Gilka’s life was as bleak as it was short.
She was a chimpanzee from the Kahama community of Gombe, Tanzania, and while other members of her species were known to be highly social, she preferred to keep to herself. As a child, she had enjoyed the company of her infant brother, but he was lost to a polio epidemic. She herself was afflicted by the disease and was experiencing muscular atrophy in one arm. A year later, she suffered a severe fungal infection that ravaged her elf-like features, leaving her with bizarre swelling on her nose and eyelids. Her grotesque appearance caused her to be ostracized by her kin, and she found it hard to find a mate.
Yet against all odds, one day she was found clutching a tiny infant. First-time mothers are respected in chimpanzee communities, and Gilka was no exception; she was finally accepted into community life, and she took part in communal grooming and resting. Her condition had improved too; the abnormal swelling on her face reduced drastically, leaving her with just a comically enlarged nose.
It seemed that things were looking up for her - until tragedy struck.
Gilka was nursing her infant on a balmy Tanzanian afternoon when three chimps burst out from the undergrowth. At the front was Passion, a large female from the neighboring Kasakela community, accompanied by her two sons. All was silent for a tense moment, as Passion surveyed the surroundings, fixing her eyes upon the lone mother and her daughter – then she bared her fangs, and charged at Gilka. With one arm cradling an infant and the other incapacitated by polio, Gilka was helpless, desperately struggling as the stronger chimp wrestled the infant away from her. Outnumbered and defenseless, Gilka screamed and fled as Passion’s sons chased after her.
Passion stared at the terrified infant struggling in her hands. Then she crushed its skull in her cavernous jaws, killing it instantly.
At a safe distance, a human observer watched the grisly scene unfold through a pair of binoculars. Passion was tearing away at the infant’s corpse, soon joined by her children. Gilka cautiously returned to the clearing to find the family feasting on her child. She barked in despair, turned around, and disappeared into the forest. The observer knew this was no random act of violence, but a surgical strike; Gilka’s infant was another casualty in a long and gruesome war between the Kahama community and the Kasakela community. He pulled out a radio from his belt and reported his observations.
“Passion amemwua na amemla mtoto wa Gilka.” Passion has killed and eaten Gilka’s child.
On the other end of the radio was an ethologist, who gasped in disbelief at the news. Her name was Dr. Jane Goodall, and she had been following the war closely since its inception. Her work would later revolutionize anthropology, presenting humankind with a chilling idea: war is so deeply ingrained within us, that it existed even before we were human.
After spending five years observing chimps at Gombe National Park in Tanzania, Dr. Jane Goodall published her ground-breaking study Behaviour of free-living chimpanzees in 1966. Up until then, it was believed chimpanzees were docile vegetarians that rarely engaged in aggression. Dr. Goodall’s observations suggested otherwise; she found that chimpanzees were capable of fashioning primitive tools out of sticks to dig termites out of their hills. More importantly, she found that male chimps were meticulous hunters, forming hunting parties to track down and kill colobus monkeys for their meat. The international acclaim she earned from her findings motivated her to continue her research in Gombe, where she uncovered the shocking revelation that chimps were capable of territorial “war”. Territorial aggression in the animal kingdom had been well documented in many mammals, as well as birds, reptiles and even some insects, but Dr. Goodall found that chimps were unique – they displayed a form of aggression that she perceived to be strikingly similar to that of humans.
Chimps are known to be social animals, living in large communities where they mate and raise their young in the safety of their company. Rarely do separate communities engage with one another; male chimpanzees act as protectors when outsiders find their way into a community’s territory. But when food is scarce and the group’s survival seems unlikely in the coming future, male chimps work together to systematically invade neighboring communities. Just like their hunting, their incursions are brutally tactical – they stalk through the undergrowth in silent patrols, swooping in to attack isolated individuals. While simple territorial disputes prioritise driving invaders away as opposed to killing them, warring apes are far more vicious; patrols choose to eviscerate, dismember, and even castrate their foes. However, when nursing females are encountered, invaders react differently, chasing away the mother and choosing to murder their children instead. The spared females are then accepted into the new community once the invasion is successfully completed, where they are expected to mate with the same males that once hunted them down and killed their offspring.
