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The Gombe Chimp War - Just Like Us

Updated: May 16

Humans love one thing above all other - conflict. This is not only a feature of our species, but of all life. Competition inevitably leads to conflict. The only difference is our ability to organize, and plot.

Scientists believed for a very long time that animals could not hold grudges. They also believed that human babies couldn't feel pain into the mid 80s, so let's not get excited.

This all changed when Dr. Jane Goodall witnessed her beloved chimpanzees not only actively organizing for intergroup conflict, but committing calculated genocide - and reveling in the act.

Dr. Goodall would never look at chimps the same way again.

Propensity for Violence

Today, we have a lot of examples of the capacity for violence innate in chimpanzees. Many Americans have lost their faces, fingers, and lives to our closest ape cousins.

This is largely due to the USA having very lax laws when it comes to private ownership of exotic animals. Other countries have fewer attacks because people have less access to killer animals. There are no obvious parallels to be drawn here. None at all.

Back in the day, though, when people were just learning about the chimpanzee, everyone thought they were a gentler version of people. Something akin to the gorilla.

Dr. Jane Goodall built the basis of our current knowledge of the Chimpanzee. Her work showed the complexity of chimp culture. They were more than just the average ape. Chimps use tools, live deep social lives, and up until 1974, were believed to be very peaceful creatures.

Starting in 1974, Dr. Goodall bore witness to a behavioral phenomenon that had long been only attributed to Homo Sapiens. The chimps of Gombe Stream National Park went to war.

Her beliefs were shaken to their core. Gone were the naive notions of the peaceful ape. Chimp-kind would prove capable of depraved violence that left the doctor with recurring nightmares and deep psychological trauma.

The Four-Year War - Genocide in Gombe

At first there were three separate groups of chimpanzees in Gombe. The Kasakela in the north, and the south shared by the Kokombe and Mkenke groups. Each of the groups had roughly 40 members.

Males would often form raiding parties and make forays into rivals' territory. Their attacks were rarely fatal, and often targeted only the weakest members of the target groups.

Dr. Goodall noticed the dominant Kasakela group's integrity breaking down in 1971. Long-time leader, Leakey, was in decline. He had lived a long life, and it would soon become apparent that his influence was the only thing holding the Kasakela together.

Six of the fourteen Kasakela males began spending their time away from the main group. They were labeled the southern-subgroup by the researchers. Leadership in the southern-subgroup was divided between two brothers - Hugh and Charlie. They took Goliath, De, Sniff, and Godi with them when they left.

The Kasakela males struggled to find a leader. Humphrey eventually ascended to Leakey's old role. He led Rodolf, Sherry, Evered, Jomeo, Figan, Mike, and the aptly named Satan.

Both groups slowly began to display hostility to the other. Though aggressive to the southerners, the northern males rarely ventured south. Hugh and Charlie's group did not reciprocate.

Dr. Jane Goodall and her team came to recognize the schism as permanent. They renamed the southern-subgroup Kahama.

Males from both groups were soon seen screeching at each other and engaging in aggressive displays of strength. Three years of escalating tensions would reach a boiling point in 1974, when the Kasakela drew first blood.

Researchers watched a group of six northern chimps venture south. The Kasakela were often the victim of raiding behavior, and it seemed they were ready to give as good as they got.

Godi, a Kahama male, was eating fruit in a tree alone. He did not hear the Kasakela war party's approach. Their attack was as swift as it was brutal. Godi tried to flee, but one of the aggressors caught him by the foot and swung him overhead to land amidst the Kasakelas.

They pummeled the stunned Godi with their fists, stomped on him with their feet, tore at his limbs with their nails, and repeatedly bit into him with their fangs.

Males in Mahale National Park, Tanzania
We got you now, Godi!

Godi was left to slowly succumb to his wounds. He would be discovered by his group, who mourned his death. The Kahama were now down to five males. De was the next casualty.

Kasakela attacks continued for the next four years. They systematically murdered the Kahama males, ignoring the females. Dr. Goodall would later write of a particularly disturbing attack on Goliath.

The older male, who had once been a high ranking member of the Kasakela, had remained on good terms with his former group mates. Goliath saw his old friend Satan approaching with four other Kasakelas. He greeted them in friendship, hand outstretched.

Goliath was severely beaten, in a display of violence that made the attack on Godi look like play. One of his attackers broke Goliath's leg and was observed twisting it in an attempt to detach the limb.

Satisfied with their victory, the Kasakela war party took to the trees in celebration. They hollered among the branches, drummed on tree trunks, and threw rocks. As Goliath lay dying, Satan approached him. The old chimp looked at his old friend with an expression of disbelief and fear - likely hoping for some comfort.

Satan cupped his hands to Goliath face, catching the blood gushing from a head wound. He brought the blood to his mouth and drank deeply of it before joining the celebration.

Dr. Jane Goodall suffered from recurring nightmares following the attack. Her paradigm had been shattered, and she was forced to rethink her beliefs about chimpanzee behavior.

More Kahama males were killed in similar fashion, until the only survivor was young Sniff. He lived a life of solitary fear, narrowly evading the Kasakela death squads sent out to find him. Luck ran out for Sniff in 1798. His death marked the end of the Kahama group.

Following the Gombe Chimp War, Dr. Jane Goodall wrote this:

“For so many years I had believed that chimpanzees, while showing uncanny similarity to humans in many ways, were, by and large, rather ‘nicer’ than us. Suddenly I found that under certain circumstances they could be just as brutal”



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