It’s a fact that we the humans most of the times have the perception that we are distinct from other animals. That there exists a line between mankind and the rest of the animal kingdom. This serves as a very good excuse when we want to exploit them in experiments or in food industries or even when caging them for touristic views. At the same time the feeling of superiority towards them is very useful for the self-esteem of our species. There is a need to be mentioned that the Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness doesn’t agree with the above views from the side of mankind however today I am not planning to elaborate on this. This time I prefer to present only the most important example hoping that this article will lead at least to some useful concerns about our real natural tendencies.
The Third Chimpanzee (a.k.a Dr. Jared Diamond)
If you think that we descended from apes you are not correct. We are apes. Homo Sapiens belongs to the five surviving species of great apes, along with chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans and of course bonobos (Pan paniscus). With the latter and the chimps (Pan troglodytes) we changed “evolutionary branches” around 5 million years ago which isn’t a so long time in evolutionary terms. This means that we shared with these two a common ancestor just at that time. And do not make any confusion with monkeys with whom the apes parted ways somewhere around 30 million years ago. Before reading anything more remember that:
We share approximately 98,4% of the same genetic code with bonobos and chimps Molecular Biology shows.
And while our observable differences make us distinguish ourselves from them, the only reason is that since our common ancestor they remained similar while humans evolved dramatically. In fact bonobos are closer to human beings (they differ by 1,6%) than to gorillas (they differ by 2,3%). To better understand our similarities think for example that such closely related North American bird species as red-eyed vireos and white eyed vireos differ by 2,9%! Or that we are closer to bonobos than an Indian elephant to an African elephant. (The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal)
Due to the fact that bonobos are so similar to chimpanzees (99,3%) the anatomists hadn’t even bothered giving them a separate name till 1929. At that time they called them pygmy chimpanzees because on average they were smaller than the common ones. Their home is only in a remote area of dense jungle in a political volatile country (Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly Zaire), so scientists were unable to study them until the mid of 1970’s. Sadly, these amazing apes are highly endangered, classified by the IUCN Red List as facing possible extinction and their world population is only 10,000-35,000 (Depending on the source).
As for the physical characteristics Bonobos can be distinguished from chimpanzees by their pink lips and black faces. Bonobos have black hair that parts down the center of their heads, covering part of their ears. Compared to chimps, bonobos have a noticeably smaller head and ears, a flatter face and a less prominent brow ridge. Perhaps the most interesting difference is the bonobo’s ability to stand up and walk bipedally (on just two feet) more easily and more often than chimpanzees. Bonobo anatomy is more similar to Australopithecus, one of our evolutionary ancestors.
Kanzi and Bonobo High Intelligence
Research on bonobos has revealed that are primates gifted with extraordinary intelligence. Bonobos are the most vocal of the great apes. Their vocal communication is complex, frequent and often accompanied by hand gestures. Vocal communication plays an important role in bonobo society. When humans tried to study the language acquisition skills of them understood that the design of their head and throat don’t let them create human sounds and speak words. Actually, their tongue doesn’t have enough space to move. However, it seems that they have the ability to understand human language. According to Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, a primatologist who has studied a bonobo named Kanzi throughout her life, he has exhibited advanced linguistic aptitude. Kanzi learned to communicate using a keyboard with lexigrams, can supposedly vocalize 500 English words, understand their meanings, and make coherent and original sentences. He can also make tools out of stone. Watch these two tiny videos to observe his amazing abilities. In the first he uses the lexigram where he has learnt to match concepts with sounds. In the second watch how well he performs what he is told to do. I highly recommend to watch the corresponding documentary from NHK, Japan Broadcasting Corporation, in collaboration with the National Institute of Child Health and Development (1993).
A Female Dominated Society
A typical bonobo community is matriarchal and females are the ones that are fed first when food is available. In fact the females may share the food with each other and males will wait for their turn. Bonobos are essentially frugivores (fruit makes up half of their diet), but they also eat vegetation and occasionally supplement their diet with insects, larvae, earthworms, eggs, and even small mammals. Male bonobos actually depend on their mothers for their whole lives. On the other hand females migrate to other groups during adolescence.