The males of the invaded community face a far bleaker fate: if they cannot fight back and repel the invaders, they are hunted down and killed - one by one.
Dr. Goodall’s first memory of Sniff was when he was a playful youngster who would enter her observation camp fearlessly just to open the flaps of her tent to stare at her with awe. He was a curious and intelligent chimp. He had adopted his sister at the tender age of eight, following the death of his mother due to polio. Sniff clutched his kin in his chest wherever he went, shared his food with her, and slept with her at night – until she died due to malnutrition, as she could not survive long without her mother’s milk.
Two years later, he was drafted into a war. The “Four-Year War”, as Dr. Goodall termed it, began in 1974. She had set up a feeding station, in the middle of Gombe to observe chimp sociality. Typically, the entire community of Gombe would periodically come together to feed. However, she later observed that the community had splintered into two factions – and when the two met at the feeding station, they would often attempt to drive each other away.
In the north was the Kasakela tribe, led by the alpha male Figan, a large and sturdy chimp. At his side was Satan, an even larger chimpanzee who was aptly named for his ghoulish appearance, with a heavily scarred face, graying skin and sunken eyes. While Figan was the alpha, it was Satan who led patrols alongside Figan and a mixed band of males and females.
In the south was the smaller Kahama tribe, consisting of the younger members of the community. They were led by the duo of Hugh and Charlie, two boisterous, energetic brothers. Under them was Goliath, a well-respected elder who was once closely associated with some members of the Kasakela; Godi, a quiet adolescent; De, a close friend of Sniff; Willy-Wally, a crippled but enthusiastic fellow; and Sniff himself, the youngest and most inexperienced member of the bunch.
First blood was drawn by the Kasakelas. The young Godi was not a fighter; he was an ape that preferred to eat by himself, enjoying the company of his lunch more than his kin. When the Kasakela patrol descended upon him, he stood little chance; screaming and crying as the Kasakelas pinned him down by his arms and beat him to death. Sniff’s friend De was next to meet his demise. He too was alone when he was ambushed by three apes, and was badly wounded in the confrontation. While he managed to escape before the Kasakelas finished him off, he succumbed to his injuries shortly afterward. Dr. Goodall noted that Goliath’s death was the most tragic; Goliath had greeted his old friend Satan amicably before he was kicked down. And even as the Kasakelas tore away at him, Goliath could not bring himself to fight back against the apes that he had grown up with. The alphas Hugh and Charlie were the last to go, along with little Willy Wally. The brothers had valiantly defended their sickly comrade, but to no avail; the three were found dead on the banks of the Kahama stream, their corpses covered in terrible injuries.
With all his family and friends hunted down and killed, Sniff was left alone in the world. The Kasakelas had moved southward to occupy the former Kahama territory, assimilating the females into their ranks, leaving him vulnerable to a confrontation at any time. But against all odds, Sniff managed to persevere, eluding the grasp of the Kasakela patrols for more than a year. With no clan to his name, his only hope was to join the ranks of the powerful Kalande community that occupied the forests beyond Gombe. Unfortunately, his efforts to join proved to be in vain, as the Kalande group aggressively drove him out of their territory.
Dr. Goodall’s last memory of Sniff was of him lying motionless on the forest floor while Satan stood over him, hands cupped, drinking the blood of his new victim...
The events of the Four-Year War had a profound impact on Dr. Goodall, which she documented in her memoir Through a Window: My Thirty Years with the Chimpanzees of Gombe. Her approach to behavioural study was unique at the time; she would give her chimps names based on their personality, which resulted in the development of an emotional attachment with many of them. “For so many years, I had believed that chimpanzees, while showing uncanny similarities to humans in many ways were, by and large, ‘nicer’ than us,” she said, in her memoir. “Suddenly I found that under certain circumstances they could be just as brutal, that they also had a dark side to their nature.”
