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The Bonobo

The most recent Great Ape to be recognized by science was the Bonobo, Pan paniscus.  This was first recognized as a separate species in about 1926, but living Bonobos were not discovered in the wild until the 1970’s.

However although this is the generally accepted story of the scientific discovery and description of the Bonobo, there is another side to it.

There is considerable evidence that rather than the Bonobo being the last African Ape discovered; it was actually the first

In 1641 the Dutch anatomist Nicolaas Tulp dissected an ape’s body.  He described it in great detail.  In the past it has been considered that the ape was a Chimpanzee. But the ape was from Angola.  There are no Chimpanzees in Angola now.; There are also no Bonobos, but since Angola is South of the River Congo, and neither Chimpanzees nor Bonobos can cross this mighty river; it seems more likely that the ape was a Bonobo.  Now all the wild Bonobos are in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, on the south side of the River Congo.

The description also fits a Bonobo slightly better than a chimpanzee.  Nicolaas Tulp commented on the extreme similarity to Humans. 

Bonobos and Humans

When apes first came to the attention of Europeans, they were considered to be a type of Human. 

Much later, when Carl Linnaeus who invented the binomial system used for scientific names, he put Humans and Chimpanzees in different genera.  Later in life he apparently bitterly regretted this decision. Clearly he then thought that he should have put Chimpanzees in the genus Homo.  Of course, Linnaeus lived before Charles Darwin.  There is nothing to suggest that he thought that Humans and Chimpanzees were evolved from a common ancestor.


The closest relative of the Bonobo is the Chimpanzee.  They apparently evolved from a common ancestor between one and two million years ago.  Apart from each other, their closest relative is Human Beings.  They seem to have evolved from a common ancestor perhaps six million years ago.   Gorillas are not as close to Bonobos as Humans are.


Bonobos are not as intelligent as Human beings, but there are similarities in the type of intelligence displayed.  For example, Bonobos can plan for things in the future.
Bonobos walk more on their hind legs than any other ape, but they still walk on all four legs most on the time. They can also stand upright more completely than other apes.


Bonobos are omnivores like Human Beings and Chimpanzees.  Their main food is fruit, but they also eat some meat.  Generally they eat less meat than either Humans or Chimps.  They will eat small birds, small antelopes and other small animals.  Earth Worms are a delicacy.

Bonobos will also catch and eat fish.  They are more aquatic than the other apes,  and although they do not naturally swim, they are happy wading even in quite deep water.


Bonobos do not appear to keep pets in the same way as Humans, but some groups will form loose relationships with small monkeys.

Lice Picking

I remember some old films of monkeys grooming each other, and picking something off the other monkey and eating it.  The old idea was that they were eating lice.  Then it was announced that they were not eating lice, but were getting small flecks of salt from the other monkey’s fur.

However, my wife who comes from the Philippines told me about pet monkeys that groom their Human masters, picking lice from their hair.

It is clear that the groups of Bonobos that live with monkeys do so with both getting advantages.

The Bonobos get their external parasites removed while the monkeys get some food and some protection from the larger and more intelligent Bonobos.

This is different from Chimpanzees which hunt and eat monkeys.  The eating of monkeys by Bonobos is not unknown, but the eating of animals normally considered as pets is also not unknown in Humans.

Bonobo Society

Bonobos have a well developed social structure which is quite different from that of Chimpanzees.


Bonobo society is matriarchal.  The females generally have the highest status, despite being smaller than the males. When female Bonobos are teenagers, they leave their home group and go off to find another group of Bonobos. This is slightly unusual, more commonly among animals; it is the male that leaves the group.

A male’s status comes from the status of his mother,and the mother son bond lasts all their lives.

However, they will not know who the father of each baby is, so there would seem to be no bond between a male and his offspring.

Long Childhood

Bonobos live nearly as long as Humans, and although they mature a little earlier, they still have a long development time.  They are very slow breeders, having five years or so between babies.


Bonobos appear to have very similar reactions to similar events to Humans and it seems that they have emotions like Fear, Altruism, Compassion, Love, Empathy, Patience, Sensitivity, Grief and Kindness.


There seems little doubt that these animals exhibit love between a mother and her children. Love in the sense of the love between a husband and a wife may not exist in Bonobos, although it is difficult to be sure.  There is no doubt that friendship between individual Bonobos does occur, and it can be in any gender combination.


The babies and children play, just as they do in other mammal species.  Bonobo play resembles the play of Humans of similar ages, but the parents tend to be more tolerant than many people.

Defusing Stress

Of course, Bonobos can get annoyed with each other, but fighting among them is almost unknown. Certainly no cases of lethal violence have been recorded either in the wild or in captivity.  Unlike their cousins, Chimpanzees and Humans, Bonobos do not make war.

