The Last Great Ape

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?

Program Transcript
Program Credits

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Bonobos have been called the "make-love-not-war" primate because of their peace-loving nature. Ironically, war conducted by a fellow great ape—man—now threatens their existence.

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© | Created January 2007