Ape Women: 10 Dedicated Primate Researchers

Women are doing amazing work in primatology, the study of monkeys, apes, prosimians, and even humans. Although many are working on furthering our understanding of our closest relatives, we will take a look at just a few of them.

1. Vanessa Woods

Vanessa Woods is a native of Australia, a research scientist at Duke University, a writer for The Discovery Channel, and an advocate for bonobos, apes that closely resemble chimpanzees. Read about Woods research in the Congo at Bonobo Handshake and follow her blog at Psychology Today.

2. Francine Patterson

Francine "Penny" Patterson began an experiment as a graduate student in 1972. Almost 40 years later, the experiment is still going! Patterson received permission from the San Francisco Zoo to work with a one-year-old gorilla on language acquisition. So Patterson began training little Koko to use American Sign Language. The gorilla began using words within a couple of weeks, and now has a vocabulary of over a thousands words in "Gorilla Sign Language", a slightly modified form of American Sign Language. Work with Koko led Patterson to found The Gorilla Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of the lowland gorilla.

3. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh

Sue Savage-Rumbaugh spent 30 years as a language researcher at the University of Georgia, during which time she taught a bonobo named Kanzi to communicate through the use of pictograms. Savage-Rumbaugh is now doing language research at The Great Ape Trust, a research center in Des Moines, Iowa. The trust is home to six bonobos and six orangutans.

4. Claudine Andre

Claudine Andre is a Belgian researcher who grew up in the Congo. She volunteered at the Kinshasa Zoo and became enamored with bonobos. In 1994 she founded Lola Ya Bonobo, a sanctuary for orphaned bonobos in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The 60 bonobos sheltered there were mostly confiscated from poachers. Andre also founded Friends of Bonobos to support the sanctuary and is trying to find ways to return orphaned apes to the wild.

5. Sarah Hrdy

Sarah B. Hrdy is an anthropologist with the University of California at Davis. Her research into human evolution led her to study primates, starting with the behavior of Hamuman Langurs in India. Since then, Hrdy uses other primates as well to develop theories that contribute to the investigation of human sociobiology and evolution. Despite a shortage of vowels, she has written a half-dozen books on the subject of motherhood in human and other primates.

6. Sally Boysen

Sally Boysen is a psychology professor at Ohio State University. She studies cognitive development in great apes, particularly the mathematical abilities of chimpanzees. She began teaching chimpanzees to count in 1984. She later worked on teach several chimps to read, including one named Sheeba, who lived with Boysen for almost all her life.

7. Mireya Mayor

Mireya Mayor is an anthropologist who studies primates and other wildlife in Africa. In 2000, she discovered a mouse lemur that is the world's smallest primate, a find that led to the establishment of a national park in Madagascar to conserve the tiny animal. A former Miami Dolphins cheerleader, Mayor received her PhD from Stony Brook University in 2008. She is a host at Nat Geo Wild where her show Mystery Gorillas is now running. Mayor's new series Wild Nights will premiere in August. Her adventures will be chronicled in a forthcoming book.

8. Birute Galdikas

Birute Galdikas has dedicated her life to orangutans; their study, protection, and conservation. She was born in Germany to Lithuanian parents and grew up in Toronto. Galdikas received her PhD in anthropology at UCLA. She launched her dream of studying orangs in Borneo with the help of renowned anthropologist Louis Leakey in 1971, and became one of "Leakey's Angels". Since then, Galdikas has been based in Asia. She founded The Orangutan Foundation International in 1986 to fund orangutan research. Galdikas isn't a hero to everyone in Indonesia, where she fights for acreage to be set aside for the apes, and fights against those who wish to use the land for more profitable endeavors. She is now a citizen of Indonesia, but spends a few months every year teaching at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia. She is also a full professor at Universitas Nasional in Jakarta.

9. Dian Fossey

Dian Fossey was another of Leakey's Angels. Fossey lived in Rwanda for 18 years studying the mountain gorilla in its natural habitat. She approached and befriended a colony of gorillas, gaining their trust over time, and was even accepted as a member of their group. Over the years, Fossey wrote about her relationship with the gorillas, which led to the supporting of her work through the Digit Fund (named after her favorite juvenile gorilla), which later grew into the organization The Gorilla Fund. Fossey's conservation efforts were not welcomed by Rwandan poachers, whom she fought tooth and nail. She was found murdered in her cabin in 1985. The crime was never solved. Fossey had already written the book Gorillas in the Mist, which became a major motion picture in 1988.

10. Jane Goodall

The third member of Leakey's Angels here, Jane Goodall is currently the premier authority on chimpanzees. Goodall first traveled to Africa from her native England in 1957. There, she met and impressed Louis Leakey, who hired her to do research on chimpanzees. Goodall began her research at Gombe, Tanganyika (now Tanzania). Over the years, she documented the social structure of a chimpanzee colony and reported on it for National Geographic Magazine. Goodall founded the Jane Goodall Institute in 1977. The foundation works to conserve areas where chimpanzees can flourish, and funds research into our understanding of these apes who are so closely related to us. In 1994, Goodall also founded TACARE, an organization dedicated to helping the people of Tanzania. Now 76, she travels the world to educate people about apes and raise funds for chimpanzee conservation.

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Keith Holmes/Hakai Institute
Ice Age Human Footprints in Canada Reveal a Walk on the Beach Taken 13,000 Years Ago
Calvert Island
Calvert Island
Keith Holmes/Hakai Institute

The prehistoric mariners rowed their canoe into a secluded channel and then onto the island's sandy beach, just above the high-tide mark. One person got out of the boat and stood for a moment, facing northwest. Others, including another barefoot adult and child, followed the leader and walked toward higher, drier land.

