Duke receives 50 years of Goodall’s chimp research

This article was originally published on the front page of The News & Observer.
Published Tuesday, Mar 29, 2011


Jane Goodall says sifting through the earliest handwritten pages of her research archive brings back her 26-year-old self.

“I can actually feel what it used to feel like. If I try, I can get back to the 26- year-old mind,” said the renowned primatologist, who will celebrate her 77th birthday Sunday.

Goodall’s 50 years of uninterrupted chimpanzee behavior research is making its new home with Duke University. The collection that Goodall started in 1960 is being curated and digitized by Duke researchers.

The university formally announced Monday that it has established the Jane Goodall Institute Research Center at Duke, to manage the archive, and has named Anne Pusey, chairwoman of evolutionary anthropology, its director. The institute, an international wildlife and environment conservation organization, will retain ownership of archived data.

Goodall spoke to a full house in Duke’s 1,200-seat Page Auditorium. She said she lacked formal training when she started studying the Kasakela chimpanzee community in Tanzania’s Gombe Stream National Park. But her observations, which focused on chimp emotions and personalities often overlooked by her scientist counterparts, ultimately changed the beliefs that only humans made and used tools, and that chimpanzees were herbivores.

Her findings and methods were controversial. Goodall named the chimps instead of objectively numbering them.

To gain their trust for closer observation, she fed them bananas, a practice now discontinued.

Eventually, Goodall said, her documentation adapted with technology, turning from handwritten notes typed with carbon paper to audio transcription to video recording. All of the data, which include English and Swahili journals, photographs, audio and video recordings, and maps are being digitized in a suite of rooms at Duke.

“It’s a bittersweet experience for me because I loved analyzing this data,” Goodall said. “I could never have dreamed what is happening to it with the digitizing and the scanning – all these amazing things that are happening which will make it so easy to work with compared to what I had.”

Pusey, who began her work at Gombe in 1970 while finishing her Ph.D., started working with the data at the University of Minnesota. By the mid- 1980s, Goodall had become an author and an animal rights activist, and had begun working the lecture circuit. Concerned that the original data were left on open shelves and becoming damaged, Pusey asked Goodall to archive the collection at Minnesota under the Jane Goodall Institute’s Center for Primate Studies.

A year ago, Pusey came to Duke, as did the archived data, now in 22 cabinets with five drawers each.

Maureen Smith, president of the Jane Goodall Institute in the United States, helped negotiate the move.

“One of the beauties about Duke … is that there is so much cross-departmental and cross-school interaction and education,” she said. “We just don’t do chimps. We talk about communities and conservation and climate, … so all of these things actually touch the many different divisions of Duke.”

Ian C. Gilby, senior research scientist at the Jane Goodall Institute Research Center, called the move a “tremendous opportunity for Duke” that helps set the university up to become the leading research center on primates in the world.

Today, Goodall is on the road 300 days a year, signing copies of her books, and spreading her message that to protect the chimps, humans must protect biodiversity and fight climate change.

“Even as we speak now, the chimp population are in danger,” she said. “Trying to protect chimps’ habitat means saving the forest.”

Goodall said the biggest problem Pusey and her team will have, besides catching up on the 50-year-data, will be keeping up with new findings.

“There’s new stuff coming in all the time. It’s a very tough job,” she said. “But it’s wonderful to know that it’s happening.”