These gentle animals use intimate relations as a way of defusing stressful situations.  For more detail of this, see Sex and the Bonobo

Rape is completely unknown among Bonobos.

Tool Use

Like Chimpanzees, Bonobos make and use tools.  Most of these tools are wooden although some stone is used.  However, their use of stone tools is probably not sufficient to qualify their society as a Stone Age one.


Bonobos are not mighty hunters; their diet does not require this, but hunting does occur a bit. Small Antelopes are often the prey although there have been observations of the hunting of monkeys.  During hunting, they cooperate, and if the hunt is successful there are no arguments about sharing the prey.

If one of their species needs food, they will bring them food.  This leaves the question of whether they would help a Human. Unfortunately, our hunting of this animal makes the situation where this is likely to occur unusual, so we do not know.


It is generally believed that Humans are the only species with language in our sense of the meaning of the word. But communication between Bonobos is very good.

Studies of Bonobo brains show that the part of the brain used in Humans for communication is used on the same way in Bonobos.  They also show that this part is particularly well developed in both species.

Instinctive Communication

There is little doubt that much animal communication is instinctive.  For example, when a mother hen with chicks finds food, she clucks and the chicks come and share the food.  It has been believed that communication between apes was completely of this type.

Some ape communication is certainly instinctive.  For example, the expressions on the face of baby Bonobos are clearly instinctive. This also applies to the expressions of baby Humans.  The emotions expressed by these facial expressions are recognizably the same between these two species.  If a baby Bonobo is in pain, or is expressing joy, we can see which it is.


But although there is certainly instinctive communication between Bonobos, there is increasing evidence that there is also conscious and planned communication.  A clear indication of this came when it was discovered that apes can lie.  It is very difficult to fit this discovery into the theory that all ape communication is instinctive.


Bonobos do not make as wide a range of sounds as Humans, but they do make more different sounds than any other ape, including their close cousin the Chimpanzee.  Some of these sounds appear to be similar to Human sounds in similar situations, except that Bonobo voices tend to be higher pitched than Human or Chimpanzee voices.


As well as making more different sounds than Chimps, Bonobos also use more hand and arm gestures.

Human Language

Attempts have been made to teach Bonobos Human language.  The success of these attempts varies.  There is also much room for debate about the importance of the successes. A Bonobo has been taught to apparently understand 3000 spoken English words.  This is a reasonable vocabulary.

There has also been a report of a Bonobo learning 800 signs in sign language.  But there is considerable doubt whether the Bonobo can genuinely be said to speak the language in the way that a child with this vocabulary does.  Human syntax does not seem to be well understood and used by the ape.

However although there is considerable doubt whether Bonobos can really be said to have learned a Human language, we should remember that no Human can really understand Bonobo communication, although we are making progress.


There may be about 10,000 Bonobos in the wild; some people would put the number lower than this.  The official status of this animal is endangered.  There are several very serious threats to this extremely important animal.

Habitat Loss

As with many animals, the increasing Human population means that more of the Bonobos’ Habitat is being cleared.  If Bonobos used to live in Angola, their total range is now much reduced.  Now all the wild Bonobos are in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, on the south side of the River Congo.

Civil War

Ever since the Europeans invaded this part of Africa and it became the Belgian Congo, there has been war of varying intensity.

Civil war has been raging in the Congo for the past 13 years.  Despite the fact that a peace deal was signed people are still being killed and law and order has mostly not returned to the country.
Between 3 and 6 million people have been killed
Women have been raped.   
Children taught to kill.

Huge numbers of children are being forced to dig for rare and valuable minerals; often with their bare hands.  These children are slaves, forced to work and fed starvation rations in what should be one of the richest nations on Earth.

With this going on, it is difficult to do anything to help the animals.  In times of relative peace, there have been government rangers trying to prevent poaching of the Bonobos.  This becomes virtually impossible while fierce wars are raging.

  Humans are treating each other with unimaginable cruelty.  Meanwhile one of our closest and most peaceful relatives is likely to become quietly and permanently extinct.

Bush Meat

People are hunting and killing the apes of all types.  The meat is being eaten and sold as bush meat.  There is also trade in ape parts as charms.

This varies in extent in different areas.  Some groups of people in the country have strong taboos against killing their Bonobos.


Apart from the Bonobos in the wild there are some in zoos and zoological parks.  In 2002 there were 71 in American Zoos and 70 in Europe.  There are no Bonobos in Australia. 

Milwaukee Zoo had 11 while San Diego Zoo had 9, and its wild animal park 12.

In Europe, Planckendael in Belgium has kept 9 in interesting conditions.

Unfortunately there are not enough to safeguard the species against complete extinction. Even if a captive population could be successfully maintained after they become extinct in the wild, much of their unique culture will be lost.
The Bonobo pictures on this page are from Imagine Animals