Bonobos are back on my reading list and back on my mind!

I’m currently reading Vanessa Woods’ Bonobo Handshake which is a wonderfully written account of primatology work up close in the Congo with all its fascinating, scary, touching and sad details. Bonobos and the state of Congo get roughly equal amount of discussion, yet it’s the bonobos that delight and amaze the most.

Chimps and bonobos are genetically equally close to humans yet it’s the chimps that have been studied most as they are geographically spread out while bonobos are confined to pockets of the Congo basin which has gone through decades of civil war, keeping the bonobos away from scientific studies. Fortunately there are now scientists in Congo doing awesome research into our bonobos relatives who seem to mirror the best aspects of humanity. Unfortunately, however, bonobos are hurtling towards extinction as their habitat is being lost and poachers hunt them for bush meat. Some sanctuaries are doing a great work to try to reverse this awful trend and shed light on our connection with these creatures.

“We have an extraordinary opportunity to learn from bonobos, more about our own evolutionary past on one hand, and on the other the incredible diversity of social organization in animals” says Chilean born Isabel Behncke Izquierdo who also works with bonobos and has a really fun and informative TED interview

Unlike chimps that are often aggressive, patriarchal, hierarchical and often viciously violent, bonobos are known for their peaceful, playful ways which seems to be related to their amazing ability to bond through sexual intimacy and use of sex as a powerful tool for tolerance and cooperation. They are also a matriarchal society. “Chimpanzees resolve sexual issues with power; bonobos resolve power issues with sex” Behncke Izquierdo says.

Grooming, tolerance, care for each other, cooperation. Humans could certainly do with more of all these, not to mention a much more liberal, happy sex-positive outlook that takes friendly sluttiness as a way to build strong communities. Could we learn from the bonobos? Hard to say, but surely reflecting upon the better qualities of ourselves in great apes is something to cherish. Try looking at a bonobo and not see the reflection of your humanity.

I also highly recommend the book by Woods, she describes the day to day activities inside a bonobo sanctuary with its cross-cultural staff, scientific work on the emotions and behaviour of primates, and of course the ever fascinating bonobos themselves. The book reads itself and provides heaps of wonderful insights into the lives of these creatures, and ourselves.

(top: Behncke Izquierdo, bottom: Vanessa Woods and bonobos)

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