In a groundbreaking discovery, primatologist Jane Goodall witnesses a chimpanzee in the act of making and using tools on November 4, 1960—an ability previously believed to be exclusive to humans.
At the time of the observation, Goodall, a 26-year-old English primatologist, was conducting research at Gombe Stream National Park in Northern Tanzania, where she closely studied a group of approximately 150 chimpanzees in their natural habitat. She spotted one of the chimps, whom she had named David Greybeard, engaging in tool-use by stripping leaves from a straw stick and then inserting it into a termite mound to extract the insects.
“By the termite hill were two chimps, both male,” she wrote in her field notebook, describing the scene. “I could see a little better the use of the piece of straw. It was held in the left hand, poked onto the ground, and then removed coated with termites. The straw was then raised to the mouth and the insects picked off with the lips, along the length of the straw, starting in the middle.”
Upon receiving a telegraphed message about the observation, Goodall’s boss, esteemed paleoanthropologist Louis Seymour Bazett Leakey, responded, “Now we must redefine ‘tool,’ redefine ‘man’ or accept chimpanzees as human.”
The pivotal discovery, along with Goodall’s meticulous documentation of chimpanzees’ cognitive abilities and capacity for problem-solving, shattered long-held assumptions about animal intelligence. Subsequent studies also revealed that chimps soaked up water with leaves for drinking and cleaning and they cracked open nuts by using stones among other tool uses.
Goodall’s early fieldwork has spurred the publication of 200-plus scientific papers about the chimps at Gombe, revealing notable discoveries about the primates, including their capacity for compassion, the formation of maternal bonds, their omnivorous diet and even their engagement in “warfare.”
Goodall received a Ph.D. from Cambridge University in 1965 and continued research and conservation work in Gombe for decades, later through the Jane Goodall Institute, established in 1977. She wrote a number of books and articles about her work, including In the Shadow of Man, published in 1971.