Tragedy in the Forest

Primate researcher Ruth Davis’s death under mysterious circumstances in 1969 is the focus of a new book
Ruth Davis in the forest in Tanzania with a chimpanzee in 1969
Ruth Davis and the chimpanzee Figan in 1969. “It’s an extraordinary experience, getting away from camp and essentially becoming a chimpanzee, and leaving your own sense of being a person behind,” said Dale Peterson. Photo: Courtesy of Dale Peterson
July 3, 2018

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On July 12, 1969, a young American researcher named Ruth Davis followed a chimpanzee away from primatologist Jane Goodall’s research station in the Gombe forest in western Tanzania. Six days later, she was found floating at the bottom of a waterfall.

Could an experienced researcher who constantly trekked through the forest with chimpanzees have slipped and fallen to her death? Could her increasing anxiety and alienation from her colleagues have led her to jump? Or was she pushed? These are all questions that Dale Peterson, an English department lecturer, tackles in his new book The Ghosts of Gombe: A True Story of Love and Death in an African Wilderness (University of California Press).

The book was a long time coming. More than a decade ago, Peterson heard from his friend, Geza Teleki, a primate researcher and Davis’s former colleague and lover in Gombe, that he had awoken one night recently to a vision of Davis climbing into his bed; she vanished when he scrambled away.

It wasn’t the only “ghost” story about Ruth. “She really haunted people,” said Peterson. “And she haunted me. I identified with her strongly. I was troubled by the idea that she might have been pushed.”

Based on dozens of hours of interviews with Teleki and another of Davis’s former colleagues, Carole Gale, as well as letters, journals, official records, photographs, and interviews with several other people who had been at Gombe during the late 1960s, The Ghosts of Gombe gives readers a vivid picture of everyday life and work in Goodall’s camp—a portrait of a rugged, remote place where the local Waha people say hostile earth spirits make their homes. It is also the story of Davis, an intense, introverted young woman who left Washington, D.C., for a research camp in remotest Africa.

The chimpanzees often steal the story as adroitly as they steal the bananas that researchers try to protect in locked metal boxes and the equipment the chimps throw and smash to intimidate their rivals. Charging at people for the fun of seeing them run, inviting a researcher with a branch-shaking display to mate—the nonhuman primates seem to show a startling humanity themselves.

“It’s an extraordinary experience, getting away from camp and essentially becoming a chimpanzee, and leaving your own sense of being a person behind,” said Peterson, who has written books on primates—several particularly on chimpanzees—and has followed chimps through the forest himself.

Davis may have begun to lose herself in that kind of experience, Peterson theorizes. As her bond with the chimpanzees grew stronger, she pulled away from her fellow researchers, writing to Teleki, who had earlier left the camp, about episodes of panic, despair, and fear for the primates’ future. She began to see herself as more chimpanzee than human, which may have contributed to her fall that day in 1969, Peterson suggests in the book.

But it’s just a theory, he stresses. “When I began writing this book, why she fell was a mystery. And for me, it’s not fully resolved,” Peterson said. “We can never know exactly what happened.”

Teleki and Gale passed away before The Ghosts of Gombe was finished, but Peterson believes they died at peace, knowing their friend’s story would be told. As for Peterson, he now has a different understanding of ghosts.  

“As I wrote the book, I realized the idea of a ghost is also a vision of alienation, and that became a metaphor for what I saw going on,” Peterson said. “Ruth was alienated from other people. Then there’s psychological alienation, meaning we don’t really see individuals of another species; they’re not relevant to us.”

The chimpanzees that Davis worried so much about are still endangered. “Conservation is going downhill for every single large mammal species in the world,” said Peterson, who’s just finished his next book—his twenty-first—about another endangered species, elephants.

But, he noted, research continues at Gombe, now run primarily by Africans—and, perhaps thanks partly to Peterson and Goodall’s writings and advocacy, the U.S. National Institutes of Health largely stopped experiments on chimpanzees in 2013, and sent its last remaining research chimpanzees to live in sanctuaries in 2015. “It’s a hopeful sign,” Peterson said.

Monica Jimenez can be reached at monica.jimenez@tufts.edu.