My favorite exhibit at California’s San Diego zoo is the bonobo enclosure. Not because this is a ridiculously randy species (seriously, any age or sex will suffice). Not even because they, alongside chimpanzees, are the species most closely related to humans. But because they live in what some primatologists believe to be a matriarchy—making them unique among the great apes, including ourselves.
Bonobos, sometimes known as pygmy chimpanzees, were neglected for decades by primatologists who assumed they were just smaller versions of chimps. But from the 1990s onwards, researcher Amy Parish and others studied bonobos and came to an astonishing conclusion: Chimps and bonobos are nothing alike. Chimps form violent, male-dominated hierarchies. Bonobos are female-dominated, using sexual contact between both males and females as a kind of social glue. And crucially, females form strong bonds even with females they’re unrelated to.
As I explore in my new book, Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story, the discovery of bonobos’ female-dominated communities has had an enormous impact on how we understand humans. It opened fresh questions about our evolutionary roots: What kind of societies did our primate ancestors live in? Could they have been more egalitarian than the ones we have now? And for researchers like Parish, bonobos shine a light on feminist struggles for equality—and raise questions about longstanding assumptions, shared by some scientists, that male-dominated social structures are “natural.”
“For forty years, chimpanzee researchers had the corner on the market on man’s closest living relative,” says Parish. “We built all our models of evolution based on a chimp model – patriarchal, hunting, meat-eating, male-bonding, male aggression towards females.” Bonobos have turned this all on its head. In this species, males occupy the bottom of the hierarchy.
That’s not to say bonobos can’t be violent. In one corner of the bonobos enclosure at the San Diego zoo, I spotted a male bonobo cowering and shielding his hand, having just received an injury from a female.
“A good portion of his finger is completely raw and the skin is gone,” Parish observes. “But it’s not uncommon that when males are injured, that also there are injuries on the testicles or penis or anus.” In the wild, male bonobos are protected by their mothers, who give them access to food and mates. Nursery-reared and living in captivity, this male had no source of protection.
Female violence towards bonobo males is common, particularly when males behave aggressively to assert dominance or get food. That’s not because the female bonobos have any physical advantage; indeed, as with humans, the females are slightly smaller. Instead, females cooperate with one another and gain strength in numbers. Even so, they’re not as aggressive as chimps, who have been known to occasionally go into other groups and kill everyone to gain control of territory—a behavior akin to a genocidal pattern.
When it comes to sourcing food, bonobo females also wield power over the males. One prey is forest antelope. “They flush the young ones out amongst the tall grass, and they eat them,” Parish explains. She describes reports of males stuck under the branches of trees where females are feeding, “throwing temper tantrums because they so desperately want some of the meat and they can’t have any of it unless one of the females, usually the mother, wants to give them some. Or they can offer females sex in exchange for food.” The social stereotypes we humans often live by are, in bonobos, overturned.
For Parish, what makes bonobos particularly fascinating is the natural solidarity that the females have with each other, and how this gives them power.
“Here we can see females actually bonding with each other, maintaining those bonds, maintaining that loyalty,” she says. “Females can be in charge. They can control the resources. They don’t need to go through males to get them. They don’t have to be subjected to sexual violence.”
Although science remains overwhelmingly male, primatology is an oasis of female-domination, exemplified by pioneers Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey. Parish herself is the former student of Barbara Smuts, another leading ape researcher, today a professor emerita of psychology at the University of Michigan. Taking inspiration from her observations of primates, in 1995, Smuts wrote an academic paper exploring the relationship between feminist theory and evolutionary theory. “Both,” she wrote, “focus on power and sex.”
In bonobos, the male-dominated patterns of power and sex seem to be switched in favor of females. Among most primate species, females experience violence at the hands of males who want to mate with them (although it should be noted, females almost always put up a fight). Bonobo females, on the other hand, stand out in not being victims of sexual coercion at all. Bonobo males that attempt to force sex are thwarted by the bonobos’ “strong female-female bonds,” Smuts explained. If males want sex, food, or status, they often have to go through dominant females first.
While there are other matriarchal species out there, including elephants and killer whales, bonobo females are highly unusual among primates. When Parish took on the mantle of studying bonobos, she found that “females had these really intense and enduring friendships with each other, and that was even more rare among mammals.” In contrast, males had looser bonds. “The males can be friendly. They have sex with each other. But it’s nothing like the intensity or the scope that we see in the females.”
It’s always tricky drawing parallels between humans and other species, even those as close to us as chimps and bonobos. The fact is, we are neither. We may never know how our evolutionary predecessors behaved, and the lives of other primates may be misleading guides in understanding ourselves.
Moreover, even if we did discover that male or female domination are somehow programmed into our DNA, it wouldn’t explain the rainbow of complex human cultures we see today. In most ways, humans have transcended biology. By and large, we no longer live by the rules of nature, having invented societies and settlements to suit us. And there is no single pattern of behavior common to every single one of us—including patriarchy. Though rare, there are some female-dominated cultures, such as the Mosuo in China.
But bonobo behavior does offer at least one clear lesson for humans: The bonds among females are crucial to primates’, and women’s, well-being.
The communities in which women have least control over their lives, and are at most risk of male violence, are ones in which they are separated from their kin and have little support. When women are isolated, often by marriages that require them to live with their husbands’ families, they face greater risk of domestic abuse and less freedom in decision-making.
Women benefit when they have networks around them of people—particularly other women—who care for their welfare and can support them. Bonobo females gain strength in solidarity, and so do we.
“Certainly I think when we only had chimps in the model, it seemed like patriarchy was cemented in our evolutionary heritage for the last five to six million years,” Parish says. “Now that we have an equally close living relative with a different pattern, it opens up the possibilities for imagining that in our ancestry that females could bond in the absence of kinship, that matriarchies can exist, that females can have the upper hand, that societies can be more peacefully run.”
And observing bonobos can offer inspiration to those who want to carve out a different future. “For me as a feminist,” says Parish, “it’s really interesting. Because the goal of the feminist movement is to behave with other females as though they are your sisters.”
Angela is the author of Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story (Beacon Press). Follow Angela on Twitter.