“Uh, Uh, Uh, Uhhhh, Uhhhh, Uhhhh,” that’s roughly what it sounds like when primatologist Jane Goodall imagines herself using chimpanzees’ language. The British woman, who became world famous for her groundbreaking observations of man’s closest relatives, is celebrating her 90th birthday this Wednesday.

Goodall, who began researching a group of chimpanzees in what is now Gombe National Park in Tanzania in 1960 as a 26-year-old, revolutionized the view of the monkeys, in which she soon noticed traits and behaviors that are familiar to humans – good ones like bad ones.

“Fortunately I wasn’t at university”

“Back in the early 1960s, many scientists believed that only humans had minds, that only humans were capable of rational thinking,” she says in the documentary “Jane,” which includes a lot of footage from her early days research can be seen. “Luckily I wasn’t at university and didn’t know these things,” she adds.

Goodall owed her position to the British-Kenyan anthropologist Louis Leakey. Her family didn’t have the money to finance her studies. Nevertheless, Goodall was determined to make her childhood dream of living in Africa among wild animals come true. She worked as a secretary and waitress before setting off on her first trip to Africa, where she met the researcher Leakey.

She soon became part of the chimpanzee community

Leakey, impressed by her knowledge and enthusiasm, commissioned her to research a group of chimpanzees on the shores of Lake Tanganyka in northern present-day Tanzania. It was her impartiality that Leakey saw as a strength. He sent two more women: the American Dian Fossey, who was murdered in Rwanda in 1985 and who researched gorillas, and Birute Galdikas, who grew up in Canada and who devoted herself to orangutans in Borneo. Together they are sometimes referred to as the “Trimates”.

Initially accompanied by her mother, Goodall braved all kinds of weather and all sorts of dangers such as poisonous snakes for months to get close to her research subjects – initially in vain. The chimpanzees ran away. But little by little the animals got used to the sight of the “strange white ape,” as she likes to call herself. She soon became part of their community.

She gave the chimpanzees names instead of numbers

The “participant observation” method proved more successful than anything previously attempted. However, it also included feeding bananas and interacting with the animals, which led to criticism. For example, it was considered unscientific to give chimpanzees names instead of numbers. Goodall was undeterred. Her best friend became David Greybeard, a good-natured male with white hair on his chin, who was the first to dare to come near her. Greybeard opened the door for her to explore the group.

She watched Greybeard as he poked a termite burrow with a stick and caught the insects. He even prepared branches for this purpose by stripping off the leaves. When she reported this observation to Leakey, he telegraphed back: “Now we must either redefine man. Redefine tool. Or we must recognize chimpanzees as humans.” Until then, the use of tools was considered the most important distinction between humans and animals. Goodall now believes that language is at least partly responsible for the “explosive development of the human intellect.”

“I had no idea about the brutality”

Goodall also observed affectionate behavior, hugging, touching and sadness in Gombe. However, a devastating polio epidemic among the monkeys and later fatal clashes between the animals brought disillusionment into the almost paradisiacal world. “I thought they were like us, but nicer than us,” says Goodall, looking back, adding: “I had no idea of ​​the brutality they could display.”

She often cites the children’s book series Doctor Dolittle and Tarzan as inspiration for her childhood desire to live in the wild among animals. She jokes that she was disappointed because Tarzan married the wrong Jane. She herself married the Dutch wildlife filmmaker and photographer Hugo van Lawick, whose photos contributed significantly to her fame. The marriage broke up after ten years. She later married the director of Tanzania’s national parks, Derek Bryceson, who died in 1980.

She remains optimistic

Goodall turned to wildlife conservation when she realized that chimpanzee populations everywhere were shrinking and losing their habitat. For example, she campaigns for a reduction in meat consumption and, even in her old age, still tours tirelessly around the world to awaken people with lectures and encounters. With the Jane Goodall Institute, she has set up a global network with which she promotes a rethink.

Unlike many young environmental and climate activists, Goodall remains optimistic and empathetic. When asked by a teenager how to convince people who deny climate change, she replied on her podcast: “One thing I would recommend you not to do is become aggressive. They won’t listen to you.”