Bonobo Cannibalism?

By Chris Mooney | June 3, 2010 7:28 am

Vanessa Woods CoverThis 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…

lr bnb05 1Let 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


Comments (6)

Links to this Post

  1. On Human Social Dominance Hierarchies « | June 28, 2010
  1. Mort

    Fascinating. Thanks!

  2. ponderingfool

    How much monitoring of the bonobos has taken place relative to chimps?

  3. gillt

    How did you go from what David H. said here: “Of course bonobos have not been studied nearly as extensively as chimps. Maybe it’s only a matter of time before we see infanticide…Who knows?”

    to assuming this “Oh, why are we even studying them? Oh, let’s just let them go extinct because who cares about them anyway” ??

    What are the behavioral distinctions between intraspecific scavenging which was witnessed and infaticide? Is one more rare among primates than the other?

  4. Thomas

    There are human tribes that eat at least part of their dead as part of the burial ritual, so if you want to be nice to the bonobos, call it a burial ritual, not cannibalism. Who knows, it may even be true.

  5. Rudi

    I have to agree with the post from gillt (#3). Unless there is more to the message from David H. than you quoted here, you have jumped from what was said to what you want the message to be. Sorry – David H. might be missing the point, but what you quoted does not suggest that we should stop studying bonobos, nor that we should allow them to become extinct.


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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