Eroticism and egalitarianism among bonobos, illustrated

This graphic is taken from “The Left Bank Ape: An Exclusive Look at Bonobos,” written by David Quammen with photographs from Christian Ziegler, a piece that appears in the March 2013 National Geographic (p. 104).  It plainly contrasts some of the behavioral differences between the more aggressive and hierarchical chimpanzees (whose native habitat lies on the northern side, or right bank, of the Congo River in equatorial Africa) and the more ludic, sexual, and egalitarian bonobos (Pan paniscus, who reside south of the Congo River).


The graphic indicates that bonobos are more matriarchal where chimpanzees are patriarchal, and that sex is often used among bonobos to resolve conflict, among a myriad of other uses for such practice!

As Quammen writes in the text, opening with a quote from Dutch-American biologist Frans de Waal:

“‘Whereas the chimpanzee shows little variation in the sexual act, bonobos behave as if they have read the Kama Sutra, performing every position and variation one can imagine.’  For instance, they mate in the missionary position, something virtually unknown among chimpanzees.  But their sexiness isn’t just about mating.  Most of those variations are sociosexual, meaning that they don’t entail copulation between an adult male and an adult female during her fertile period.  The range of partners includes adults of the same sex, an adult with a juvenile of either sex, and two juveniles together […].  Usually there’s no orgasm culminating these activities.  Their social purpose seems to be communication of various sorts: expression of goodwill, calming of excitement, greeting, tension relief, bonding, solicitation of food sharing, and reconciliation.  To that list of benefits we might also add sheer pleasure and (for the juveniles) instructional play.  Varied and frequent and often nonchalant, sex is a widely applied social lubricant that helps keep bonobo politics amiable.  De Waal again: ‘The chimpanzee resolves sexual issues with power; the bonobo resolves power issues with sex.'”

PS To take such information from National Geographic is in no way to overlook legitimate criticisms of the magazine, the most devastating of which I consider to be Reading National Geographic by Catherine A. Lutz and Jane L. Collins (1993).

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