Today, roughly 13,000 years later, their footprints have been preserved in a layer of sediment and confirmed to date from the last ice age. The discovery, on Calvert Island on the central coast of British Columbia, Canada, adds to the growing body of evidence that suggests ancient humans crossed from Asia to North America and traveled south along the Pacific shoreline.

"This finding provides evidence of the seafaring people who inhabited this area during the tail end of the last major ice age," said University of Victoria anthropologist Duncan McLaren, lead author of the new study in the journal PLOS One, in a statement.

Archaeologists on Calvert Island, British Columbia, Canada
Researchers Daryl Fedje (left) and Duncan McLaren (right) dig at the Calvert Island site.
Grant Callegari/Hakai Institute

Most anthropologists believe that early peoples migrated from Asia to North America across Beringia, the region where Russia's Chukchi Peninsula and Alaska face each other across the Bering Strait. Then the migrants took two possible routes. One popular theory, proposed in the 1930s, suggests people traveled south along an ice-free corridor that lay on the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains where two colossal ice sheets split from one other. A more recent theory proposes that they sailed along a coastal route from Alaska to Washington State.

The coastal route lies within the territories of the Heiltsuk First Nation and Wuikinuxv First Nation. Their oral histories describe how the scattered islands between the open ocean and the edge of the ice sheet remained unglaciated. On these refuges, their ancestors subsisted on the abundant fish, shellfish, and marine mammals and likely used watercraft to travel between the islands. "Heiltsuk oral history talks about our people living in our territory before the ice age, and talks about the physical features of the landscape that our people witnessed change over time due to the ice, which influenced things like place names in our territory," William Housty, chair of the Heiltsuk Integrated Resource Management Department board of directors, tells Mental Floss.

Archaeological evidence affirming the histories is scarce, in part because few researchers have focused on the area. In 2014, McLaren and colleagues from the University of Victoria and the Hakai Institute, along with representatives of the First Nations, began combing the beach at a Calvert Island site called EjTa-4 for sediments dating back to the late Pleistocene epoch (also known as the Ice Age, which ended 11,700 years ago). Back then, the sea level around Calvert Island was 6.5 to 10 feet lower than it is today, so the team concentrated on the intertidal zone. After probing several test holes, they found what appeared to be footprints near the base of a huge shell midden.

A 13,000-year-old human footprint on Calvert Island, British Columbia, Canada
A photo of Track #17 beside a digitally enhanced image of the same feature. Note the toe impressions and arch, which indicate that this is a right footprint.
Duncan McLaren

Over the next three field seasons, they continued to excavate a 6.5-foot-by-13-foot pit, removing strata of sand, pebbles, and organic matter before striking the layer of clay. "The site was below the high-tide water line, so we only had one day from the time we opened the last layer. When the high tide came up it would wash everything away," Jennifer Walkus, the research liaison between the Wuikinuxv Nation and Hakai Institute, tells Mental Floss. "We had an idea from the test pit the previous year that there might be footprints, so we knew that day was going to be busy. It was amazing as the last layer was pulled up and the measurements were taken."

In the substrate, the team found 29 individual human tracks, darkened by time, left by at least three different people—two adults and a child—based on the dimensions of the individual prints. "The fact that they were footprints was more and more obvious as the measurements came in and there were three lengths," Wallkus says. The orientation of some of the tracks at the ancient shoreline indicated that a group of people may have disembarked from a watercraft and walked northwest, toward higher ground, with their backs to the prevailing wind.

Researchers also collected samples of clay and fragments of shore pine from the sand underneath the prints. Radiocarbon dating confirmed that the pine bits, and the footprints, were between 13,317 and 12,633 years old.

"I can't speak for the Nation as a whole, but for me, it's a validation of the fact that we have been here for much longer than the previous narrative," Walkus says. "The fact that these footprints put people in the vicinity in the time of glacial recession underlines that our legends are grounded in living in our area over huge spans of time."

When William Housty, who was not present at the dig, heard of the discovery, "I immediately started to think about our first ancestors and the stories of their origin," he says. "I also thought that, once again, science [and] archeology have confirmed what our oral history has been telling us all along."

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University of York
UK Archaeologists Have Found One of the World’s Oldest 'Crayons'
University of York
University of York

A prehistoric chunk of pigment found near an ancient lake in England may be one of the world's oldest crayons, Colossal reports. The small object made of red ochre was discovered during an archaeological excavation near Lake Flixton, a prehistoric lake that has since become a peat wetland but was once occupied by Mesolithic hunter-gatherers. Though it’s hard to date the crayon itself, it was found in a layer of earth dating back to the 7th millennium BCE, according to a recent study by University of York archaeologists.

Measuring less than an inch long, the piece of pigment is sharpened at one end, and its shape indicates that it was modified by a person and used extensively as a tool, not shaped by nature. The piece "looks exactly like a crayon," study author Andy Needham of the University of York said in a press release.

A pebble of red ochre thought to be a prehistoric crayon
University of York

The fine grooves and striations on the crayon suggest that it was used as a drawing tool, and indicate that it might have been rubbed against a granular surface (like a rock). Other research has found that ochre was collected and used widely by prehistoric hunter-gatherers like the ones who lived near Lake Flixton, bolstering the theory that it was used as a tool.

The researchers also found another, pebble-shaped fragment of red ochre at a nearby site, which was scraped so heavily that it became concave, indicating that it might have been used to extract the pigment as a red powder.

"The pebble and crayon were located in an area already rich in art," Needham said. "It is possible there could have been an artistic use for these objects, perhaps for coloring animal skins or for use in decorative artwork."

[h/t Colossal]

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