About a year ago I took a trip to San Diego to visit cousins – both the human & non-human primate kind. First stop with cousin Roy after he met me at the airport: San Diego Zoo to visit the bonobos. Raise your hand high if you know what a bonobo is! If you do, it’s probably because you’re an anthropologist, or you know me & I’ve gone off about them with you at some point.
Bonobos, Pan paniscus, are the other chimpanzee…the one we rarely hear about because knowing too much about them might shake up our human (generally speaking) male-dominated, competitive, & ‘stranger-danger’ world view. According to Frans de Waal, bonobos are ‘pan-sexual’ – i.e., anything goes, especially if it can reduce a stressful or conflict-laden situation, or if it’s mealtime, or upon meeting newcomers to the group, or – well, just about anytime with anyone! (except mother-son pairings). They are the only non-human species known to have face-to-face sex & tongue-kiss. Females are more dominant than males; males gain social status via the status of their mothers. Bonobos walk on two legs and wade into water more often than chimps; they also have more harmonious and empathetic interactions within their group & with others. You’ll hear alot more about these primate cousins of ours if you stay tuned to this blog.
But back to the zoo & the human cousins. By the time we got to the bonobo compound, they were already inside (it was late afternoon & raining – thankfully we’d visited the elephants already). Boo. I hope they’ll still be there on my next visit because bonobos (and chimpanzees) are seriously endangered species. Sadly, these primates with whom we share 98% of our DNA are declining at an alarming rate due to loss of their African habitats & other human-caused factors. And while alot of research has been done about chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes), we’re still just learning about bonobos: their home territory in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, & their, um, ‘loving’ nature, has kept most researchers at arms length. There even seems to be disagreement about how to pronounce bonobo! It’s shocking, really.
Ready to be out of the rain, Roy & I headed over to cousin Mark & husband Paul’s home for dinner with my elderly Uncle Sandy, who is being lovingly cared for by my cousins & Paul. I happily happened to be with them a few years ago when Mark & Paul got their matching wedding anniversary rings. These guys are truly married!…irrespective of if or when or how it’s legal. My brother John & his late partner Alan were ‘married’ in the same way – monogamously bonded for many years.
No doubt you’re getting the connection by now. There is alot of diversity in our primate family around sexuality. The amazing thing is that we human primates have evolved the capacity to be aware of & accept this natural variety in our coupling behavior. Thank you, President Obama, for affirming our primate nature!