Bonobos are our peace-loving cousins, a little known species of monkey that was only discovered in 1928. Previously thought to just be “small chimps”, they’re actually an entirely different species. Bonobos have the same percentage of DNA (98.5%) in common with us as chimpanzees do, meaning that chimpanzees and bonobos now share the distinction of being our closest relatives in the animal kingdom. But as opposed to chimpanzee society, which is a “dominator” culture, bonobo cultures demonstrate a “partnership” society, with remarkable cooperation and peacemaking capacity. It’s fascinating to think that we hold the genetic potential to go in either direction.
The bonobo monkey is an omnivorous frugivore. The majority of its diet is fruit, but it supplements its diet with leaves, meat from small vertebrates such as flying squirrels, and invertebrates. It nests high up in the trees of their jungle, which is swamp jungle (there’s half a mile of swamp inland from the river before you reach solid ground, a pretty tough terrain.)
In over twenty years of research, there has yet to be one instance of intergroup killing by bonobos – completely the opposite of chimpanzees. In fact, when two different groups of bonobos come across each other, the males do all stand and posture at each other, waving sticks and baring their teeth. But the females from both groups immediately gather together and start sharing food or grooming each other. Now bonded, the males can do nothing but acquiesce to the new peace. It seems to me that this is a perfect demonstration of how bonded females can hold the power in our society.
There is also no infanticide in bonobo groups. This is because there is no way of discerning paternity – due to bonobos’ nonstop sexual exploits! For a male bonobo, killing a baby could be killing his own baby – he would never know. In fact, male bonobos are known to babysit and interact with little ones even though they don’t know if it is “theirs”. Overall, bonobos are more sensitive and emotionally aware than chimpanzees. Bonobos are known to show empathy and help other species too. Young bonobos stay with their mothers for five years in a prolonged childhood – in fact, sons basically never leave their mothers, staying always by her side. This differs from chimpanzees who leave their mothers to bond with other males.
Bonobos live in a kind of “matriarchal” society. The females get first access to food and resources and then decide who gets what. Females form strong bonds by sharing food and through sexual activity like tribadism (rubbing genitals with or on each other for a period of 10-20 seconds, which females do every two hours on average!) While the males are physically stronger, they lack the bonded group that females form, and therefore their occasional attempts to dominate fall flat on their face. From the PBS Nova documentary “The Last Great Ape”: “Males want to muscle in but if females stand united the males remain under their collective thumb.” The sons of powerful females in the group have higher social status – but once their powerful momma passes away, they immediately lose their status.
When there is tension, sex is used to diffuse the situation. There is amazing footage in “The Last Great Ape”, where a male bonobo is running, clearly aggressively, with a large stick in hand. Mid-run he realizes he’s approaching a female bonobo who is bent over on all fours – so he drops his stick for a quick shag. Anger forgotten as they make love and not war!
In fact, sex has all number of social functions for bonobos. It’s like a handshake or greeting: it’s used to bond/create intimacy, to resolve issues and for reconciliation. They have all kinds of sex as well: gay, straight, masturbation, tongue kissing, and oral sex. Bonobos have sex face to face which is rare in the animal kingdom, and they have much gentler sex compared to chimps. In a group, a female will have had sex with all the males. This constant sexual interaction creates calm in bonobo life. Intimacy makes it hard to stay angry.
Bonobos give us insight into our lineage of cooperation and partnership societies, that likely existed farther back in hunter-gatherer (pre-agricultural) times. They share the DNA we have that is correlated to affiliation and bonding, which chimpanzees lack. It is interesting to realize that a lot of what we think is “natural” about ourselves comes from our knowledge of chimpanzee culture – when actually we are at least equally related to bonobos. We resemble them more physically as well (more distinct faces, longer legs, pronounced breasts, larger penises). And a fun note from Wikipedia: a female bonobo weighing perhaps half that of a human teenager, “has a clitoris that is three times bigger than the human equivalent – and visible enough to waggle unmistakably as she walks.”
Unfortunately bonobos are very difficult to study. They are an endangered species, there are only about 30,000 of them left, all in the jungles of the Congo – where they are hunted for bush meat as well as the pet trade. Researchers have barely had a chance to study them in recent years because of warfare and uncertainty in the region. But there seems to be so much hope in this cute cousin of ours. Interestingly, the translation of “bonobo” in the extinct Bantu language is said to be “ancestor”.
Riane Eisler theorizes that there are two strands of our evolution: “dominator” culture based on fear and pain and “partnership” culture based on pleasure. I must note that I often find Eisler’s work problematic, particularly in regards to her opinions on sex work, pornography, BDSM and kink. However, in her book “Sacred Pleasure”, she stresses that “bonobos demonstrate an evolutionary movement toward sex as a means of reinforcing social relations based on the give and take of shared sensual pleasure rather than on coercion and fear.” Bonobos are masters of using sex as peacemaking ritual. It’s important to note that bonobos aren’t inherently peaceful, or there would be no need to make peace! They just know how to use female bonding and all kinds of sex to make peace and prevent violence.
Learning all this about bonobos is potentially very empowering for humans, especially since we are often told that the worst of human nature can be explained away through genetics confirmed by watching how chimpanzee society operates. The more I read about bonobos the more I see the importance of their discovery for our evolutionary understanding. Imagine if we all became masters of using sex as peacemaking, healing and spiritual ritual.
It’s a shame that in our society, it would be a bit dangerous to go down on all fours with your skirt raised in between two blokes about to have a fight – but what a potent image of female sexual power!
For more on bonobos, I highly recommend watching “The Last Great Ape”: