Women in Primatology: Goodall, Fossey, and Galdikas

The Founding Mothers of Primatology: Birute Galdikas, Jane Gooodall and Dian Fossey (left to right)

The Founding Mothers of Primatology: Birute Galdikas, Jane Gooodall and Dian Fossey (left to right)

“I spent many years longing to go to Africa, because of what that continent offered in its wilderness and great diversity of free-living animals. Finally, I realized that dreams seldom materialize on their own...” – Dian Fossey

In the mid-20th century, very little was known about the behavior of hominids, a taxonomic group that includes chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans and bonobos, as well as ancient and living humans. The late Dr. Louis Leakey, an anthropologist who pioneered the study of human evolution, wanted someone to head to the field and study the behavior of primates in their natural environment, anticipating that such studies would better our understanding of our own evolution.

Three women happened to come across an opportunity during that time. Each woman, independently, reached out to Leakey to ask about working with him. Each, independently, made an impression on him and was hired almost immediately to venture into the jungles and to study primates in the wild. In 1960, Jane Goodall went to study chimpanzees at Gombe in Tanzania; in 1967, Dian Fossey began her extended study of mountain gorillas in the Virunga Mountains of Rwanda. In 1971, Birute Galdikas began field studies of orangutans in the jungles of Borneo. Dian Fossey studied gorillas in Africa until she was murdered in 1985. She fought continuously against poachers in the region and for the conservation of gorillas, and many think her tenacity played a factor in her murder. Despite her tragic death, Fossey, and the two other women, together nicknamed the “Trimates”, shaped the way we see our closest relatives.

Among their scientific achievements were the discoveries that humans were not the only tool-users (Goodall 1964), that apes had complex social and mating systems (Fossey 1976), and that females invest huge amounts of energy and resources in raising their young (Galdikas 1981). Living among the great apes, the Trimates reshaped the way that humans understand their own behavior, and transformed the entire scientific method behind primatology. These women revolutionized the field of primate behavior and anthropology- breaking down the barriers established by the male-dominated academic institutions.

“The Trimates tracked uncharted paths toward communities of apes that were little understood by anyone. One can only wonder what each was thinking; men, let alone women, hadn’t spent the intense time they would observing animals in their native habitats… [Leakey] theorized that women should do this research, for he had long admired their abilities in the field… He wanted someone with a mind uncluttered and unbiased by theory... someone with a sympathetic understanding of animals… Women, he decided, read social cues and observed the nature around them differently from men.” (Julie 2010)

References and Further Reading
The "Trimates," The Founding Mothers of Primatology; 2015, Nathan H Lents, Human Evolution Blog.
Fossey, D. (1976). The Behaviour of the Mountain Gorilla (Doctoral dissertation, University of Cambridge).
Galdikas, B. M. (1981). Orangutan reproduction in the wild. The reproductive biology of the great apes, 281-300.
Goodall, J. (1964). Tool-using and aimed throwing in a community of free-living chimpanzees. Nature, 201(4926), 1264.
Julie, D. (2010). The Madame Curie complex: The hidden history of women in science. The Feminist Press at CUNY.


Ronnie Bailey-Steinitz

Ronnie Steinitz is an ecologist and conservation biologist. Her research revolves around food-web interactions, primarily competition and predation. She is currently a Ph.D. student in the Integrative Anthropological Sciences Program at the University of California, Santa Barbara, studying food-web interactions in several species of primates in Kibale National Park, Uganda. She also collaborates with US Geological Survey to study bobcat (Lynx rufus) prey preference with in Southern California.

You can find her on her website: The Roaming Ecologist.

Instagram: @RoamingEcologist

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