In the book Sex at Dawn, Dr. Christopher Ryan describes that for bonobos female status is more important than male hierarchy. Even though bonobos have no formalized rituals of dominance and submission unlike the other apes, the status is not completely absent but can be substituted with the term “influential”. The primatologist Takayoshi Kano believes that females are respected out of affection, rather than because of rank. So, Bonobo tribes are highly egalitarian and peaceful, maintained primarily through social bonding between females.
Much of Bonobo life revolves around one activity: Sex. Actually scientists believe that serves to promote bonding, reduce tensions, and share pleasure. Sex for bonobos is not only taking place during the fertility days of the females but throughout their whole menstrual circle same as humans, a trait not so common in the animal kingdom. Bonobos are extremely diverse in their social and sexual interactions. They do not form permanent monogamous partnerships and have sex without regard to age or gender, except for avoidance of relations between a mother and her adult sons. And of course these raises questions about the natural or unnatural origins of homosexuality.
Bonobos practically represent the meaning of : “Make Love, not War”. It seems intimacy makes it hard to stay angry. Scientists believe that the usual sexual encounters are a significant factor in maintaining peace. In fact after around 50 years of observation there has never ever been observed a single act of violence. While chimps are more aggressive and usually engage in acts of violence, it seems that in bonobos the opposite happens. A group of Japanese researchers that had been studying bonobos for twenty years described a typical meeting of different troops as follows: When the groups meet each other the male bonobos become excited and start posturing at each other from their side of the boundary line. But the females take a different course of action. They all get together, start grooming each other and eating together. So after a while the males give up… Bonobo Ape – Our Closest Relative (Nature Documentary)
Bonobos are the only non-human animal to have been observed engaging in all of the following sexual activities: face-to-face genital sex (though a pair of western gorillas has been photographed performing face-to-face genital sex), tongue kissing, oral sex, genital caressing by hand, penis-fencing by two males, male-on-male mounting, and genito-genital rubbing by two estrous females, who smoosh their swollen vulvas back and forth against each other in a spate of feverish sisterly cordiality. Usually there’s no orgasm culminating these activities, said David Quammen in an essay for the National Geographic magazine.
“Whereas the chimpanzee shows little variation in the sexual act, bonobos behave as if they have read the Kama Sutra, performing every position and variation one can imagine,” biologist Frans de Waal said in the same article.
Bonobos Can Teach Us
Bonobos are the most caring of all apes. They may care for other species, too. A female bonobo may try to treat an injured bird, for example. Furthermore, Bonobos have mediators for conflicts. If two Bonobos get in a dispute, a third, uninvolved Bonobo is capable of resolving it by allowing both opposing parties to groom the third party and overcome their differences through the joys of eating small insects together. Scientists have now understood that traits such as kindness and empathy on such levels are not unique in humans. Interestingly, Bonobos have passed the mirror-self recognition test, making them one of the few animals which is capable of understanding that their duplicate in a mirror is not a different Bonobo on the other side of a window (Theory of Mind).
Bonobos can teach us many ethical and societal structures that create possibilities of having peaceful relationships. Bonobo don’t find jealousy romantic. Even though they may share unique feelings they don’t care so much about controlling each other’s sexual lives. Also, for them “casual” doesn’t necessarily mean “empty” or “cheap” as Dr. Christopher Ryan describes in an article in Psychologytoday.com. In fact are very romantic: like humans, they kiss, hold hands (and feet!), and gaze into one another’s eyes while having sex. Feminism, as well, can be very sexy. Women are in charge and all (and the males) are having a good time. I believe after talking about bonobos and our proven genetic similarities we can easily consider that maybe exist some designed human features that have been neglected through social structures and lead us to decrease our lives’ quality. For example, as James Prescott demonstrated in a meta-analysis of all available anthropological data, the connection between less restrictive sexuality and less conflict generally holds true for human societies as well.
You can see a brilliant selection of pictures in arkive.org