The concept of cooperation among human beings is often regarded as a hallmark of our species. Historically, tribes of hunter-gatherers have united for communal hunts or formed large-scale alliances, while societies established trade networks spanning the globe. But a recent study published in Science has called into question the uniqueness of human cooperation, revealing that two groups of apes in Africa have formed extensive, friendly, and cooperative relationships over the years without any kinship ties.
Bonobos, an ape species native to the forests of Congo, have been observed engaging in behavior distinct from that of chimpanzees. Unlike chimpanzees, who display violent behavior and male domination, bonobos are characterized by female dominance and a tendency to resolve conflicts through sexual activity.
Studies of the two groups of bonobos, known as Ekalakala and Kokoalongo, have revealed 95 encounters between them over two years. These interactions involved grooming, food sharing, and the cooperative effort to fend off threats such as snakes. Despite the close interactions, the two groups remained distinct, retaining their separate cultures and exhibiting no evidence of interbreeding.
Researchers observed that individual bonobos from different groups gradually formed bonds through reciprocal favors and gifts. This cooperative behavior was not random, as some apes even formed alliances to confront a third bonobo. The scientists found the interactions between the bonobos to be quite extraordinary, challenging the traditional view of what sets humans apart from other primates.
The research on bonobos has the potential to provide insight into the evolution of social behaviors in humans, shedding light on our past and the origins of cooperation. It has also sparked interest in the significance of similar studies in different populations to assess the prevalence of this cooperative behavior among bonobos.
While the study offers a compelling perspective on the nature of cooperation, establishing bonobo research sites in the Congo presents numerous challenges, including the dense rainforests and internal conflicts in the region. In addition, the dwindling population of bonobos, threatened by logging and poaching, raises concerns about the future prospects for further research.
Ultimately, the cooperation observed among bonobos, our closest genetic relatives along with chimpanzees, highlights the complex nature of our own species. As human groups are capable of both remarkable cooperation and organized conflict, these insights from the study of bonobos invite a deeper understanding of the parallels between human and ape behavior.
Source: The New York Times