A new discovery about the astounding intelligence of Bonobos

For those of you who have not heard of Bonobos, they are a close relation to the Chimpanzee. The population of Chimpanzees and the population of Bonobos is split by the Congo River. It seems that as the Congo River formed it split the population of Chimpanzees in the far distant past, and the Chimpanzee like animals on one side continued to evolve as chimpanzees dominated by males. However on the other side of the river, they took a different path, these chimpanzees started to be dominated by the females and as such the way the communities behaved changed. Rather than regular aggression and violence, things changed so that when tension arose it was dealt with by sexual contact instead of by violence. The females in the Bonobo population are the dominant force and the males are kept carefully under control.

It is astounding that Bonobos were only discovered relatively recently. Bonobos were initially identified as a separate species in 1928, when a scientists analysed a skull of what was thought to be a juvenile chimpanzee. Ernst Schwarz identified that rather than being a juvenile this was actually a separate species. There is only thought to be between 30,000 and 50,000 Bonobos left living wild that occupy an area of roughly half a million square kilometres south of the Congo River.

The recent discovery which I am writing this article to talk about is something that was observed recently. Bonobos, like Chimpanzees, are not herbivores. In fact they regularly hunt meat, and are astoundingly inventive in their hunting techniques. Furthermore, it has been found recently that they eat meat around once a fortnight. Due to the excitement that meat creates, amongst chimpanzees these times of meat eating often lead to the greatest violence, and as such in captivity neither species is regularly given meat. The reason for this is that it often leads to problems amongst the community.

Amongst Bonobos, as in other periods of excitement and potential violence this tension is worked out instead through great amounts of sexual contact. This sexual contact takes place amongst many of the different members of the group, including both the young and female to female. What the news is that I would like to talk about, is that in the wild a group of Bonobos that had made a kill was seen to share it with another local community of Bonobos. What is odd about this is that amongst Chimpanzees contacts between different groups is generally violent, indeed it is the only place in the Natural World that humans have seen something that would approximate war. In places such as in the Gombe, it has been watched where a smaller group set up a new community and the larger group systematically set out and killed each of the members in the smaller group over a period of roughly six months. Therefore the idea of communities that live alongside each other in the Bonobo population, being willing to share a resource as wanted and scarce as meat with a population that borders their own,  is something that is dramatically different from amongst Chimpanzees.

A Bonobo from one population managed to catch a Duiker, which is a small species of antelope. Over the course of half an hour, the male  who had caught the Duiker divided up the meat amongst a group of about 9 females. Although there were roughly 7 males present, only one of these was involved in any way at all, the others waiting patiently on the sidelines. All of the transfers of meat was done passively and without aggression.

Solicitation of some of the meat, was done by peering or by a hand being held out but no meat was taken by force, or through aggressive means. One of the females from the neighbouring group, even removed the head and then divided up the meat from it amongst the females from her own group herself.

As with any Bonobo interaction, the build up of tension was dealt with by sex and there was much of this observed. In particular it was noticed that this was not kept amongst one community. There was much female genital to genital rubbing across community lines, and even at one point one of the males from one community mounted one from the other community.

I am not being graphically explicit out of some strange motivation, but merely making the point that all the sexual interactions that regularly occur within a community also occurred on this occasion across community lines, and it would suggest that this is not an irregular event.

While we can see much of humans in Chimpanzee behaviour, it would appear that there is also a great deal of behaviour that is sometimes considered unique to humans that goes on among Bonobos as well. This is not surprising, as humans are known to have diverged genetically from a species of great ape before the Bonobo and Chimpanzee split occurred.  Behaviours such as these are highly important for people studying ancient humans, as it is the closest that they can come to watching how early man went about his life.

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