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Haunting clues suggest psychological distress preceded a researcher’s 1969 death at Jane Goodall’s African research center

The Ghosts of Gombe: A True Story of Love and Death in an African Wilderness

The Ghosts of Gombe A True Story of Love and Death in an African Wilderness
University of California Press
2018
232 pp/
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“Every individual matters. Every individual has a role to play. Every individual makes a difference,” wrote Jane Goodall in her 2003 story collection, With Love. In his new book, The Ghosts of Gombe, Goodall’s official biographer, Dale Peterson, captures that same sentiment, examining the individuals who made her research possible and recounting the mysterious death of a woman at the Gombe Stream Research Centre in 1969.

The book follows several young researchers who made their way to the center in the late 1960s under varying personal circumstances. Carole Gale, a 19-year-old American, offered to volunteer at the center while she was studying in Nairobi at the Friends World Institute. Geza Teleki, a 25-year-old Hungarian anthropology graduate student at Penn State, arrived in Africa hoping to study under the Kenyan paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey. Through a series of misunderstandings, he found himself spending time with Goodall, who arranged for him to work at Gombe. Ruth Davis, age 25, was working as a typist in the United States after graduating from George Washington University, when Teleki, (with whom she had had a romantic relationship) encouraged her to take a job that he arranged for her.

When they arrived, the methods used to study chimps were still very similar to those pioneered by Goodall in the early 1960s. (Goodall was living in Ngorongoro during this period but still visited the camp a few times each year.) Chimps were lured into camp with bananas, where scientists diligently recorded everything they observed. Their notes were typed up later and entered into what was known as the “A-record.”

It was Teleki, Gale, and Davis who persuaded Goodall to let them follow the chimps into the forest and observe them in their natural environment. (Data collected from such expeditions were recorded in the “B-record.”)

“The A-record observations in camp were based on watching chimps act on an artificial, human-created stage in front of a human audience,” observes Peterson. “Everyone who did the B-record follows … recognized that in leaving the human stage and the human audience, they were entering the chimpanzee world and beginning to consider or imagine what it might be like to be an ape, a nonhuman ape, in an ape’s world.”

A wealth of new behaviors were revealed during these expeditions, including the process by which chimpanzees overthrow a leader, as well as actions the researchers likened to acts of warfare. Teleki, Gale, and Davis bonded over their observations during the evenings, sharing the conflicted emotions they felt about their work—loving the chimps, on the one hand, while trying to remain objective scientific observers, on the other.

On 12 July 1969, Davis set out on a B-record follow and never returned. She was found dead at the base of a waterfall 6 days later. Was it an accident? Was she pushed? Did she jump?

At this point in the story, Peterson shifts focus from the chimps to the relationships between the researchers. Thoroughly, he scrutinizes letters Davis sent to her parents and to Teleki (who had returned to America by then). He analyzes the audio records she made on her final outing and collects personal accounts from her peers, which reveal that she had become withdrawn from the group in the months before her death.

“Such interior tectonics took place in a situational context: of isolation and intensity,” writes Peterson in an attempt to explain the emotions that can arise during remote field work. But how does an experienced young explorer end up dead at the base of a waterfall?

PENELOPE BREESE/LIAISON/GETTY IMAGES

Jane Goodall observes a pair of chimpanzees
in Tanzania in 1987.

Peterson ultimately concludes that Davis’s fall was neither a straightforward accident nor a suicide, although he does point to her mental state as a factor in her death. “Ruth’s failure to find an intimate connection within that tiny human community was compensated for in part by her success in knowing the chimps and her sense of discovering an intimate belonging with them,” he writes. She believed that she was capable of traversing the same treacherous paths that they traveled, he speculates—an error that she paid for with her life.

It’s challenging to put together a complete picture so long after they happened, but Peterson uses letters, camp records, and personal accounts to tell the story artfully. He relays information from his interviewees warily, knowing how memory works, especially when it comes to emotional experiences.

Jane Goodall has spent a lifetime trying to understand the behaviors and relationships of the apes in Tanzania. With The Ghosts of Gombe, Dale Peterson has attempted to do the same for the people who made her research possible. It is the similarities between these two endeavors that make his book a worthwhile read

About the author

The reviewer is a freelance science writer based in Denver, CO, USA.