Goodall’s findings held massive philosophical implications. For centuries past, the origins of war had been hotly contested. There were two schools of thought in this debate: 17th-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes believed that war was an inherent state of humanity, a state that humanity would revert to without the presence of a governing authoritative body. Conversely, 18th-century Genevan philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau believed that humanity was an inherently peaceful species until they were corrupted by the presence of authority, a force that turned humanity against itself by creating the concept of property ownership. If the chimps’ systematic takeover of enemy territory, combined with their methods of “coalitionary killing” could be considered as “war”, it would lend support to Hobbes’ beliefs. In other words, war may have been such an integral part of humanity, that it evolved before civilization, settlements, spoken language, and even humanity itself.
But what are we to make of this? If war is indeed inherited from our simian ancestors, will we, the human race, ever achieve peace?
Gilka’s life in the new Kasakela community was far from peaceful.
She had attached herself to the new alpha male, Figan, and had conceived a child with him. But Figan had little interest in her afterwards - when he discovered Gilka’s polio-ravaged body was too weak to keep up with him when he went patrolling, he left her behind. Gilka did not find solace in the females of Kasakela either. She chose to stay away from them, possibly because Passion, the killer of her firstborn, was among them.
Still, it was only inevitable that Passion and Gilka would meet again, and that history would repeat itself.
In the heat of midday, Gilka rested under the shade of the acacia tree with her newborn infant by her side. Her mate was out hunting, taking all the males of the community with him. Passion emerged silently from the undergrowth, and their eyes locked once more. This time, it was Gilka who initiated the conflict, pushing down the larger female with all her strength. It seemed, for a moment, that justice would prevail, and that Gilka would have finally attained her well-deserved revenge...but Passion’s son, Pom, jumped into the fray and pushed Gilka off his mother. And as Pom mauled Gilka, Passion picked up Gilka’s new son and killed him with a bite to the skull, just as before.
Somehow, Gilka managed to survive the conflict, but she never truly recovered. The wounds she had suffered in her fight with Passion incapacitated her permanently, leaving her unable to move any faster than a hobble. Worse still, her physical condition was so poor that she became infertile, and her former mate had no use for her. At this time, she was more isolated than ever – with no friends and no existing family, she had no reason to stay in the Kasakela community. For some time, her only company was that of Dr. Goodall herself; she had found her way to Goodall’s camp, staying close to the anthropologist’s side for her companionship, rather than the possibility of food. Of this companionship, Goodall said, “Such was my relationship with her, such was her implicit trust in this human who had known and loved her since the carefree days of her infancy, that she even allowed me to smear antibiotic cream onto the terrible ulcers on her hands.”
She was twenty years old when Dr. Goodall found her for the last time, lying silently beside a babbling brook, unmoving. “I knew, even before I got close, that she would never move again,” Jane wrote in her memoir. “As I stood there, I reflected on the long series of misfortunes that had dogged her, almost from the start.” Gilka had lived through a multitude of diseases, brutal injuries, and a war that killed most of her kin. But in death, she had finally found peace.
Steven Pinker, a world-renowned cognitive psychologist, acknowledges that warring chimps are indeed a reflection of humanity. However, in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, he contends that humanity has the capability to overcome the capacity of violence that we have inherited from our ancestors.
“Even if we did inherit a propensity for violence, it’s not the only thing we inherited,” argues Pinker. “We have self-control, empathy, reason and cognition; we have moral norms.” While war exists globally to this day, murder rates, war casualties and overall trends in violence have been decreasing drastically with every passing century. While he does not believe a zero-violence society can be achieved in the near future, Pinker does believe it to be a possibility, and as the world becomes more interconnected than ever, perhaps we, as a species, can unite to address societal issues worldwide and look towards a more peaceful future.
Thus, warring chimps do not show us that returning to our roots is inevitable. Rather, they show us what we can rise above.
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