Unprecedented Meal-Sharing Behavior Confirms Bonobos Are Peace-Loving, Sex-Mad Hippies


Tom Hale

Tom is a writer in London with a Master's degree in Journalism whose editorial work covers anything from health and the environment to technology and archaeology.

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African breadfruit sharing. LuiKotale Bonobo Project / Barbara Fruth

It's no surprise that bonobos are known as the "hippies of the primate world." For the very first time, researchers have seen wild bonobos (Pan paniscus) sharing meat with a neighboring community. As further evidence of this great ape's complex social life, the meat-sharing feast was also graced with females of the two groups rubbing their genitals together. Sharing is caring, I guess.

Until 25 years ago, scientists didn’t even realize this species ate meat, let alone shared food among their immediate group. The new findings suggest that bonobos have a deeply complex and intelligent social life just like chimpanzees and, of course, us.


The meat-sharing bonobo bonanza was observed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in a forest area near the Bompusa River, as recently reported by primatologists Barbara Fruth and Gottfried Hohmann in the journal Human Nature.

One afternoon in January 2017, an alpha male of Bompusa West community caught a duiker antelope. The commotion attracted members of his own community and bonobos from the Bompusa East community. He climbed to the tomb of a tall tree with his catch, followed by four females from one group and another five from the other, along with all their offspring. Over a period of at least 30 minutes, he dished out the meat among the whole group.

"Solicitation involved behaviours such as peering and stretched out hands but no aggression or forceful taking. As in other cases, the transfer of food from the male to females was passive," Fruth, from Liverpool John Moores University in the UK and the Royal Zoological Society of Antwerp in Belgium, recalled in a statement.

Curiously, only the alpha male participated in the meat-sharing, although seven others were alongside the group in the trees. As is often noted, these apes supposedly spend all day having sex. Their social structures are dominated by females, with sex often being used as a tool to ease social tensions. So, this interaction quickly slipped into an orgy of sexual behavior. Females from different groups rubbed their genitals together and a male mated with a female from an opposing community. The others watched on and peacefully groomed each other in between eating the meat.


“No aggression was observed among females, between males and females, or among males, a behaviour not uncommon during other inter-community encounters," noted Fruth.

"Cooperative behaviours such as hunting and food sharing play an important role in constructing models of human origins," added Hohmann.

"Scrutiny of these behavioural patterns in our closest living relatives, the chimpanzee and the bonobo, provides potential insights into how our last common ancestor may have acted when dividing food with others."


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