The Sciences

Bonobo Cannibalism?

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyJun 3, 2010 11:28 AM


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This is a guest post from Vanessa Woods, author of the new book, Bonobo Handshake. Vanessa is a Research Scientist in Evolutionary Anthropology at Duke University and studies the cognition of chimpanzees and bonobos in Congo.

Here is the latest from Martin Subeck - who I met a few years ago at Lola ya Bonobo sanctuary in Congo. The first thing about Martin is he's an excellent scientist working with Gottfried Hohmann, who is one of the best. The second thing is, that like Max the bonobo, Martin is really really ridiculously goodlooking.

Anyway, I digress. Martin saw something totally cool - bonobos cannibalizing an infant - cool because it's the first time something like this happened. So I was blogging about it on my other blog, bonobo handshake, and I got messages like:

Dave H. said...

Why do you "wonder if the infant was killed by a high ranking male"? In chimpanzees it has always been the adult females that killed and ate their groupmates' offspring. The male chimps have only been seen killing juveniles from other groups. And it would make no sense for a high ranking male to kill what may very well have been his offspring. Anyway, from the New Scientist article you linked to in your other post, "She showed no obvious traces of blood or bruises, so it seems unlikely she had been killed by other members of her group." Hunting, cannibalism, ... I'm starting to think that common chimps and bonobos are more alike than different. Of course bonobos have not been studied nearly as extensively as chimps. Maybe it's only a matter of time before we see infanticide. Then maybe we'll see the males going on patrols to kill members of other groups, just like Jane Goodall observed at Gombe. Who knows?

Which is what happens every time someone finds a similar behavior to chimps in bonobos. Oh, bonobos are just chimps. Oh, why are we even studying them? Oh, let's just let them go extinct because who cares about them anyway...

Let me be clear. One incident of cannibalism does not a chimpanzee make. Lethal aggression has been seen in almost every chimpanzee field site in Africa. No one saw how the baby died, maybe it fell out of a tree. And granted, there are only 2 bonobo field sites, and maybe secretly bonobos are running around killing each other, murdering and eating each others' infants, and organizing raids and hunting parties. But somehow, I doubt it. *My new book

Bonobo Handshake is out now. It's available on Amazon, or through my website

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