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Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape

Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape
Frans De Waal and Frans Lanting
University of California Press, Berkeley
210 pp. $39.95

Bonobos adoring baby

Bonobos adoring baby (Photo credit: LaggedOnUser)

The bonobo ape was discovered relatively late–1929–and for decades was largely dismissed as a pigmy chimp, a smaller version, rather than a distinct class, within the chimpanzee species. What little information reached mainstream media tended to sensationalize their sexual behavior, without analyzing why and when they engaged in it. Then, in the late 90’s, Frans De Waal, a primatologist and psychology professor, and Frans Lanting, renowned wildlife photographer, published Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape, a study in photo and text.
The bonobos live in the most remote section of Zaire, now Congo, and the authors had to overcome enormous obstacles to study them, considering the political upheaval in that part of the world. Lanting notes that in all his years of shooting wildlife, this was his most difficult assignment—but it was also, he says, exhilarating: “When I saw them up close in the forest I really had to blink–that’s how much they reminded me of ourselves. I related to them in an immediate, emotional fashion.” Of making eye contact with the apes, he says, “The spark across the species barrier is never forgotten.”


The bonobos engage in casual, frequent, and pansexual lovemaking, and their social structure revolves around female bonding and dominance. Apparently as a result of these practices, they live in almost total harmony. With the exception of mothers and sons, all ages and genders physically bond with one another. Female bonobos are the queens of tribadism; girl-girl sex is the most common variation among the species. Not to be outdone, the boys rub their genitals on each other; their favorite game is penis fencing. Even the kids get in on the act, jumping on humping adults, sometimes going so far as to initiate sex themselves. Everyone masturbates. French-kissing is the preferred smooch; one zookeeper was stunned when he offered his lips to a bonobo for an affectionate peck and she stuck her tongue in his mouth. On average, bonobos initiate sex once every 90 minutes.

Although intense, most sexual interactions are brief–on average around 15 seconds–and more affectionate than erotic. Orgasm and ejaculation aren’t always reached. As De Waal emphasizes, this active sex life shouldn’t be seen as indicative of “a pathologically oversexed species,” but rather as the “glue” of the bonobos’ social structure. “The art of sexual reconciliation,” he notes, “may well have reached its evolutionary peak in the bonobo.” For example, the arrival of food is the catalyst for a short, frenzied orgy. The authors speculate that this is a way of reducing tension over competition for food—but they also wonder if “excitement over food sparks over into sexual arousal, as if enthusiasm for food and sex get mixed up.” That’s something humans are always doing—eating to satisfy the need for sex and vice versa (see my post Food, Sex and Gender).

The authors seem to feel somewhat protective of bonobos, and are eager to present them as more than sex maniacs…yet there’s no denying these handsome, decidedly X-rated, photos. One chapter, “Apes From Venus,” opens with a full-page photo of a couple making love in the missionary position. Another shows two adult males rubbing their scrota together. A female idly fondles her enormous clitoris. Even the PG photos are startlingly humanesque: bonobos are partial bipeds, and sometimes walk upright.  In one photo a male and female hold hands, strolling through the forest like lovers on a Sunday afternoon. In another, an ape stretches his limbs into a yoga-like position.

Close-ups zero in on deep soulful eyes, showing the empathic quality the authors found prevalent in the species. Other shots show females standing upright, their breasts sagging and nipples extended, and one of a male with a spear-like erection bearing a hefty gift of sugarcane as he marches purposefully toward the object of his desire.

The bonobo population is, like that of many species, dwindling. Social unrest in the region has destroyed food supplies throughout the country, and bonobos are increasingly being hunted and eaten as bush meat. Destruction of their habitat also poses a threat, and they are currently classified as endangered by several wildlife agencies. The disappearance of the bonobos would be a terrible loss, especially since they’ve only just begun to be seriously studied. We share over 98 percent of our genetic material with chimpanzees and bonobos, and, as the authors point out, “In everything they do they resemble us.”

Since publication of The Forgotten Ape, further research into bonobo behavior shows evidence of greater linguistic capacity than was previously thought. In August 2008 the Journal of Integrative Psychological and Behavioral Science published a paper by Janni Pedersen, an Iowa State University Ph.D, indicating that bonobos may exhibit larger linguistic competency in ordinary conversation than in controlled experimental settings. More research on bonobos is being conducted at the Great Ape Trust in Des Moines, Iowa, where construction is in progress on 200 acres of lowlands, river forest and lakes, for one of the first facilities to study all four types of great ape: bonobos, chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans.

Upon its publication The Forgotten Ape was adopted by some segments of the population who hailed the peaceful cooperation of bonobo society as proof of the wisdom inherent in the Make Love Not War school of thought. During radio interviews with the authors, sexologists would phone in, crowing that Bonobos ‘r’ Us before socialization. Some claimed the bonobos as representative of feminist and/or gay utopia. The authors cautioned against jumping too quickly to these conclusions, even while conceding that the old notion of our ancestors as male dominant and warlike has been irrevocably altered in light of bonobo behavior. These apes prove that our evolutionary past is richer and more complex than previously believed.

“Had the bonobos been known earlier,” say the authors, “reconstruction of human evolution might have emphasized sexual relations, equality between males and females, and the origin of the family instead of war, hunting, tool technology, and other masculine fortes.”

Photos by Frans Lanting 

(F.Lanting on right)

Video of female Bonobo and infants wading into water for food.

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5 responses »

  1. Wow! This is by far the most in depth article I’ve found about the Bonobo. I was especially interested in their sexual behaviour (I don’t think I’m the only one), specifically ‘tribadism’ which is the keyword that led me to this page.

    Given the constant liberalisation of our society’s attitudes towards sex, I wonder if the human race would ever approach their use of sex?

  2. Pingback: am i getting through? « holding center

  3. this was great

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