Animal Case Study: Bonobos What are Bonobos?

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Animal Case Study: Bonobos
What are Bonobos?

Bonobos, along with chimpanzees, orangutans, and gorillas are classified as great apes, and were the last great ape species to be discovered. Similar to their chimpanzee cousins, bonobos and humans share 98% of the same DNA.

Physically, Bonobo anatomy most closely resembles Australopithecus, our early human ancestor. Smaller in stature than their close relatives, the chimpanzees, Bonobos are highly intelligent and evidence a remarkable capacity to learn and use human language.
Bonobo Society

In contrast to the competitive, male-dominated culture of their cousin, the chimpanzee, bonobo society is peaceful, matriarchal and more democratic. Bonobos greet each other, share food instead of fights, and are very loving, compassionate, evidencing great concern for one another. For bonobos sexual activities transcend reproduction serving as a means of bonding, sharing pleasure, reducing anxiety, as well as for conflict resolution, ultimately moving toward the greater good of maintaining a harmonious collective temperament.

Dr. Susan Savage-Rumbaugh

Dr. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh is Executive Director and Senior Scientist at Great Ape Trust, a world-class research center dedicated to studying the behavior and intelligence of great apes. She is the only scientist to study language acquisition with bonobos and in 2011, was recognized as one of TIME magazine's 100 Most Influential People in the World.

During her tenure at Georgia State University’s Language Research Center, Dr. Savage-Rumbaugh helped pioneer the use of a number of new technologies for working with primates. These include a keyboard that permits animals to communicate using spoken English, and a "primate friendly" computer-based joystick terminal that permits the automated presentation of many different computerized tasks. Designed to determine if apes can acquire language, the work of Dr. Savage-Rumbaugh and her colleagues Her research with bonobos and chimps with respect to the abilities of non-human primates to acquire symbols, comprehend spoken words, decode simple syntactical structures, learn concepts of number and quantity, and perform complex perceptual-motor tasks has helped humans; vies of other members of the primate order.

During her research at Georgia State, Dr. Savage-Rumbaugh studied Kanzi, the first bonobo documented to learn human language. Born in 1980, Kanzi was raised in an English language environment. During the first two years of his life, Kanzi spent his time exclusively with his mother, who was a subject in language training studies. After his mother was sent to another primate facility to breed, researchers found that Kanzi could understand human language and appeared have acquired language much as a human child does, simply by being exposed to its sounds and phrases from infancy through early childhood.

Kanzi is the first ape to demonstrate receptive competence of English language. He particularly excels in research involving novel sentences (phrases that preclude the learning of specific responses). An adept tool maker, Kanzi has provided scientists with insights into the level of cognitive and biomechanical skills employed by our early ancestors.


So, now it is time for you to meet Dr. Susan Savage-Rumbaugh and Kanzi.

Please log on to the following URL at TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design), which is a wonderful forum for “ideas worth spreading” and watch the video presentation by Dr. Susan Savage-Rumbaugh about “the Gentle Genius of Bonobos”.

Written Response


Please write a cohesive essay that addresses the following questions. Make sure that for each question you provide at least one piece of evidence from the video to back up your statements.

  1. Which statement do you agree with? Why?

--Bonobos have the capacity to understand and use English language.

--Bonobos have been trained to respond to human language similar to the way animals are trained in a circus.

  1. It was very important for researchers to allow Kanzi, Panbanisha, and other bonobos to express an interest in an activity rather than push them into specific activities. In thinking about what you have learned about research design, why was this so vital to the validity of their results and conclusions?

  2. Which statement do you agree with? Why?

--Pananisha is using geometric language to communicate her desires to her guardians.

--Researchers are biased in their interpretations of Panbanisha’s chalk “drawings”.

4. Of what value is it to create a “panhomoculture” (bi-species environment) in studying

language acquisition among apes?

5. How has this assigned affected your knowledge and opinions with respect to the connections

between humans and apes?


Cimons, M. (2010, Apr 23). Humans Have a Lot to Learn From Bonobos, Scientist Say. Live Science.

Great Ape Trust

What is a Bononbo?


Transcript of TED video presentation of Dr. Susan Savage-Rumbaugh

Executive Director

I work with a species called "Bonobo." And I'm happy most of the time, because I think this is the happiest species on the planet. It's kind of a well-kept secret. This species lives only in the Congo. And they're not in too many zoos, because of their sexual behavior. Their sexual behavior is too human-like for most of us to be comfortable with.


