Since Darwin, it has been generally accepted that humans have evolved from apes. The general public knows about four different species of ape, orang-utan, gorilla, chimpanzee and gibbon. You will see all these apes featured on wild life programmes on TV. Yet there is one other ape that doesn’t get the same coverage, and that is the bonobo. On my spell checker as I am writing this, all the other apes are spelt correctly but the spell checker doesn’t even recognise the word bonobo, even though along with the chimpanzee this ape is the closest species to us. So we can learn a lot about our ancestors by examining the behaviour of both apes. Interestingly, people are comfortable with the behaviour of chimpanzees because the males are very violent and brutal. (Just ordinary, good o’ macho males) Yet they are not so comfortable about the behaviour of bonobos and this is because they are the, “the make love not war, ape.”
[Bonobo mother breast feeding her baby]
The bonobo was first discovered by Europeans in 1929 and was considered to be only a subspecies of the chimpanzee. It was first called the pigmy chimpanzee. More recent research has shown it to be very different from the chimps. Being more lightly built and having longer legs, it has the body structure more similar to a human than any other ape. In fact the skeleton of the bonobo ape is very similar to the early hominid Australopithecus, discovered to be 3 million years old and the Australopithecus Ramidus, which dates back 4,4 million years. For this reason the bonobo has been called a living fossil, so similar is it to our earliest human ancestors. The most well known of these ancient humans was called “Lucy” She was discovered near the Red Sea, an area which at that time was flooded by an ancient sea called the Sea of Afar. It seems pre-human apes were living in flooded forests, salt marshes; mangrove swamps, lagoons and offshore islands. This is not a lot different to the habitat of present day bonobos living near the Congo River, where the forest is frequently flooded. Lucy’s bones were also discovered lying among the remains of crabs, crocodile and turtle eggs. So it seems that Lucy had a very similar life to present day bonobos except that the area she lived in was more aquatic. So it means we can get a great understanding of early human behaviour by examining the nature of the bonobo.
Back in the 1960s, professor Leakey, trying to understand how early humans behaved decided that an insight into this could be gained by observing different species of apes in the wild. He decided that women were better observers than men, so he used women like Jane Goodall observing chimpanzees and Diane Fossey studying gorillas. The result of this brought about a revolution in the study of apes, and many new things were discovered. It was found that chimpanzees were able to make tools. Up until then scientists believed that only humans could do this. Also it was discovered that gorillas were gentle and peaceful creatures, though it was formerly believed that gorillas were dangerous and aggressive animals. All the other apes were observed in the same way, with the bonobo being only intensely observed in very recent times.
One of the first surprises about this ape is that it is very sexual in its behaviour. Like the human female, the bonobo female can still have sex even when her body is not ready for fertilization. It also indulges in sexual play and homosexual sexual behaviour with both sexes doing this and can copulate face to face. (Though the orangutan has also been observed to do this as well).
In many other animals and apes, aggression between males and against females is quite common. Most animals overcome this aggression by having a strict hierarchical system where everyone knows his place. The animals with lesser social status give way to those with higher status. The animal’s place in the system is controlled by its strength and aggression. So fights only break out when an animal of lesser status wants to achieve higher status in the pecking order.
The bonobo does have a similar system but aggressive behaviour between them is far less than other animals because of the way they use sex. In an article by Frans B. M. de Waal, in Scientific America he compares the different behaviour of chimpanzees and bonobos when two females and a male come across some food. In the case of the chimpanzees the food was bananas. Their behaviour was very straightforward. The male chimpanzee fed first until he had enough and he then took away as many bananas as he could carry. Then the dominant female fed herself, and the subordinate female it seems got nothing. In the case of the bonobos it was sugar cane, and their behaviour was more complex. The two females started by indulging in sex by rubbing their genitals together. The male bonobo displayed his erect penis to them, but they ignored him. Then the two females fed together equally and only when they had finished, was the male allowed to feed.
This it seems is normal bonobo behaviour. When there is a possibility of a dispute, the first thing they do is to have sex together which seems to defuse the situation. In this situation the natural aggression of male animals seems to work against the male bonobo in contrast to the way it helps male chimpanzees. As the female bonobos are less aggressive, it is easier for them to bond with each other, which they reinforce through sexual play. It then makes it easier for them to gang up on males, who although they do bond together through sex, are still more aggressive towards each other, than females. This makes them less able to co-operate and work together in the way the females can. So the bonobo could also be called, “The Sisterhood Is Powerful” ape.
