In this long read Ian Parker travels to the Congo with researchers to learn more about the bonobo a great ape which—if you’ve heard of them—has a particular mystique in modern culture.
the apes, which she described as “bisexual,” engaged in various kinds of sexual activity in order to defuse conflict and maintain a tranquil society.
“Pleasure eases pain; good sex defuses tension; love lessens violence; you can’t very well fight a war while you’re having an orgasm.”
the bonobo has found a strange niche in the popular imagination, based largely on its reputation for peacefulness and promiscuity
This pop image of the bonobo—equal parts dolphin, Dalai Lama, and Warren Beatty—has flourished largely in the absence of the animal itself, which was recognized as a species less than a century ago.
The author ventures into the Jungles of Congo to see bonobos for himself. Along with Hohmann, Fowler, and Matthews.
Fowler called it [being a “habituator”] “chimp-bothering.” (Watching bonobos, I understood, is not like ornithology; there’s no pretense that you’re not there.) It gave an insight into the pace of bonobo studies to realize that, nearly five years after Hohmann first reached Lui Kotal, this process of habituation and identification—upon which serious research depends—remained unfinished.
most of the interesting bonobo questions were still unanswered. Is male aggression kept in check by females? Why do females give birth only every five to seven years, despite frequent sexual activity?
chimpanzees evolved north of the Congo River, bonobos to the south. Chimpanzees came to inhabit far-flung landscapes that had various tree densities; bonobos largely stayed in thick, gloomy forest. (Chimpanzees had to compete for resources with gorillas; but bonobos never saw another ape—one theory argues that this richer environment, by allowing bonobos to move and feed together as a leisurely group, led to the evolution of reduced rancor.)
In 1972, Arthur Horn, a doctoral candidate in physical anthropology at Yale, was encouraged by his department to travel alone to Zaire; on the shore of Lake Tumba, three hundred miles northwest of Kinshasa, he embarked on the first bonobo field study.
“With bonobos, everything is peaceful,” Takeshi Furuichi, a Japanese researcher who worked with Kano at Wamba, told me. “When I see bonobos, they seem to be enjoying their lives. When I see chimpanzees, I am very, very sorry for them, especially for the high-ranking males. They really have to pay attention.”
“I became sure that the boundaries between apes and humans were very fluid,” he said. “You can’t call them animals. I prefer ‘creatures.’ It was haunting, the way they knew as much about you as you knew about them.” It became his task “to show how close we are to bonobos, and they to us.”Frans Lanting, a Dutch photographer
de Waal told me, “The bonobo is female-dominated, doesn’t have warfare, doesn’t have hunting. And it has all this sex going on, which is problematic to talk about—it’s almost as if people wanted to shove the bonobo under the table.”
Though de Waal stopped short of placing bonobos in a state of blissful serenity (he acknowledged a degree of bonobo aggression), he certainly left a reader thinking that these animals knew how to live. He wrote, “Who could have imagined a close relative of ours in which female alliances intimidate males, sexual behavior is as rich as ours, different groups do not fight but mingle, mothers take on a central role, and the greatest intellectual achievement is not tool use but sensitivity to others?”
“Those who learn about bonobos fall too much in love, like in the gay or feminist community. All of a sudden, here we have a politically correct primate, at which point I have to get into the opposite role, and calm them down: bonobos are not always nice to each other.”
In the wild, bonobos live in communities of a few dozen. They move around in smaller groups during the day, in the pattern of a bus-tour group let loose at a tourist attraction, then gather together each night, to build new treetop nests of bent and half-broken branches. But they stay in the same neighborhood for a lifetime.
A male bonobo typically has a lifelong alliance with its mother.
The article goes on to discuss some stories of bonobo violence observed in Zoos and some other rare violence observed in the wild.
tales of violence do not recast the bonobo as a brute. (Nor does new evidence, from Lui Kotal, that bonobos hunt and eat other primates.) But such accounts can be placed alongside other challenges to claims of sharp differences between bonobos and chimpanzees. For example, a study published in 2001 in the American Journal of Primatology asked, “Are Bonobos Really More Bipedal Than Chimpanzees?” The answer was no.
Humans, chimpanzees, and bonobos share a common ancestor. Was this creature bonobo-like, as Hohmann suspects? Did the ancestral forest environment select for male docility, and did Homo and the chimpanzee then both dump that behavior, independently, as they evolved in less bountiful environments? The modern bonobo holds the answer, Hohmann said; in time, its behavior will start to illuminate such characteristics as relationships between men and women, the purpose of aggression, and the costs and benefits of male bonding.