But --


actually, we have a lot to learn from them, because they're a very egalitarian society and they're a very empathetic society. And sexual behavior is not confined to one aspect of their life that they sort of set aside. It permeates their entire life. And it's used for communication.And it's used for conflict resolution. And I think perhaps somewhere in our history we sort of,divided our lives up into lots of parts. We divided our world up with lots of categories. And so everything sort of has a place that it has to fit. But I don't think that we were that way initially.

There are many people who think that the animal world is hard-wired and that there's something very, very special about man. Maybe it's his ability to have causal thought.Maybe it's something special in his brain that allows him to have language. Maybe it's something special in his brain that allows him to make tools or to have mathematics. Well, I don't know. There were Tasmanians who were discovered around the 1600s and they had no fire. They had no stone tools. To our knowledge they had no music. So when you compare them to the Bonobo, the Bonobo is a little hairier. He doesn't stand quite as upright. But there are a lot of similarities. And I think that as we look at culture, we kind of come to understand how we got to where we are. And I don't really think it's in our biology; I think we've attributed it to our biology, but I don't really think it's there.

So what I want to do now is introduce you to a species called the Bonobo. This is Kanzi.He's a Bonobo. Right now, he's in a forest in Georgia. His mother originally came from a forest in Africa. And she came to us when she was just at puberty, about six or seven years of age.

Now this shows a Bonobo on your right, and a chimpanzee on your left. Clearly, the chimpanzee has a little bit harder time of walking. The Bonobo, although shorter than us and their arms still longer, is more upright, just as we are. This shows the Bonobo compared to an australopithecine like Lucy. As you can see, there's not a lot of differencebetween the way a Bonobo walks and the way an early australopithecine would have walked. As they turn toward us you'll see that the pelvic area of early australopithecines is a little flatter and doesn't have to rotate quite so much from side to side. So the -- the bipedal gait is a little easier. And now we see all four.

Video: Narrator: The wild Bonobo lives in central Africa, in the jungle encircled by the Congo River. Canopied trees as tall as 40 meters, 130 feet, grow densely in the area. It was a Japanese scientist who first undertook serious field studies of the Bonobo, almost three decades ago. Bonobos are built slightly smaller than the chimpanzee. Slim-bodied, Bonobos are by nature very gentle creatures. Long and careful studies have reported many new findings on them. One discovery was that wild Bonobos often walk bidpedally. What's more, they are able to walk upright for long distances. Susan Savage-Rumbaugh (video): Let's go say hello to Austin first and then go to the A frame.

SS: This is Kanzi and I, in the forest. None of the things you will see in this particular video are trained. None of them are tricks. They all happened to be captured on film spontaneously, by NHK of Japan. We have eight Bonobos.

Video: Look at all this stuff that's here for our campfire.

SS: An entire family at our research centre.

Video: You going to help get some sticks? Good. We need more sticks, too. I have a lighter in my pocket if you need one. That's a wasps' nest. You can get it out. I hope I have a lighter. You can use the lighter to start the fire.

SS: So Kanzi is very interested in fire. He doesn't do it yet without a lighter, but I think if he saw someone do it, he might be able to do -- make a fire without a lighter. He's learning about how to keep a fire going. He's learning the uses for a fire, just by watching what we do with fire.


This is a smile on the face of a Bonobo. These are happy vocalizations.

Video: You're happy. You're very happy about this part. You've got to put some water on the fire. You see the water? Good job.

SS: Forgot to zip up the back half of his backpack. But he likes to carry things from place to place.

Video: Austin, I hear you saying "Austin."

SS: He talks to other Bonobos at the lab, long-distance, farther than we can hear. This is his sister. This is her first time to try to drive a golf cart.

Video: Goodbye.


SS: She's got the pedals down, but not the wheel. She switches from reverse to forward and she holds onto the wheel, rather than turns it.


Like us, she knows that that individual in the mirror is her.


Video: Narrator: By raising Bonobos in a culture that is both Bonobo and human, and documenting their development across two decades, scientists are exploring how cultural forces


may have operated during human evolution.

His name is Nyota. It means "star" in Swahili.


Panbanisha is trying to give Nyota a haircut with a pair of scissors. In the wild, the parent Bonobo is known to groom its offspring. Here Panbanisha uses scissors, instead of her hands, to groom Nyota. Very impressive. Subtle maneuvering of the hands is required to perform delicate tasks like this. Nyota tries to imitate Panbanisha by using the scissors himself. Realizing that Nyota might get hurt, Panbanisha, like any human mother, carefully tugs to get the scissors back.

