A good origin story is important. The Romans had Romulus and Remus. Americans have the Pilgrim Fathers and George Washington. Darth Vader had Anakin Skywalker (although perhaps the less said about that story the better). Knowledge of where we came from helps us to find our place in the world, and our connections to our family, our ancestors, and our homelands are all immensely important when it comes to figuring this all out. For this blog, I want to explore the human side of animals and the animal side of humans, so it seems only appropriate that this first post should take things all the way back to the beginning 8-9 million years ago, when our last common ancestors with creatures still alive today walked on earth. There is still a lot we don’t know about these beings, and what we do know has changed an awful lot over the past half a century. As a result, our very own human origin story has been constantly reassessed, debated, and rewritten by a host of scientists, writers, and thinkers in recent times. The narratives that we are left with have the power to not only change how we think about our past, but how we view modern day humans as well.
Who were these first human ancestors? Well firstly we are primates, along with many other species including lemurs, baboons, bush babies, and spider monkeys. Getting more specific within the primate order, we belong to a rather specialised family called the apes, alongside gibbons, orangutans, gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos. By looking at how similar our genetic codes are compared to these animals, we can actually work out just how closely related we are to each of them, the outcome of which can be seen in the family tree below. It turns out that we are most closely related to chimpanzees and bonobos – our last common ancestor lived 8-9 million years ago, with chimpanzees and bonobos only then diverging from each other when the Congo River formed to separate the two species 1.8 million years ago. The fossils from around the time of our last common ancestor look remarkably like chimpanzees and bonobos – with similar brain sizes to their modern counterparts, strong teeth and jaws, and a body designed for both climbing trees and walking using all four limbs. But fossils can only tell us so much. In the middle of the 20th Century, palaeontologists began to wonder if perhaps we could learn more about how our ancestors behaved by observing similar beings that still exist today. Since then, countless primatological studies have revealed (amongst other revelations) that apes are capable of making and using tools, hunting and eating animals, and even of possessing a rudimentary form of culture. Throughout all these studies, perhaps no other animal has been focused on as a model for early humans quite as much as the chimpanzee.
Meet your family
This is not without reason. Chimpanzees are located over a far more widespread area of Africa (the continent where humans first originated from) when compared to bonobos or gorillas. Chimpanzee research was also made incredibly famous by Jane Goodall, who famously lived alongside and researched chimpanzees for many years and later wrote and spoke about her experiences to a massive worldwide audience through countless books, magazine articles, and public engagements. Many of the major discoveries that eroded the boundaries between animal and man (such as tool making) were first discovered in chimpanzees. Due to all of this, the similarity between humans and chimpanzees has been ingrained in popular culture – just look at films such as Planet of the Apes or 2001: A Space Odyssey which both emphasised the short evolutionary gap between the two species. Read any article from around 1960 to the late 1980’s that focuses on comparing extant (still living) primates with our long dead ancestors, and chances are it would feature the chimpanzee. As such, much of what people now imagine we were like 8-9 million years ago is directly influenced by chimpanzee behaviour. The thing about chimpanzees is, they often don’t behave very well by human standards (although by chimp standards I expect they behave a lot better than we do). Chimpanzee societies are based around violence and politics – they are male dominated, and each individual is constantly jostling for position in a hierarchy that determines everything from how easy it is to mate, to how much access you get to the best food sources. Brash displays are common, and these can often spill over to actual violence and even death. Those at the bottom of the hierarchy are often beaten up, and females are almost entirely subservient to males. This was the behaviour on which much early human behaviour was modelled by many scientists – after all, chimpanzees are our closest relative, so surely this makes good scientific sense? What a lot of people forget however, is that we have not one but two relatives in the animal kingdom that have the dubious honour of being the closest to us.
