Politics & Society

Dr. Jane Goodall Explains Chimpanzee Tool Use

Written by MasterClass

Nov 21, 2018 • 2 min read

MasterClass Video Lessons

Dr. Jane Goodall Teaches Conservation

It was long believed that only humans were able to create and use tools to make our everyday lives easier—from getting food or water, to defending ourselves, or for recreation. Scientists have discovered evidence that the early humans fashioned stone hammers and other crude tools to assist in skinning and cutting food.

The creation and usage of tools requires advanced problem solving skills and a high level of cognitive abilities—intellectual feats that, for a long time, seemed only accessible to humans. Dr. Jane Goodall, a world-renowned anthropologist, is known for her groundbreaking discoveries after working with wild chimpanzees (pan troglodytes) in Africa’s Gombe National Park. During her significant time conducting field work, Dr. Goodall found countless instances of chimpanzee tool use, which supported the theory of human evolution: that great apes might just be our closest living relatives, after all.


Chimpanzees and Tool Use: Food

The first chimpanzee that Dr. Goodall noticed using tools was a handsome chimp she’d named David Greybeard. David had found a stick, stripped it of its leaves, and was using it to fish termites in a termite mound, which he then ate off the stick. After she noticed David Greybeard using a stem to extract termites from their mound, Dr. Goodall 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.



Chimpanzees and Tool Use: Toys

Chimps most often use objects as tools to get food, but they will also use them as toys. Dr. Goodall 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. It’s also an interesting connection to how humans play; for example, young male chimps are more bold and aggressive with toys while young female chimps are more timid and prone to observation before joining in. Young female chimps, however, are more imaginative (just as with young human males, young male chimps like to throw and smash toys).

Chimpanzees and Tool Use: Behavior Differences and Intelligence

Since Dr. Goodall’s discoveries, other scientists have studied the behavior of both wild chimpanzees and captive chimpanzees. They have observed both similarities and differences; for example, chimpanzees in West Africa use stone tools for nut-cracking while Dr. Goodall’s chimps go termite-fishing. Chimpanzees are spread across a large habitat, and some scientists have noticed differences in how groups of chimps form their tools for the same task. For example, a group of chimps in the Republic of Congo fray the ends of the stick they use to fish termites, using their teeth to make the stick look like a paintbrush. This frayed end of the stick allows more termites to catch on, thus increasing the number of termites the chimp gets to eat with each dip into the mound.

According to recent research, some chimps in Senegal even sharpen sticks into spears to hunt other small mammals—the first documented evidence of a species other than humans successfully fashioning and using weapons. Dr. Jane believes that we humans have been far too arrogant about our own intelligence as compared to other animals. The animal kingdom, of which we are a part, is filled with secrets and new things to discover. The doors are wide open, and you never know what you’re going to find.