Museum of Science and Industry


Brian Hare, an anthropologist at Duke University, recently proposed the idea that bonobos are in fact domesticated versions of chimpanzees. While we associate the word "domestication" with humans acting to tame animals, Hare's idea involves proto-bonobos domesticating themselves.

His basic idea rests upon differences between bonobos and their closest living relative, the chimp. They both descended from a common ancestor until the forming Congo River split its population. Isolated by their inability to swim, Hare thinks they may have developed differently based on their circumstances.

The chimpanzees shared their side of the river with gorillas, who Hare thinks crowded out chimps for resources, causing the more violent and aggressive chimps to thrive. On the quieter bonobo side, less competition led to more cooperation, and deeper bonds between females, who preferred more cooperative males. Over time, as suggested by a classic experiment in domesticating silver foxes, this may have led to physical and behavioral changes when selecting the friendliest of the species for breeding. This could account for today's differences between chimps and bonobos.

It could also have implications for how we view our own species. Comparing the results of "domestication" with qualities of human beings, it is startling how many we exhibit: highly cooperative and social, slow to mature, with relatively tiny canines and a lifelong tendency to play (in some fashion). Further research into this hypothesis should be interesting to follow!

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