It sometimes seems like no one really knows quite what to do with bonobos. This is in part the reason why I love them so much. They don’t appear in zoos all that often due to their tendency to frequently engage in all kinds of sexual activity (the sort that leads to children asking embarrassing questions to their parents). They are highly difficult to study, living only in the dense rainforests of the Democratic Republic of Congo which has experienced political turmoil and civil war throughout much of its history. They weren’t even distinguished from their more famous chimpanzee relatives until 1933, despite many being housed in zoological collections and cited in the wild well before then – even today, many people just don’t know about them. Bonobos throw a spanner in the works when it comes to picturing early human ancestors. Whilst physically similar to chimpanzees in many respects, bonobos are remarkably different in how they behave. Whereas chimpanzees live in male dominated societies, with bonobos it’s the females who are in charge. Whilst chimpanzees use aggression and politics to dominate their way to the top of the hierarchy, bonobos instead use a wide array of sexual and playful behaviour to soothe over tensions within their far more egalitarian groups. Chimpanzees go to war. Bonobos do not. Originally side-lined from the discussions regarding early human ancestors, bonobos just did not fit with how many scientists viewed our origins as male oriented, brutish, and violent. It is only recently that primatologists such as Frans de Waal have started to question this – why should we model our earliest ancestors on chimpanzees? After all, we are just as related to the bonobo as we are to chimpanzees – it seems wrong that our image of where we have come from is skewed so much in favour of one species. Who’s to say that early hominins (the scientific word for all our ancestors after we split from the other apes) did not live in societies similar to those seen in bonobos today?
There are convincing arguments on both sides as to whether our ancestors acted more like the modern bonobo or the modern chimpanzee. Some will argue that bonobos, living deep in the rainforests of the Congo, are adapted to an environment more similar to that of our ancestors before the rainforests of Africa dried out and became Savannah, and that this makes them better candidates to model our ancestors behaviour on. Alternatively, many people will point to the warlike nature and politics of humankind throughout much of its history as proof of our closeness to chimpanzees. Of course, it is worth pointing out that whoever our ancestors were, they would not have been exactly like either species – they were their own creatures in their own time, adapted to their environments as they existed 8-9 million years ago. We did not evolve from a chimpanzee or a bonobo – chimpanzees and bonobos both evolved from this same ancestor and have continued to evolve and change for exactly the same amount of time we have. It is also worth pointing out that this is not a “good vs evil” argument – an epic struggle for our soul between the barbaric chimp and the angelic bonobo. I’ve spent a fair amount of time observing both species, and there is often a lot of overlap between the two. Chimpanzees sometimes show very real moments of care for each other at times, and have been observed helping out injured members of their troop or caring for each other’s young. At the same time, bonobos can occasionally be violent with each other (although so far have never been observed to use deadly force), and are perfectly capable of acting in their own self-interest at times. Both animals are imbued with personality (although that is another topic for another time) and so the variation between individuals can be immense. We can never truly equate the common ancestor of our three species to just one – we can only recognise the influence each has on the rest of us whilst continuing to explore the fossil, genetic and behavioural data for more clues into our ancient past.
Where does that leave us? I think it is high time that the bonobo is recognised as an equal to the chimpanzee when discussing relatedness. There are many traits people sometimes view as ingrained in human nature – the capacity for violence, the endless quest for power, a society made for and led by men. These are chimpanzee traits, but not necessarily human ones. By remembering our connection to the bonobo, we can recognise that humans also have an incredible capacity for tolerance, empathy, and living in caring and egalitarian societies. Not that I think it is any wiser to try to ignore our chimpanzee tendencies – humans do at times display some very chimpanzee like traits and I think that sometimes the pendulum can swing to far the other way and people can forget to acknowledge this. Ultimately, by engaging more with all facets of our origin story, we can get a better sense of all sides of what it means to be human, and hopefully as a result feel a greater connection to the natural world as well.
I hope you enjoyed this post – if you did (or if there’s something you didn’t agree with and want to discuss) please leave a comment below. Additionally, if you want to explore this topic further, I’ve included a few sources I would recommend to start off with below. You’ll notice that most of these are written by Frans de Waal, but that is simply because his work on this subject is very, very good.
de Waal, F.B.M. (2007) Chimpanzee politics: Power and sex among apes (25th anniversary edition).
de Waal, F.B.M. (2013) The bonobo and the atheist: In search of humanism among the primates.
Parish, A.R., de Waal, F. & Haig, D. (2000) The other “closest living relative”: How bonobos (Pan paniscus) challenge traditional assumptions about females, dominance, intra‐and intersexual interactions, and hominid evolution. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 907(1), pp.97-113. Found at: http://www.uptheriverendeavors.org/projects/2007_articles/Parish_and_de_Waal.pdf
Choi, C.Q. (2009) Human Evolution: Our Closest Living Relatives, the Chimps. Found at: http://www.livescience.com/7929-human-evolution-closest-living-relatives-chimps.html