TV Program Description
Original PBS Broadcast Date: February 13, 2007
With their intelligent gaze, human-like posture, and peaceful nature, it's no
wonder bonobos—one of five great apes, along with gorillas, chimpanzees,
orangutans, and humans—remind us of ourselves. But while we share a
common hominoid ancestor with bonobos as well as 98 percent of our DNA, this
unique primate has been largely overlooked by all but a few scientists.
Ironically, within this species, it is the females who generally have the
power, and much of bonobo life revolves around sex, which may explain why
they're seen as nonviolent creatures. Bonobos live in a region that has been consumed
by war, which threatens their habitat and survival. Can we learn more about
these intriguing, intelligent apes before it's too late? By interviewing
leading experts and traveling into the field, this program shines a spotlight
on the extraordinary behavior of the endangered bonobo.
Between five and seven million years ago, humans branched off from their
hominoid ancestor and evolved into a separate species (see Our Family Tree).
Between two and three million years ago, bonobos split off from their more aggressive cousins, the chimpanzees. Chimpanzees have been well studied
throughout Africa for decades, with field researchers often comparing their
violent and excitable behavior to the human tendency towards war and conflict.
Wild bonobos, however, are only found within one remote bend of the Congo
River, which is accessible only through the river's tributaries. Thanks to this
inhospitable location, bonobos remained largely unexamined until the mid-1970s,
when scientists first began to observe the shy animals tucked away in tree
nests amid the Congo rainforest canopy.
As researchers studied these little-known apes, they discovered some striking
differences between bonobo and chimpanzee behavior (see The Bonobo In All of
Us). University of Oregon primatologist Frances White began conducting bonobo
field studies in 1983 and discovered that in bonobo families, females generally
rule. While chimps are a patriarchal species in which males often brutally
dominate females, bonobo females tend to have priority in terms of feeding and
sharing food with each other and with males. In territorial disputes, the
females take the lead to avoid conflict, using peaceful means rather than
fierce aggression. They also keep the stronger males in check by forming
alliances with other females.
Perhaps the most intriguing and tantalizing bonobo behavior, however, is
widespread sex. Most animals are sexually active for only a few days each
month. But bonobos are receptive to sex throughout their cycle, even though
females can only get pregnant once every five years. Bonobo sex is not just
about reproduction; it is about bonding, relieving tensions, and maintaining
harmony. Intimacy, this program points out, makes it hard to stay angry.
The bonobos' peaceful nature also extends to their ability to be empathic,
altruistic, and tolerant. "The Last Great Ape" reveals young bonobos exhibiting
caring behavior toward a peer who has hurt his hand, and shares the story of a
female bonobo in captivity who tends to an injured bird. Perhaps this
remarkable behavior speaks to our shared past: according to Frans de Waal of
Emory University in Atlanta, who also appears in the film, genetic research
shows a piece of DNA involved in bonding is found in both humans and
bonobos—but is missing in chimpanzees.
There is much more to learn about the bonobo, but humans may be losing their
chance. In 1998, the Congo plunged into a years-long civil war, and violence
forced the scientists who had been studying the bonobos out of the jungle.
Researchers despaired that perhaps all of the already dwindling bonobo
population had been killed for bush meat or poached to sell as pets. In "The
Last Great Ape," long-time bonobo observer Frances White returns to Africa to
search for her beloved bonobos. Will she find the population intact or
decimated? Have the bonobos survived the warring factions and human
encroachment threatening their existence?