CHIMP WARS: How Two Societies of Chimpanzees Engaged in a Four-Year Civil War

Initially observed by famous researcher Jane Goodall in the 1970s. The true story of the Chimpanzee wars revealed a huge anthropological finding in our own human ability for societies to splinter and separate.

The story goes that a tribe of Chimpanzees engaged in war during a societal split; when a large party of the tribe mutinied and separated. This caused a four-year war over territory and resources between the great apes.

The GOMBE WAR reveals an inner truth about our own human propensity for genocide and bloodshed.

It is regrettable that since colonial independence Africa as a continent has been subject to many civil wars including the horrors of the Congo, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Angola and Libya. However; the Gombe War is the strangest African war that you will read; it is a key piece in the puzzle of human creation — it is a story that is 10 million years in the making.

The setting was the Gombe Stream National Park (Tanzania) where Jane Goodall based herself in observing chimpanzees. Primatologist Goodall was fortunate to observe them in their pure and natural habitat.

For many years it was believed that chimpanzees were a cute, caring and cuddly cousins to Humanity. Recent years have seen a shift in our perception of these great apes as they are now depicted to be a violent, vindictive species with a brutal social system that relies on power and brute force — and we know this due to the immense research carried out by the likes of Goodall. The chimpanzees are a far cry from the Bonobos, a similar simian species whose entire society is propagated by peace, love and sex. For Goodall, it was a shock to her own belief system to see the savagery on display. It is also interesting to note that our own DNA sequence is much closer to the chimps than the bonobos. That is of course, if you believe in evolutionary theory.

There has been much recent discussion into chimpanzee societies which are both hierarchal with a political power system that would make a Game of Thrones fan blush. “Alpha” Male chimpanzees are observed to bully their way to the top sometimes in a violent putsch and seemingly often fall from grace under the same circumstances. Think the plot of Macbeth but with our simian friends.

It has been observed that chimpanzees can lose power all at the stroke of losing a fist fight and then they will receive shunning and social ostracization within their community. The Gombe War is a perfect example of the type of violent and complex political structure of wild Chimps.

Let’s look at what happened when Jane Goodall observed the war all those years ago…

Initially comprising of the Kahama Community (named after the region where Goodall was researching) — the warring chimps were initially just one tribe within the Kasakela region of the Gombe National Park.

It is hard to identify what caused the split. But a senior male named Leakey had died in late 1970. An older and more established tribal member and apparent Alpha-leader before his death. Leakey’s death is what caused the split between northern and southern chimps in that region. Another chimp — dubbed Humphrey — succeeded Leakey; but apparent flaws in Humphrey’s leadership style caused discontent and Humphrey’s ineffective leadership then precipitated an attempted coup perpetrated by brothers Hugh and Charlie.

It sounds like the plot of some melodramatic soap opera, but these were the actual events that were observed by Goodall and her team of Primatologists. Chimps are clearly much like us — they respond well to strong leadership and poorly to crap leadership. The fabric of their complex societies were torn at the passing of one of their leaders. It is reminiscent of events in tyrannical dictatorships which can sometimes lead to immense disharmony when a strong leader is either ousted or dies (Libya and Iraq spring to mind).

The core of the Kahama community then saw the apes split into two with a large number following Humphrey and about half following Hugh and Charlie. Over the next four years Humphrey’s group used search and destroy tactics to annihilate the rebel males. Groups would slip into the mutinous territory and savagely beat a chimp to death as they slept.

The Humphrey-led chimps were noted for their cunning and sly attacks. They exploited weaknesses when carrying out attacks, for example attacking while the other tribe were sleeping and attacks when chimpanzees are most defenceless, during feeding times.

Chimpanzees have a tendency to eat alone and do not share with friends and family (despite the social nature of chimpanzee societies, it would appear that they do not like to share food — like Joey from Friends). The Kasakela group would carry out raid attack on isolated Kahama soldiers during feeding times which would then result in a Kahama fatality.

The civil war ended when all of the male in the Kahama group were killed. When the males were all wiped out, the victorious males targeted the females to begin a process of assimilation. Three females were taken by force in a cocky display of savoring the spoils of war and those that resisted were beaten and murdered. Sound familiar? Yes, the apes were committing the same war crimes as the Mongols in their conquest of Eurasia.

By 1978 the Kahama group no longer existed and the entire region belonged to Kasakela drawing a close to the Gombe War — a war of murder, genocide and conquest.

While the findings were initially received with a lukewarm response when first published, it is now a famous example of how similar we are to our cousins. Not only does it demonstrate where we may have originally got our own lust for violence (descending from a chimp-like species all those years ago), but it also shows how complex the societies of these simians are. It draws away from the cute and cuddly image and shows the harsh realities of a war-mongering and brutal way of life that is hoisted up by complex hierarchical, political system.

Soon after their own conquests in Tanzania, the Kasakela tribe were then forced out of additional territory by another large group of chimpanzees and on and on the struggle goes.

A world of continuous warfare and a tale that is 10 million years old. It is reminiscent of the opening to Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ which remarkably pre-dated the Gombe War by six years.

Angry Chimpanzee | Gorilas


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