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Chimpanzee Intelligence with Dr. Jane Goodall

Chimpanzee Intelligence with Dr. Jane Goodall

When Dr. Jane Goodall visited Gombe Stream National Park in Africa to conduct field primate research in 1960, it was widely believed that, besides the human species, no other animals used tools. Her scientific observations of wild chimpanzees dispelled this notion and set out to prove that not was primate intelligence real, primates, from chimps to great apes, also had their own complex communications systems and behavior patterns, not to mention a mastery of tool use. Now, we know that chimpanzees are the closest relatives to the human species, with less than 1% difference in blood and brain composition; but back then, Dr. Jane Goodall’s observations and conclusions were revolutionary.

Dr. Jane Goodall discussing Ai in Tokyo

Discovering David Greybeard

When Dr. Jane Goodall visited Gombe Stream National Park in Africa to conduct field primate research in 1960, it was widely believed that, besides the human species, no other animals used tools. Her scientific observations of wild chimpanzees dispelled this notion and set out to prove that not was primate intelligence real, primates, from chimps to great apes, also had their own complex communications systems and behavior patterns, not to mention a mastery of tool use. Now, we know that chimpanzees are the closest relatives to the human species, with less than 1% difference in blood and brain composition; but back then, Dr. Jane Goodall’s observations and conclusions were revolutionary.

One cold, rainy day in the forests of Gombe, Jane Goodall saw a chimp hunched over a termite mound through her binoculars. She recognized this as the one chimp who’d started to lose his fear of her before the others. This particular chimp had a beautiful white beard. Jane had already named him David Greybeard.

Jane Goodall saw David Greybeard reach out, pick a stem of grass, push it down into the termite mound, leave it there for a moment, and then pull it out. He then picked off the termites that were clinging on with their mandibles. He repeated the process several times. Jane then watched David Greybeard break off a leafy twig, removing the leaves in order to make the device he used to catch termites.

The chimp was making and using tools, Jane deduced. This was an amazing discovery because at the time, it was believed that only humans used and made tools. Jane couldn’t believe her eyes, but she didn’t send a telegram to Dr. Leaky until she saw David Greybeard fishing for termites a second time—just to be sure.

This observation of Jane’s enabled Dr. Leakey to approach the National Geographic Society. They agreed not only to provide funds so that Jane could continue studying chimps in Gombe, but in addition they sent out a cameraman and photographer, Hugo van Lawick. Hugo became Dr. Jane’s first husband, and still images from his film of Jane and her work appeared in National Geographic magazine articles. This was what took the story of Jane and the chimpanzees into the living rooms of people, first in America and then around the world.

When people ask Jane about special moments she experienced in Gombe, she thinks of David Greybeard. He was the first chimpanzee who allowed Jane to follow him through the forest. Following David Greybeard gave Jane a whole new insight into how chimpanzees travel. She learned that if there is desirable food nearby, a chimp will sometimes climb a tree to taste it. Chimps even feel a fruit to see if it is ripe like we do at the grocery store.

Observing Chimpanzee Intelligence

Once when Jane was following David Greybeard, he branched off and went through a tangle of vegetation. For him it was easy, but Jane got caught in thorns. She thought she had lost David and would have to find him another day, but when she emerged from the tangle, he was sitting and looking back at Jane. It looked just as if he was waiting for her. She approached him and sat near him. On the ground between them was a ripe, red palm nut, which Jane knew chimps love.

She picked it up and held it towards David, but he turned his face away. He didn’t want the palm nut. Jane carefully pushed her hand closer, and then David Greybeard turned. He looked directly into Jane’s eyes, reached out, took the nut, and dropped it. He didn’t want it, but he very gently squeezed Jane’s fingers, which is how chimpanzees reassure each other.

In that one moment it was as though Jane and David Greybeard communicated in a way that predates human language. He understood clearly that Jane’s motive was good, and Jane understood that he comprehended her offer but didn’t want the nut. This moment was the first time Jane really felt that she was accepted, that this peculiar white ape was now no longer a threat. The chimps understood that they could communicate with Jane in their language.

After she noticed David Greybeard using a stem to extract termites from their mound, Dr. Jane began to observe other tools chimps used. For example, Gombe chimpanzees use leaves as sponges to soak up water to drink. They use rocks as weapons and as hard surfaces on which to crack open gourds in order to eat the fruit inside.

Chimps most often use objects as tools to get food, but they will also use them as toys. Jane has witnessed chimpanzees playing tug-of-war and throwing gourds in the air and catching them like balls. Chimps’ imaginative use of objects is an indication of their intelligence.

The Chimpanzee Mind

The chimpanzee mind is capable of a lot. Chimps can be taught the signs of American Sign Language, which is used by people who have a hearing impairment. They can learn 400 or more signs. Some chimpanzees in captivity like to paint. Those who paint and have learned sign language are able to tell you what they’ve painted. One very famous chimpanzee at the Kyoto University Primate Research Institute in Japan named Ai even learned to play a computer game that served as a memory test. Later, Ai’s son, a chimpanzee named Ayumu, showed extreme cognitive abilities when he beat humans at another memory test computer game.

For humans, the average IQ ranges between 90 and 110 points, with a standard deviation of 15. While the standard IQ tests are designed to compare humans of the same age with each other, some have tried to place chimps or other great apes along the same scale. This results in a somewhat skewed understanding of chimpanzee intellect. The real primate intelligence, as Dr. Jane Goodall observed and noted in her many years of conservation research, stems from the primates cognitive abilities, their ability to use tools, their problem-solving skills and social learning, and above all, their subtle displays of emotion that reveal their complicated, working minds.

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