What’s it like to work with relatives who think sex is like a handshake, who organise orgies with the neighbours, and firmly believe females should be in charge of everything?
On September 11, researcher Vanessa Woods will journey to Lola ya Bonobo Sanctuary in Congo with colleagues from the Max Planck Institute in Germany to study our mysterious cousin, the bonobo.
‘On our last trip, we found that bonobos were better cooperators than chimpanzees because they had sex and played a lot. This time we want to see how much thinking is going on behind the cooperation.’
Bonobos, like chimpanzees, are related to humans by 98.7%. But in contrast to chimpanzees who live in male dominated societies, where infanticide and lethal aggression are observed, bonobos live in highly tolerant and peaceful societies due to female dominance that maintains group cohesion and regulates tensions through sexual behaviour.
‘We’re always comparing ourselves to chimpanzees, but they’re only half the picture. Bonobos and chimpanzees are so opposite in many ways, that we really need to understand bonobos if we’re ever going to understand ourselves.’
Apart from cooperation, Woods and her colleagues will be looking at whether bonobos are more helpful than chimpanzees, whether bonobos are more helpful, and whether they like to play ball.
‘A lot of our experiments look silly, like when I throw a bright red soccer ball back and forth, or wave a red porcupine around. But a lot of these games help us understand the way bonobos think. Are they as obsessed with objects as we are? Are they scared of new things?’
Working in the Democratic Republic of Congo doesn’t always go according to plan.
‘Every day there seems to be a new crisis. Last trip we were evacuated from the sanctuary because of gunfire in Kinshasa. Then an orphan bonobo was confiscated from the bush meat trade. He died soon after. It was heart wrenching. But then the bonobos are so funny and fascinating, you go from being devastated one minute to uplifted the next.’
Materials provided by Max Planck Institute. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
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