In Milwaukee County Zoo the keepers attempted to train bonobos in the same way they train chimpanzees and other animals. The bonobos reacted by becoming extremely non co-operative. They would scream loudly at the zookeepers and urinate on them if they came into the pen. Then a female keeper took over and she adopted a system of kindness and positive reward. The behaviour of the bonobos changed and they became very co-operative and easy to work with. So it seems that bonobo females will not accept force and intimidation. Yet they will subject this on male bonobos.
In zoos it was found that females would gang up on a single male, and frequently assaulted him. One had fingers and toes bitten off and in one case a female bit off a male’s penis! It seems that this is normal behaviour in the wild but the difference is that the male can run away, but in a cage, he has no form of escape. So it seems to be normal behaviour for female bonobos to gang up and assault lone males to show them who’s the boss. (They also assault male zookeepers who come into their pen).
As the bonobo males are bigger than the females, they stand a better chance in a one to one situation but even here they can lose out. In a conflict, say over food, the female will immediately have sex with the male. The sexual bonding defuses the natural aggression of the male and they will share the food equally.
So this, it seems is how the slogan “make love not war” can work in practice, by having disputes settled by sexual intimacy. Comparing the bonobo’s behaviour with that of the chimpanzees we can assess how effective this is. Both animals share 99% of the genetic makeup of a human and we were all the same animal as little as 5-6 million years ago. As pointed out earlier the body structure of the bonobo looks very similar to that of an Australopithecus, an early pre-human with similar length arms and legs. From this it is speculated that the bonobo is more similar to our common ancestor than either the chimpanzee or the human. The human later grew longer legs and adopted a more upright stance while the chimpanzee grew longer and stronger arms to climb trees. As our body is shaped by our behaviour over evolutionary time, it is reasonable to suggest that how the bonobo behaves today is more like how our common ancestor behaved in the past.
The behaviour of the chimpanzees is of the traditional patriarchal society. Chimpanzees only have sex to fertilize the females when they are on heat. This is the ideal of the patriarchal Christian Church who has tried to enforce this type of behaviour for hundreds of years. It claims that sex only for the sake of pleasure is “sinful” and it should only be used for conception.
Chimpanzees tend to bond through fear and mutual protection, with groups of males holding on to a territory against other groups of males. There often seems to be war between these different groups over territory, resulting in males getting badly injured or even killed. As the males have to stick together to fight off the territorial ambitions of other groups of male, they bond closer together than the females. Males not only show aggression to other groups of males but to each other, as they will charge each other or show off their strength to try and intimidate each other to gain more status in the pecking order. Aggression is also shown towards females, who being smaller than males, have to give way to them in all disputes. Jane Goodall, who has observed this behaviour, claims that alpha males train the females they want to mate with through intimidation and fear. They will beat up the female they wish to mate with so they will be too frightened to refuse when the alpha male when she is on heat.
The Japanese primatologist Mariko Hiraiwa-Hasegawa wrote a graphic account of this. She was observing two chimp communities she called M and K group. One day she discovered the alpha male of M group, called Ntologi, with four of his sidekicks, attacking a lone female from K group and her three-year-old child. With the help of a companion Hiraiwa-Hasegawa attempted to frighten the male chimps off by beating them with canes, but the powerful males ignored them. Then her companion threw a rock at the males and this had the effect of making them back off. (Had the male chimps instead attacked the two humans they wouldn’t have stood a chance against the powerful chimpanzees). The life of the female was saved although she and her child were covered in blood and badly injured. A year later the same female had another child and was again attacked by Ntologi and his henchmen. This time they ate her baby alive. After this the female defected to M group and mated with her baby’s murderer, probably because she couldn’t any longer find safety in F group for herself and her children. A postscript to this was that Ntologi himself was later murdered by his second in command, so he could take over the position of the alpha male. Hiraiwa Hasegawa later gave up observing chimpanzees because she was so appalled by their behaviour, that she learnt to hate them.
In contrast, in the bonobo society, nearly all aggression is defused through sexual bonding. It has been observed in zoos that if say a cardboard box is thrown into the enclosure and more than one bonobo shows interest in it, they will then briefly mount each other before playing with the box together. Or if one jealous male chases away another male near a female, the two males will then reconcile with each other by engaging in scrotal rubbing together. The same will be true if two adult females have a dispute over the behaviour of one of their children. They will reconcile by rubbing their genitals together. Male bonobos rarely fight each other over status. A male bonobo stays attached to his mother all his life and his status in society depends on the status of his mother, whom he will look to for protection from any aggression by other bonobos, even though she may be smaller than him in size.
