions are.”
The archive, which is owned by the Jane Goodall Institute, will be used to form new questions about chimpanzees and other primates, says Pusey, who recently co-authored a paper with Alberts examining the aging process across all primate species using long-term data from Gombe and other field studies.
“The longer-term picture you have, the richer your understanding of these animals could be,” Alberts says. “We have barely touched the tip of the iceberg.”
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