The Human Journey
Our Distant Ancestors, page 1

Our Nearest Relatives

Bonobos and Chimpanzees

7 basic traits we inherit from our nearest relatives
What they mean for who we are vs. who we think we are

Tree of origin of humans and the 4 great apes
“Tree of origin of humans and the four great apes based on DNA comparisons. Data points indicate how many millions of years ago species diverged. Chimpanzees and bonobos form a single genus: Pan. The human lineage diverged from the Pan ancestor about 5.5 million years ago. Some scientists feel that humans, chimpanzees, and bonobos are close enough to form a single genus: Homo. Since bonobos and chimpanzees split from each other after they split from us, about 2.5 million years ago, both are equally close to us. The gorilla diverged earlier, hence it is more distant from us, as is the only Asian great ape, the orangutan.” (Our Inner Ape: A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are, Frans de Waal)

About five and a half million years ago the human line of descent split from the ancestor we share with chimps and the lesser known bonobos. We still share all but 1.3% of our DNA with these two primates—including some very basic traits often attributed only to humans.

Chimps have been known to science since the seventeenth century, whereas bonobos have been studied in the wild only since the 1970s. What if the situation were reversed? If we had known more about bonobos, might our view of ourselves be less about violence, warfare and male dominance—and more about empathy, caring, sexuality, peace, cooperation and, perhaps, even a matriarchal society?

Today, thanks to advances in science and technology – studies in animal and primate behavior on the one hand and in psychology and neuroscience on the other – we can at last begin to ascertain how much we inherit from our animal and primate past, and in what respects we differ. From there we can hopefully begin to understand our unique place and potential as human beings.

We share genes with all living things – even the banana and the fly! But most relevant to our starting off on this journey is to take a cursory look at the remaining primates closest to us.

While far more studies have been done on chimps than bonobos, it is important to note that neither one of these apes is genetically closer to us than the other. Bonobos have been studied in the wild only since the 1970s and, because of political unrest, inconsistently at that. Chimps live across Africa in great numbers, whereas bonobos live only in the rain forests on the south bank of the Congo River, which permanently separates them from the chimpanzee and gorilla populations to the north. Just how different is their behavior?