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Africa Geographic Travel

Information and pictures provided by: Dr David Beaune

Bonobos are our closest living relatives along with chimpanzees. We share a common ancestor with bonobos and chimpanzees, which dates to 5-6 million years ago, and approximately 98% of our DNA with both species.

In fact they are so closely related to us that an increasing number of scientists propose a fusion of the genus of our cousins Pan, with our own genus Homo. The Great Ape Project  was launched in the 1990s as an appeal by 36 scientists from different disciplines to equalise legal rights of humans and the other great apes. The central point of the initiative is the “Declaration on Great Apes”, securing three basic rights for all great apes: 1. The Right to Life; 2. Protection of Individual Freedom; 3. The Prohibition of Torture. We continue to discover fascinating biological facts about our cousins who are in danger of extinction. A few of these are described here.

  • Kanzi and Pan-Banisha, the famous bonobo couple who have gained widespread attention for their skills in language, have lived in the stimulating environment of the Great Ape Trust of Iowa since 2005. They can light a fire with a lighter, cook a meal, roast marshmallows and perform other impressive tasks. Their reported tool production and utilization for food retrieval (digging or breaking wooden logs) exhibits Homo-like technological competencies. Bonobos, like chimpanzees, use less dramatic tools for social purposes, games or comfort such as using specific leaves for cleaning and the use of leaves as umbrellas during spells of rain. Another remarkable point is that just like chimpanzees, female bonobos are more willing to use tools than males.
  • Bonobos, like gorillas and chimpanzees, show a human-like asymmetry in language-related brain areas. We share several communicative roots like the gestural NO by head shaking. Gestural communications include sexual invitation with body posture and hand raising, begging, embracing, mouth/tongue kissing, kicking, slapping, etc. with facial nuance and context dependence.
  • They can communicate a wide range of information and are even able to talk with us with the help of technology. Kanzi understands spoken English and communicates with a lexigram keyboard. In the wild, bonobos exchange long distance calls (high hoot) between groups.
  • Male bonobos are born and die in the same group while females of 6–13 years emigrate to neighboring groups. Males will stay all their lives with their mothers. Females are accepted into new groups by weaving future alliances. Female chimpanzees do not have frequent social interactions with other females, whereas female bonobos maintain close social associations with one another.
  • Females most often initiate sexual interactions and have priority of access to preferred food and will sometimes chase or be aggressive towards males. Females are so influential in the groups that mothers improve the mating success of their sons when present and, in male-on-male aggression, mothers and females can intervene and decide the outcome of the situation, and thereby influence their son’s rank in the hierarchy.
  • Bonobos are non-violent and mainly engage in chasing acts, submissive behaviours and deference. Bonobos are highly tolerant and cooperative. While most primate groups have territorial conflicts, bonobos behave peacefully with neighbouring communities. When two groups meet, they often engage in inter-group sexual relations (often female-female), grooming, feeding and foraging together, and sometimes sleeping at the same nesting place.
  • Because they use sexual behavior in several contexts where other species use aggression, bonobos may be viewed as peaceful. However several injuries have been observed in captivity and in the wild, resulting from beatings, or biting on fingers, faces, or genitals. Recently, the public was shocked by a case of cannibalism among wild bonobos where a baby was consumed by a group, including the mother. We should note that the cause of death remains unknown and violence was not observed. Before the carcass was eaten (it was, after all, meat), the mother, with great affection, carried her offspring’s body around with her for a whole day. Indeed, bonobos are not the pure vegetarians that we first thought them to be. Bonobos kill and eat duikers, birds, rodents and monkeys.
  • The bonobo is our lubricous cousin, performing Kama Sutra positions all day long, with intercourse lasting less than a minute (usually a few seconds). Compared to us, bonobos’ frequency of intercourse is definitely higher.
  • Sex is routinely used for non-reproductive goals (tension-reduction, reconciliation, bartering for social favors, and sex for food exchanges). Behavioral observations support the hypothesis that sex reduces tension and is the basis of this largely peaceful society.
  • Bonobos practice public sex rather than the more secretive sexuality of humans and chimpanzees.Bonobos are bisexual apes and homosexual encounters are common, especially among females. Sex seems to be the cement for social bonds. This is why females use it predominantly for their alliances. Sex with high-ranking females could be strategic for subordinates, who will often call loudly for an audience to acknowledge the scene.
  • They perform multiple positions not found in other non-human primates (such as the missionary position). Males can be observed mounting other males without intromission or performing face to face fencing with erect penises. Bonobos seem to have no limits to the choice of sexual partners with the exception of incest.

This information was gleamed from the study: Latest news from the bonobos: Pan paniscus myths and realities. 

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