How a Woman Changed the Definition of Man and Asked, ‘What is Human?’


On this day, November 4th, 1960, a 26 year old girl from England hid among the robust leaves in the lush rainforest of Gombe, Tanzania, and saw something no one else had previously recorded. A chimpanzee (pan troglodyte) she named David Greybeard, with his arched back covered in elegant black hair to her, was using some mechanism to eat ants out of a mound. What she discovered once he left, was long stalks of grass lying around the mound, which she hypothesized had been used to both disturb the ants and collect them.

Later, she observed something that both confirmed her inferences and shook the foundations of how we differentiated between humanity and the rest of the animal kingdom. Chimpanzees, like the immortalized David Greybeard, use and most importantly make tools like stalks of grass to fish for ants or spears to hunt. Humans could no longer be considered exceptional in a role of “man, the toolmaker.” This woman was Jane Goodall.

giphy (5)

At that time, it was thought that humans, and only humans, used and made tools. I had been told from school onwards that the best definition of a human being was man the tool-maker – yet I had just watched a chimp tool-maker in action. I remember that day as vividly as if it was yesterday. [via the Guardian]

How Jane’s findings about chimp tool making and use changed the world:

1. Scientists have discovered many other animal species make and use tools. Crows, orangutans and elephants are just a few on the long list of animals which employ and create various objects to either problem solve or obtain food.

2. There are more women in science. The percent of bachelors degrees earned by women in biology, for example, moved from around 30% to 60% since the scientific discoveries of Dr. Goodall.


3. Animal behavior studies have become inclusive of the idea that non-human animals have culture and individuals have personalities.

The historic finding of tool use in chimpanzee populations was not only indication of our behavioral similarities to our closest living relatives (and certainly more insight into our common ancestry), but also that the lives of non-human animals were much more complicated than we had imagined. Further, this propelled Jane, with support from her mentor Louis Leakey, into academia where she was challenged and discounted repeatedly for her methods and learning. Her thesis and scientific contributions, which raised her research above naysayers, have influenced thousands of other discoveries, changed the methodologies of primatology along with biology and encouraged generations of women in science.

The impacts of this discovery continue to proliferate and foster new thinking in the essential quest for knowledge around human evolution, and what separates, or connects, humans and all other animals.

About Author

Ashley Sullivan is the Director of Storytelling & Marketing for Communications & Partnerships at the Jane Goodall Institute USA, where she works to connect individuals with Dr. Jane Goodall's vision, and the JGI mission to create a better world for all by protecting the interconnections between people, other animals, and the environment. Ashley graduated Stony Brook University with a Bachelor's Degree in Anthropology and a minor in Biology, and is pursuing a Master's of Science in Environmental Science & Policy at Johns Hopkins University with a focus on Environmental Justice. Originally from Brooklyn, New York, now a D.C. resident, she has a varied background including 10+ years of expert communications and digital marketing in the social and environmental non-profit sector. Her intersectional approach to this work has been shaped by a holistic world-view, having traveled to Madagascar and Ecuador for conservation research projects, leading communications for youth social justice filmmaking organizations, and as a part of several professional groups advancing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in environmental spaces including Greens REALIGN. With skills ranging from conservation fieldwork, policy and advocacy campaigns, strategic communications, art, digital media, and design, Ashley believes in sharing information to empower and in the magic of storytelling to transform hearts and minds. Through growing understanding, empathy, and justice, she is igniting positive change to create that better, more equitable world, every day.