7 min read

What Bonobos Can Teach Us About Sex, Society And Ourselves

<p>Friends of Bonobos</p>

Warning: descriptions of bonobos' sexual behaviors may upset some readers.


In the rainforests of the Democratic Republic of Congo lives a remarkable primate called the bonobo. Previously, we believed humans closest relatives were chimpanzees, but not it was discovered that bonobos also share close to 98 percent of their DNA with humans. Chimpanzees and bonobos are both equally our first cousins.

Often referred to as the hippies of the animal world, peace, love, and sex is the bonobo way. They are very compassionate in nature, they never kill one another and rarely hunt. Sex is a form of conflict resolution, and bonobos are notorious for their sexual behaviors. When they meet another group of bonobos, instead of fighting over territory like other primates do, they have an orgy, share food and groom one another. Bonobos engage in sex frequently typically around a meal. Sex is heterosexual, homosexual, and in groups. It's used to greet each other, express affection, acceptance, cooperation, play, stress relief, and reconciliation (make-up sex). Bonobos are the only non-human primate to engage in certain sexual actions such as face-to-face sex, oral sex and tongue kissing.

In the bonobos' world, the females are always right. Female bonobos are the leaders of their groups. The males will stay with their mothers for their entire lives, where the females will separate into different groups during adolescence. The females establish their leadership by forming a female alliance. They bond by grooming, sharing mothering duties, and having sex with one another. Girl power combined with all that sex can keep the males tame. If a male does dare to pick on one of the females, all of the females will gang up on the male.

The bonobos have a gentle, empathic nature, likely influenced by the feminine leadership. They share close bonds, and care deeply for one another. Bonobos comfort friends that are in distress shown in a study done at Lola Ya Bonobo , a sanctuary in the D.R.C.

Science is showing more evidence that bonobos have emotions and empathy much like us humans. Empathy is difficult to study, but one way scientists can measure empathy is though researching ones emotional contagion "one's ability to catch another ones emotions." Yawn contagion is a prime example of this. A five year study on yawn contagion in humans and bonobos found that both species were more likely to catch another's emotions if it were a friend. Yawn contagion has been studied in humans, birds and wolves.

What's more, bonobos are clever, witty and sometimes downright silly. At Great Ape Trust Bonobo Hope a bonobo named Panbanisha and her half-brother Kanzi became famous for their ability to communicate with humans through the use of a touch screen. Bonobos were also documented to play music, cook and there was even an incident of a bonobo that attempted to drive a golf cart that she then crashed into a tree. The ethics of exploring these behaviors is still disputable; the center made headlines in 2012 when Panabnish died and others were reported sick.

Bonobos, like humans can also suffer from mental illness. At one Milwaukee zoo, a bonobo named Brian was taken in who had suffered an abusive past, leaving him unable to function. He was too unstable to interact with his peers, making himself physically ill and self-harming. His caretakers were so concerned that they called in a psychiatrist Dr. Harry Prosen whom had previously only treated humans. Prosen, and the zoo's caretakers began behavior therapy and Brian was prescribed the Paxil to help him relax. The other bonobos that lived with him were especially kind to him, and helped him grow socially. Between a team of apes, caretakers, and one psychiatrist, Brian was able to heal and even became a father.

Humans clearly share much more with bonobos than DNA. Bonobos can show us humans what it might be like to live in a world that is full of empathy, free of war and is better off for everyone living in it. We should appreciate the bonobos and take this lesson while we still can; the bonobo is currently endangered, due to habitat loss and the bush-meat trade.