Bonobos Less Humane Than Once Thought

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They may not be outright cannibals, but even so, bonobos are decidedly less “humane” than once thought.

Bonobos, siblings to the common chimpanzee, were once thought to be the “hippies” of the primate world. For example, the Encyclopedia Britannica claims, “In rare instances, they have been observed eating bats, flying squirrels, and even young duikers (small antelopes). Unlike chimpanzees, bonobos do not hunt monkeys but instead play with and groom them.” Despite the fact that they still hunted at times, they were nonetheless quite civilized, right?

Wrong. Researchers recently observed (on multiple occasions) bonobos capturing small tree monkeys—and not to play with them or groom them, mind you! A news release reports that “both bonobo sexes play active roles in pursuing and hunting monkeys.” These first observations back up previous indirect evidence that bonobos indeed feast on monkeys.

The data was gathered in Congo by scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and reported on in Current Biology. Gottfried Hohmann, one of the scientists, explained, “In [common] chimpanzees, male-dominance is associated with physical violence, hunting, and meat consumption. By inference, the lack of male dominance and physical violence is often used to explain the relative absence of hunting and meat eating in bonobos. Our observations suggest that, in contrast to previous assumptions, these behaviors may persist in societies with different social relations.”

In a bit of dark humor perhaps, primatologist Elizabeth Lonsdorf of Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo, who was not involved in the study, commented, “The second I read this, I thought: Oh good, finally! Bonobos being so peaceful never sat well with me. We see all species of captive apes, including bonobos, hunting animals, like squirrels, that wander into their enclosures. I was just waiting for something like this to come up.”

For years, bonobos’ passive disposition and egalitarian communities were considered reminders of the evolutionary belief that the “sophisticated” apes were “humans’ closest relatives,” as the news release calls them. With this newest revelation, however, we have a stark and gruesome reminder of the effect the Fall has had on all life, as many of God’s creatures—including humans, tragically—have “fulfilled” Genesis 9:5. In that sense, we see that human behavior can be just as bad as animal behavior—or vice versa.

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