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Bonobos cooperation challenges beliefs about human evolution 

Researchers from Harvard University and the German Primate Center have gained remarkable insights into the social behavior of bonobos, challenging long-held beliefs about the nature of cooperation in human evolution. 

This study, focusing on one of humanity’s closest living relatives, reveals that bonobos exhibit a level of societal cooperation and resource-sharing across non-family groups, a trait once thought to be uniquely human.

Bonobo cooperation

The researchers investigated the social dynamics of bonobos (Pan paniscus), often overshadowed by their more aggressive cousins, the chimpanzees. While both species share many social structures, their approach to inter-group interactions differs significantly. 

Chimpanzees are known for their hostility towards other groups, often leading to lethal confrontations. This aggression has heavily influenced models of human evolution, suggesting an innate tendency towards inter-group violence in humans.

However, bonobos present a contrasting narrative. These endangered primates, residing in the remote regions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, showcase remarkable levels of tolerance and cooperation. 

Remarkable tolerance 

“Tracking and observing multiple groups of bonobos in Kokolopori, we’re struck by the remarkable levels of tolerance between members of different groups,” said study lead author Dr. Liran Samuni.

This tolerance paves the way for pro-social cooperative behaviors such as forming alliances and sharing food across groups, a stark contrast to what we see in chimpanzees.”

Kokolopori Bonobo Reserve

The Kokolopori Bonobo Reserve, directed by Harvard Professor Martin Surbeck, has been instrumental in these discoveries. 

“It is through strong collaborations with and the support of the local Mongandu population in Kokolopori, in whose ancestral forest the bonobos roam, that studies of this fascinating species become possible,” said Surbeck. 

The reserve not only enhances our understanding of bonobo biology but also plays a crucial role in conserving this endangered species.

Selective cooperation 

Interestingly, the bonobos do not interact indiscriminately between groups. They form selective bonds, preferring to interact with specific members who are more likely to reciprocate their cooperative efforts. 

“They preferentially interact with specific members of other groups who are more likely to return the favor, resulting in strong ties between pro-social individuals” said Surbeck. “Such connections are also key aspects of the cooperation seen in human societies.”

“Bonobos show us that the ability to maintain peaceful between-group relationships while extending acts of pro-sociality and cooperation to out-group members is not uniquely human.”

Study implications 

“The ability to study how cooperation emerges in a species so closely related to humans challenges existing theory, or at least provides insights into the conditions that promote between-group cooperation over conflict,” said Dr. Samuni.

The revelations extend beyond the realm of primatology, offering profound implications for understanding the roots of human cooperation. 

Human societies are known for their intricate networks that facilitate the exchange of resources, ideas, and innovations. The bonobos, with their similar resource-sharing, suggest that such cooperation can emerge even without the influence of culture or social norms.

The study is published in the journal Science.

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