In human behavioural studies it has been noted that people who live in very stressful situations like extreme poverty, war, prison, an aggressive family or neighbourhood, tend to become very desensitized and so they are far less affected by fear and pain. In Hellabrun, Germany, in World War two there was a zoo, which housed both chimpanzees and bonobos. One night the city was bombed and the bonobos died of fright from the noise, while the chimpanzees were completely unaffected. This demonstrates how desensitised chimpanzees have become living in their brutal patriarchal society, and how sensitive bonobos are, living in a more peaceful matriarchal world.
Apart from the fact that chimpanzees do not get married or “pair-bond”, its society is very much like a normal human patriarchal society. Until bonobo behaviour was studied properly, chimpanzee behaviour justified the patriarchal society as being “natural” for humans. So it is of interest that when primatologists first started to study bonobos in zoos during the 1950s the first findings were completely ignored by the scientific establishment until the 1970s. Even today most people are unaware of the behaviour of the bonobo or even that such a creature exists. The reason for this silence is because the bonobo’s behaviour undermines all our patriarchal beliefs about human and pre-human behaviour.
Many scientists would like to believe that our ape ancestors behaved more like a chimpanzee than the bonobo. But there is a good reason for believing that early humans behaved more like bonobos. Even though the chimp is slightly smaller than the average human it is about 3 times stronger. Now it seems that in evolutionary terms size and strength mostly comes about through sexual selection. This is why bulls and rams and many other male species of animal fight each other, so that only the bigger and stronger males get to mate with the female. The same is true with the chimpanzee and gorilla, where the big powerful alpha males are more likely to mate, than weaker males lower in the pecking order.
This is not true of the bonobo; the size and strength of a male bonobo is not a factor in whether he gets to mate with females, because no male bonobo is refused sexual access to females by other stronger males. So the bonobo is more like a human, as it has a slight body build it is weaker than a chimpanzee. This is why the gorilla has developed into a ground dwelling ape. Gorilla males compete with each other for females and the biggest and strongest is able to have a harem of females whom he can mate with. Unfortunately this has resulted in gorillas becoming so large and heavy that the adults find it difficult to climb trees. The orang-utan in South-East Asia is having the same problem, as it is getting too heavy to continue to live in trees. The bonobo doesn’t have the same sexual selection evolution to be bigger and stronger, so with its lighter build is more able to climb up tall trees and live in the forest canopy.
When humans broke away from the common ancestor of chimpazees, bonobos and humans 5-6 million years ago, it would have had to have a similar social system to the bonobo, because humans have a similar body build to the bonobo. This is because the evolutionary pressure that ensures that bonobos have a slight body means that the same evolutionary factors must also have brought about the weaker body that humans have, compared with all other apes. It means both the bonobo and human are the same because the males not competing with each other through brute strength for sexual access to females. So that, only the biggest, strongest and most aggressive males get to mate with females.
If the bonobo is a very sexual ape then it has to be said that so is the human. The chimpanzees only partake in basic reproductive sex, but bonobos like humans, can share all kinds of sexual pleasures, including cunnilingus, fellatio, masturbation, massage, bisexuality, sex in different positions and group sex. Also like humans in love, copulating bonobos often look deeply into each other’s eyes.
[The Painting by William Adolphe Bouguereau (1825 – 1905) called; “Nymphaeum”. This painting would be the idealized and mythical version of nymphs but it may be not that far from the truth. Perhaps before the influence of patriarchy, women divers like bonobos did form a powerful lesbian sisterhood. This probably happened on the island of Lesbos in ancient times where the poet Sappho (610-580) was free to write poems on the joy of lesbian love. Also like the bonobos they tamed men and defused conflict through the freely availability of sex. (Nymphaeaum is an ancient Greek and Roman word; meaning a monument consecrated to the nymphs, mostly around springs. Originally they were natural grottoes inhabited by nymphs but later became sacred sanctuaries and places of learning.)]
Although patriarchal societies have attempted to restrict sexual relations to the confines of marriage, many humans have always had urges to want more than this. In all patriarchal societies none have been able to prevent prostitution. While in secret and sometimes quite openly both men and women have had relationships outside of marriage. In very recent times with the decline of the patriarchal society, marriage is breaking down in Western countries. This has resulted in many people frequently changing sexual partners, having “one night stands”, joining sex-clubs, going to sex-parties, advertising for sex in contact magazines or having “open” relationships. So why do many people have the urge to have sex with many different partners? Patriarchal society with all its laws, religious and social censure has failed to stamp this behaviour out. The only reason could be, is that before the patriarchal society took control with all its laws restricting people’s behaviour, sexual behaviour must have been very similar to that of the bonobo.
