Bonobo

From Anarchy In Action

Bonobos are a Central African great ape that exhibit almost no social hierarchy or aggression. According to primatologist Frans de Waal, “The species is best characterized as female-centered and egalitarian and as one that substitutes sex for aggression.”[1]

Along with the common chimpanzee, they are the closest relatives to human beings.[2]

Social Structure

From foraging to play, bonobos stay together in small, temporary groups. “Several bonobos traveling together in the morning might meet another group in the forest, whereupon one individual from the first group wanders off with others from the second group, while those left behind forage together.”[3]

There are hierarchies among males and among females, but these hierarchies are not all that important. Males do not dominate females, and if anything, the opposite is true. Christopher Boehm considers bonobos to be more egalitarian than human hunter-gatherer societies.[4]

According to De Waal, “Bonobo society is, however, not only female-centered but also appears to be female-dominated.”[5]

Diet

Bonobos eat mostly fruit, and aside from eating invertebrates and the occasional small vertebrate, “their diet seems to contain relatively little animal protein.”[6]

Peacefulness

De Waal reports that fighting between bonobos is “unusual”:

Serious conflict between bonobo groups has been witnessed in the field, but it seems quite rare. On the contrary, reports exist of peaceable mingling, including mutual sex and grooming, between what appear to be different communities. If intergroup combat is indeed unusual, it may explain the lower rate of all-male associations.[7]

Play and Sex

Bonobos are fond of play, such as making funny faces and tickling each other. De Waal has seen them play “blindman's buff”, in which a bonobo covers her eyes and walking until she loses balance.[8]

Bonobos are, famously, fond of sex and erotic behavior, not just for reproduction and not just heterosexually. Females commonly rub their genitals together, and males will penis-fence and rub one's scrotum to another's buttocks.[9] Often, two feuding bonobos will engage in sexual activity as a substitute for fighting each other:

I once observed a young male, Kako, inadvertently blocking an older, female juvenile, Leslie, from moving along a branch. First, Leslie pushed him; Kako, who was not very confident in trees, tightened his grip, grinning nervously. Next Leslie gnawed on one of his hands, presumably to loosen his grasp. Kako uttered a sharp peep and stayed put. Then Leslie rubbed her vulva against his shoulder. This gesture calmed Kako, and he moved along the branch. It seemed that Leslie had been very close to using force but instead had reassured both herself and Kako with sexual contact.[10]


  1. Frans B. M. De Waal, “Bonobo Sex and Society,” Scientific American, 1 June 2006, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/bonobo-sex-and-society-2006-06/.
  2. http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2012/06/bonobos-join-chimps-closest-human-relatives
  3. De Waal, “Bonobo Sex and Society.”
  4. Christopher Boehm, Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 134, 147.
  5. De Waal, “Bonobo Sex and Society.”
  6. De Waal, “Bonobo Sex and Society.”
  7. De Waal, “Bonobo Sex and Society.”
  8. De Waal, “Bonobo Sex and Society.”
  9. De Waal, “Bonobo Sex and Society.”
  10. De Waal, “Bonobo Sex and Society.”