Bonobos (Pan paniscus) are an endangered species of great ape who share the genus Pan with chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes). In the wild, they can only be found in one area of jungle just south of the river Congo. Chimpanzees and bonobos are our closest living relatives. They are more closely related to us than they are to gorillas. The human-chimpanzee-bonobo family has a common ancestor who lived about 6 million years ago.
The most striking difference between bonobos and chimps is in their behaviour. Compared to chimpanzees, bonobos are extraordinarily peaceful. This could be down to the fact that where they live, they have no competition for food with gorillas, which makes for an easy life. They’re ruled by the females who bond more closely with each other than with males, and more closely than males with other males. Chimpanzees, on the other hand, live in rigidly hierarchical, male-dominated societies where competition for food can be a matter of life or death. Chimpanzee males settle disputes with violent aggression and fiercely protect their exclusive access to sexually-active females.
Like other great apes, bonobos do have a hierarchy, but one that’s not rigidly enforced. Young males tend to inherit the status of their mothers and stick with their mothers all their lives; when a young female reaches sexual maturity, she leaves the group and joins another one, where she gains permanent membership as soon as she gives birth. This female migration keeps the bonobo gene pool well mixed.
Disputes happen quite a lot in bonobo society, and they settle matters by having sex. Even potential disputes can be resolved before they happen by having sex. Sex to a bonobo is the answer to everything: hunger, curiosity, even boredom.
Sex is the cement of bonobo society and an outlet for tension. They even ‘sell’ sex in exchange for food, and whenever they find a new feeding ground, they all have communal sex before settling down and feeding peacefully together.
The sex life of a bonobo is playful, inventive and colourful. Bonobos indulge in all kinds of sexual activities in any pairing that takes their fancy, including female-female, male-male and adult-infant sex. Female bonobos enjoy genital-genital rubbing. Males sometimes hang from a branch facing each other to play ‘penis fencing’; sometimes after a conflict, two males may go back-to-back and rub scrotums together. Bonobos also practice oral sex, massage each other’s genitals and enjoy intense, prolonged tongue-kissing. They even somehow find the time to pleasure themselves, either with their hands or using improvised tools.
Unlike humans, however, they never pair off to form a permanent sexual partnership. Sex has a role in the life of bonobos that goes way beyond reproduction. About three quarters of their sexual activity has nothing to do with reproduction at all. Its mainly just for pleasure and to help bond their group together.
The chimpanzee’s sex life is rather plain and boring: bonobos act as if they have read the Kama Sutra.
Bonobos and chimpanzees only separated into two species about a million years ago. They have been known to interbreed in captivity, but in the wild, their territories are separated by wide, crocodile-infested rivers and they never meet. At first glance they may look indistinguishable from each other, but it’s easy to tell them apart once you know how.
Bonobos have bright pink lips, black faces and a neat centre-parting. Chimps, on the other hand, have dark lips, their faces tend to get pinker with age and their head-hair sweeps back from their foreheads.
Bonobos have longer legs than chimps and are more at home walking upright.
Bonobos are smaller than chimps with slender upper bodies, and while male bonobos and male chimps are both bigger than their female counterparts, this size variation is less extreme in bonobos than in chimps.
Bonobos are extraordinarily playful as infants. Playing helps them to learn and gain independence by testing their skills against each other. They constantly and spontaneously invent new games.
A young female bonobo has been recorded playing a sort of trust game by holding onto a young male bonobo’s genitals, leading him round and round in circles and laughing, before finally letting go.
Young bonobos play the same sort of games that young human children play, like King of the Mountain, where one bonobo parades around on top of a hill or rock while the others try to pull him or her down, and Blind Man’s Bluff, where young bonobos cover their eyes with their hands and run around chasing each other.
What marks bonobos out from all other apes, except perhaps some humans, is that they remain playful for the rest of their lives.
When we look to the other great apes to understand our social evolution, our ideas would be heavily skewed if we only looked at chimpanzees; we would be missing essential and wonderful aspects of what makes us human.
Bonobos prefer sharing their food with strangers. They do it to extend their social network.
Bonobos use leaves as rain hats, twigs as toothpicks and moss as a sponge to get water out of tree trunks.
Kanzi, a bonobo at Georgia State University, can create and use stone tools as skilfully as a Neolithic human.
The first academic paper on bonobos may have established their bohemian reputation: ‘Le Chimpanzé de la Rive Gauche du Congo’.
Bonobos weren't discovered until 1929.