Bonobos, like humans, also tend to eat food in the company of other bonobos in big dinner parties. It seems that when fruit is in abundance bonobos will collect the fruit for a large community feast. They will then eat it together, in a big banquet, after the high status females have eaten first. This is very unlike the chimpanzees that will generally hide food from others and eat alone. Another interesting point is that human couples have romantic evenings together. This involves sharing a meal together, either at a restaurant or sometimes at home, then having sex together. This is also what bonobos couples do, though they tend to have sex before the meal and not afterwards.
It is well known that many couples that have a “flaming row” will afterwards “make up” by having sex together. Some couples claim that they enjoy a turbulent relationship because they enjoy the making up afterwards. This is similar to the bonobo behaviour of using sex to defuse conflict.
So like the bonobos, humans associate conflict and food with sex. In times of war it used to be that when a conquering army took a town or city, all the women and even sometimes the men were raped. This behaviour is generally seen as an expression of power over conquered people. This is probably true, but looking at bonobo behaviour there could be another reason. Perhaps it is a form of unconscious reconciliation by rape. Soldiers in warfare can become very aggressive in battle; even disciplined troops have been known to slaughter defenceless civilian populations after a battle, because of this fear- induced aggression. So rape may defuse this situation, making it possible for the soldiers to calm down and prevent a killing spree.
As previously mentioned, mermaids were associated in the past with prostitution. This is also true of ancient Goddess religions. Patriarchal priests condemn as temple prostitutes, the priestesses of these religions. (In the past when people used to worship Goddesses this was an indication of a matriarchal religion, in much the same way as the worship of a god is an indication of a patriarchal male- dominated religion.) As we can see in Korean haenyo communities, it is the female who is the breadwinner while her husband looks after the children. The same was probably true of mermaid communities in Europe, where it would be logical for the women to be the breadwinner. Likewise the mermaid and the nymph had a reputation of sexual liberation, and perhaps the mermaid communities, before being controlled by patriarchal customs, had societies similar to that of the bonobo. It is of interest that the word nymphomania, meaning women with uncontrollable sexual desire, comes from the word nymph.
When the Romans first conquered Britain, many of the Celtic tribes were still ruled by Queens. Their behaviour was seen as being very scandalous by later writers, as some of these Queens would openly have sex with large numbers of different men. So it does suggest that the old matriarchal societies were far more sexual than the later patriarchal societies. It could also suggest that a matriarchal society was as sexual as a bonobo society. People bonded together through sexual behaviour, allowing them to be more intimate with each other. This in turn will create a more intimate, caring and loving community.
War has been “normal” throughout recorded history. There has never been a time when there hasn’t been a war going on in some part of the world. Many people have written about the senseless suffering of war, and have looked unsuccessfully for ways to prevent future wars. The study of both the chimpanzee and bonobo societies shows there is an alternative to war. In the non-sexual chimpanzee society, conflict and war is normal. In the very sexual bonobo society, conflict is rare. So because of the study of these different ape societies we find that the slogan “make love not war” is not a joke but does in fact work very well with bonobos.
It is of interest that Frans de Waal who has written books and articles about the bonobo, was criticized by Richard Dawkins, the author of the book The Selfish Gene, for “bad science”. This is understandable, because observations of the bonobo undermine completely Dawkins belief that all life is basically selfish. Perhaps it would be “good science” to ignore the bonobo completely and only concentrate on the violent and selfish behaviour of male chimpanzee. Dawkins also criticizes the anthropologist Margaret Mead. Her crime was that she observed human nature in a positive light. The fact that she was both a famous scientist and a feminist at the same time, may have also upset many of her male colleagues.
We humans have a choice. As pointed out previously both the chimpanzee and bonobo are the closest species to us, and we can clearly see similarities in their behaviour to ours. The behaviour of the chimpanzee is very similar to a patriarchal society in that it is very violent and relatively non-sexual. In contrast the bonobo live in a very sexual world where both males and females bond together through many different forms of sexual play. If we copied them we would all have sex with multiple partners and experiment with heterosexual and homosexual sex play. The bonus is that by bonding through sex we won’t have to fight wars any more. Is it that easy? Well probably not, as human society is far more complex than that of the bonobo.
[“Catching Waves” by Paul Albert Laurens]