He can now cut through tough animal hide.

SS: Kanzi's learned to make stone tools.

Video: Kanzi now makes his tools, just as our ancestors may have made them, two-and-a-half million years ago -- by holding the rocks in both hands, to strike one against the other.He has learned that by using both hands and aiming his glancing blows, he can make much larger, sharper flakes. Kanzi chooses a flake he thinks is sharp enough. The tough hide is difficult to cut, even with a knife. The rock that Kanzi is using is extremely hard and ideal for stone tool making, but difficult to handle, requiring great skill. Kanzi's rock is from Gona, Ethiopia and is identical to that used by our African ancestors two-and-a-half million years ago. These are the rocks Kanzi used and these are the flakes he made. The flat sharp edges are like knife blades. Compare them to the tools our ancestors used; they bear a striking resemblance to Kanzi's.

Panbanisha is longing to go for a walk in the woods. She keeps staring out the window.

SS: This is -- let me show you something we didn't think they would do.

Video: For several days now, Panbanisha has not been outside.

SS: I normally talk about language.

Video: Then Panbanisha does something unexpected.

SS: But since I'm advised not to do what I normally do, I haven't told you that these apes have language. It's a geometric language.

Video: She takes a piece of chalk and begins writing something on the floor. What is she writing?

SS: She's also saying the name of that, with her voice.

Video: Now she comes up to Dr. Sue and starts writing again.

SS: These are her symbols on her keyboard.


They speak when she touches them.

Video: Panbanisha is communicating to Dr. Sue where she wants to go. "A frame" represents a hut in the woods. Compare the chalk writing with the lexigram on the keyboard. Panbanisha began writing the lexigrams on the forest floor. SS (video): Very nice. Beautiful, Panbanisha.

SS: At first we didn't really realize what she was doing, until we stood back and looked at it and rotated it.

Video: This lexigram also refers to a place in the woods. The curved line is very similar to the lexigram. The next symbol Panbanisha writes represents "collar." It indicates the collar that Panbanisha must wear when she goes out.

SS: That's an institutional requirement.

Video: This symbol is not as clear as the others, but one can see Panbanisha is trying to produce a curved line and several straight lines. Researchers began to record what Panbanisha said, by writing lexigrams on the floor with chalk. Panbanisha watched. Soon she began to write as well. The Bonobo's abilities have stunned scientists around the world.How did they develop?

SS (video): We found that the most important thing for permitting Bonobos to acquire language is not to teach them. It's simply to use language around them, because the driving force in language acquisition is to understand what others, that are important to you, are saying to you. Once you have that capacity, the ability to produce language comes rather naturally and rather freely. So we want to create an environment in which Bonobos, like all of the individuals with whom they are interacting -- we want to create an environment in which they have fun, and an environment in which the others are meaningful individuals for them. Narrator: This environment brings out unexpected potential in Kanzi and Panbanisha.

Panbanisha is enjoying playing her harmonica, until Nyota, now one year old, steals it. Then he peers eagerly into his mother's mouth. Is he looking for where the sound came from? Dr. Sue thinks it's important to allow such curiosity to flourish. This time Panbanisha is playing the electric piano. She wasn't forced to learn the piano; she saw a researcher play the instrument and took an interest.

Researcher: Go ahead. Go ahead. I'm listening. Do that real fast part that you did. Yeah, that part.

Narrator: Kanzi plays the xylophone; using both hands he enthusiastically accompanies Dr. Sue's singing. Kanzi and Panbanisha are stimulated by this fun-filled environment, which promotes the emergence of these cultural capabilities.


Researcher: OK, now get the monsters. Get them. Take the cherries too. Now watch out, stay away from them now. Now you can chase them again. Time to chase them. Now you have to stay away. Get away. Run away. Run. Now we can chase them again. Go get them. Oh no! Good Kanzi. Very good. Thank you so much.

Narrator: None of us, Bonobo or human, can possibly even imagine?

SS: So we have a bi-species environment, we call it a "panhomoculture." We're learning how to become like them. We're learning how to communicate with them, in really high-pitched tones. We're learning that they probably have a language in the wild. And they're learning to become like us. Because we believe that it's not biology; it's culture. So we're sharing tools and technology and language with another species.

Thank you.

Humans Have a Lot to Learn From Bonobos, Scientist Says

Marlene Cimons

Date: 23 April 2010

Great Ape Trust
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