The Gombe War is famous. It is also known as the “Four-Year War” of Gombe, and lasted from 1974 to 1978. It was a violent conflict between two communities in Gombe, in Tanzania. They were a single, close-knit community. Any one member of the group couldn’t have survived without the group. They shared food, and were united under one leader.
But an impartial Godly observer, looking on from above, could detect signs of rift within the community as early as 1971. They split into two groups- the Kasakela and the Kahama. They hated each other’s guts. Why? – Even the Godly observer could not tell.
Inexorably, they had drifted apart and occupied territories in the northern and southern areas- different territories- their own respective lands.
The Kahama group, in the south, consisted of six adult males, including, Hugh, Charlie and Goliath. The group also had three adult females and their young, and an adolescent male. The larger Kasakela group, meanwhile, consisted of twelve adult females and their young, and eight adult males.
The first outbreak of violence occurred on January 7, 1974 when a party of six adult Kasakela males attacked and killed “Godi”, a young Kahama male, who had been eating alone. He was hopelessly outnumbered. The Kasakela males attacked him ferociously. There was no mercy, though Godi cried and begged for his life. Over the next four years, all six of the adult male members of the Kahama were killed by the Kasakela males. Many were part of deliberate raids, with a silent party of males patrolling the edge of their territory, slowly sneaking into enemy country, and picking on solitary members one by one. The attacks were deadly. It involved extreme cruelty. Tearing out the victims genitals were common practice.
Of the females from Kahama, one was killed, two went missing, and three were beaten and kidnapped by the Kasakela males. The Kasakela then succeeded in taking over the Kahama’s former territory.
The genocide was complete.
Please note, that kasakela and the Kahama, were groups of chimpanzees. The Godly observers were humans- a group of scientists under Jane Goodall, the Chimpanzee expert. They did not intervene in the genocide of course. It would have been an encroachment on the Chimpanzees’ free will.
It was not only war. In the book ‘Chimpanzee politics’, Frans De Waal documents an in-the-group political rivalry that finally resulted in two male chimps allying to attack and kill the reigning leader. His testicles were bitten off, and he died in agony, badly mutilated and bleeding. Apparently, biting off the testicles is a favourite mode of attack among them.
Are the Godly observers so godly? We share a common ancestor a mere 6 million years ago, a mere tick in evolutionary time.
A remarkable experiment was done in 1954, in Oklahoma. A Psychologist, Muzaffer Sheriff , brought twenty two boys to a summer camp. None knew each other. He had selected the boys from various backgrounds, mostly middle class, and none had history of trouble making or criminal behaviour. He had split them into two groups, and housed them in separate parts of a large park. Neither of the groups initially knew that another group was there in the park.
As each group pitched their tents, engaged in camp activities and interacted, they bonded. A hierarchical structure emerged. There were leaders, deputees, and ardent followers. The groups gave themselves a name as a show of group identity. One called themselves ‘the eagles’ and the other was ‘the rattlers’. All this was without any prompting or interference.
Suddenly the groups learned of each other’s existence. They faced off each other now and then. Throwing insults, exchanging abuses. Each engaged in malignant gossip about members of the other group.
The experimenters organized a few ‘friendly’ competitions and games, which were performed with murderous intensity.
The groups even started raiding each other’s camps, burning flags and destroying trophies.
Then the groups were brought together for informal dinners and get-togethers. Not only did the animosity not die down, but both treated each other as if they were born enemies.
Only when, after a few days, the camp organizers arranged a few tasks, like pulling a broken down truck form a ditch, in which everyone had to pitch in to serve a common purpose that the ice slowly thawed.
At least some of us may find all this distasteful. What has this esoteric research and Chimpanzees have to do with humans? Maybe we don’t read or think about much of human history. Just like we can empathize, sympathize, trade with, understand and co operate with one another, we have ancient switches that stay buried under delicate glass cases- with a caption- “when necessary, break glass.”
These are dark, ancient and extremely powerful drives. In a permissive or provocative atmosphere, they can be switched on. Empathy and understanding can be switched off. Almost anything can be justified.
We are animals- but we can reflect on ourselves. At least, just a bit.
Let us do it.