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A three-month-old baby bonobo plays with its mother at a zoo in Frankfurt in 2008. A newborn ape typically weighs about 3 percent of what its mother weighs, while human babies weigh about 6 percent of their mothers' weight.
A report released Wednesday in the journal Nature confirmed that scientists have finally mapped the entire genome of the bonobo. It turns out humans share 98.7 percent of their genetic blueprint with the peaceful and highly sexual primates, the same percentage that we share with chimpanzees. Researchers think this new knowledge will help give them a better picture of our last common ancestor.
Some scientists have long been vexed that bonobo behavior has not been more closely studied. In February Off-Ramp spoke to USC anthropologist Amy Parish, who said that traditional models of human evolution had long been skewed to reflect chimpanzee behavior. But she and fellow bonobo researchers suspected that humans were equally related to bonobos. The tides in human evolutionary theory began to shift, because it turns out bonobos are very much unlike chimps. They are peaceful creatures that share food with one another. They are not violent and they do not make war.
Bonobo communities are also female-dominated, a fact that Professor Parish said was hard to swallow for many scientists. "Some of the reaction of really surprising," she said. "For instance, one researcher suggested that it's not female dominance, but strategic male deference. Meaning that males are making it look like females have the upper hand. The fact is that pretty much every adult female can dominate males in the group."
Parish and her colleagues have championed bonobo research for the last 20 years, but for many scientists, this latest report will be an eye opener. While more research needs to be done to see which traits we humans might share with each species, these new findings should at least encourage a new outlook: humans likely had a much more peaceful and caring ancestor than we once thought.