Female bonobos will act as midwives and help each other out during the birthing process, according to a new study that questions whether human midwifery is actually unique.
The researchers have published their findings in Evolution & Human Behavior, in which they describe three separate incidences of captive female bonobos acting as midwives for mother apes in both France and the Netherlands. They found that the other females would gather around the mother giving birth, grooming her, protecting her from males in the group, and even placing their hands under the emerging infant to cup it.
There has only ever been one account of a bonobo giving birth in the wild. This is because – even when apes are habituated to humans – it is supremely difficult to witness such events as they tend to happen during the night.
In that only other account, females were also seen helping the mother give birth. This makes the latest study in bonobos fairly significant, as it suggests this is not one-off behavior.
This is in stark contrast to how our other ape relatives – chimpanzees – give birth. Females in chimp communities tend to isolate themselves and give birth on their own. The difference is thought to be down to the structure of their societies: chimps live in a male-dominated world, while bonobos live in a female-dominated one.
The research raises the question of whether or not midwifery is a uniquely human trait. Almost every human culture around the world practices some form of it, and it was long thought to be a result of the fact that human babies are born with large heads that make it difficult to fit through the woman’s pelvis. This means that while our brains can grow bigger, women have a harder time giving birth, and thus having others on hand is a significant advantage.
If bonobo females are also practicing midwifery, it could mean that our last common ancestors did too and that chimpanzees simply lost the behavior as the females became more isolated. Of course, it could also be that bonobos and humans both independently evolved it.
Taking another step back, the picture gets somewhat more complex. As with apes, the natural birthing process in most other primates is difficult to study due to their nocturnal habits, but there are a handful of reports of other species displaying similar behaviors.
A few years ago, for example, a female golden snub-nosed monkey was filmed grooming another female who was giving birth. She even helped to pull the newborn infant free before licking it clean. The behavior has also been reported in black snub-nosed monkeys and white-headed langurs.