Image: Bonobo
Michael Probst  /  AP
A baby bonobo looks into the camera at the Frankfurt Zoo in Germany. Bonobos, also known as pygmy chimpanzees or "hippie chimps," are kinder and gentler than true chimpanzees, and as genetically close to humans as chimps are.
By
updated 6/13/2012 2:10:02 PM ET 2012-06-13T18:10:02

Behold the bonobo, our ape cousin that's kinder and gentler than the chimp or, well, us. Now scientists have mapped the primate's DNA, and some researchers say that may eventually reveal secrets about how the darker side of our nature evolved.

Scientists have found that we are as close genetically to the peace-loving but little-known bonobo as we are to the more violent and better understood chimpanzee. It's as if they are siblings and we are cousins, related to them both equally, sharing some traits with just bonobos and other characteristics with just chimps.

Bonobos and humans share 98.7 percent of the same genetic blueprint, the same percentage shared with chimps, according to a study released Wednesday by the journal Nature. The two apes are much more closely related to each other — sharing 99.6 percent of their genomes — said the study's lead author, Kay Prufer, a geneticist at the Max Planck Institute in Germany.

"Humans are a little like a mosaic of bonobo and chimpanzee genomes," she said.

Bonobos and chimps have distinctly different behaviors that can be seen in humans, with bonobos displaying what might be thought of as our better angels, said Duke University researcher Brian Hare. Bonobos make love, not war. Chimps have been documented to kill and make war. Bonobos share food with total strangers, but chimps do not. Bonobos stay close to their mothers — who even pick out their sons' mates — long after infancy, like humans. But chimps tend to use tools better and have bigger brains, like humans.

"Is the bonobo genome the secret to the biology of peace?" asked Hare, who was not involved in the new research. "They have done something in their evolution that even humans can't do. They don't have the dark side we do.

"If we only studied chimps, we'd get a skewed view of human evolution," he said.

Bonobos, chimps and humans shared a single common ancestor from about 6 million years ago, Prufer said. Chimps and bonobos shared the same common ancestor until about a million years ago, when the Congo River formed. Then the bonobos developed on one side of the river, the chimps the other. They became different species, even though scientists didn't realize that until about 90 years ago.

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Bonobo heads are slightly smaller and their teeth are arranged differently. In behavior, bonobos are far more tolerant, more social. They are inordinately sexual. Instead of releasing tension by fighting, they couple repeatedly, Hare said. Bonobos are ruled by alpha females, chimps by males.

The bonobo's mellow ways have led some to nickname them "hippie chimps." But in some ways — especially when looking at the physiology of the brain — it's more as if a bonobo is a juvenile chimp that doesn't develop, Hare said. Chimps get more violent as they age; bonobos don't.

While the scientific name for bonobos is Pan paniscus, "they should be Peter Pan," Hare said. "They never grow up and we have lots of data to support this idea. Much of their psychology seems to be frozen."

Some researchers say Hare has romanticized the bonobo too much. Emory University researcher Bill Hopkins says he has more bonobo scars than chimp scars on his body. Sure, bonobos will bite, but they won't kill, Hare said.

Bonobos are endangered and only live around the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo. "Ironically," Hare said, "bonobos are from the place where people are at their worst."

More about bonobos and primate DNA:

This report was supplemented by msnbc.com.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Interactive: Before and after humans

Explainer: The world’s 10 smartest animals

  • EBU

    We humans have the ability to learn, to reason and solve problems. We're self-aware, and we're also conscious of the presence, thoughts and feelings of others. We make tools and practice the art of deception. We're creative. We think abstractly. We have language and use it to express complex ideas. All of these are arguably signs of intelligence. Scientists may not agree on the best and fullest definition of intelligence — but they generally agree that humans are highly intelligent.

    Other members of the animal kingdom exhibit signs of intelligence as well, and some scientists might say the definition of animal vs. human intelligence is merely a matter of degree - a point that was brought home in 2005 when the London Zoo put "Homo sapiens" on display in the exhibit pictured here. Click ahead to learn about nine other species that stand out for their smarts.

  • Chimps are almost like us

    Tetsuro Matsuzawa  /  AP

    If we humans possess intelligence, chimpanzees must have some as well: Our genomes are at least 98 percent identical. Chimps make and use tools, hunt in organized groups and engage in acts of violence. Wild troops have distinct behaviors and customs. Field observations and lab experiments show chimps are capable of empathy, altruism and self-awareness. In the experiment pictured here, chimps performed better than humans on a number memory test.

  • Dolphins get creative

    Janet Mann  /  Georgetown University

    This dolphin in Australia uses a sponge to protect her snout when foraging on the seafloor, a tool use behavior that is passed on from mother to daughter. Scientists say that's just one sign of dolphin smarts. Other signs include distinct whistles and clicks that may serve as dolphin names, perhaps used in a type of language. A famous 1960s experiment found that a pair of dolphins entered a tizzy of creativity once they figured out their novel behaviors were rewarded with fish. Frustrated human test subjects just let out a sigh of relief when they caught on to the idea.

  • Elephants exhibit self-awareness

    AP

    The sheer size of their brains suggests that elephants must know a thing or two about the ways of the world. They have been seen consoling family members, helping other species in times of need, playing in water and communicating with one another via vibrations sensed in their feet. A crowning achievement, some researchers say, was when this female Asian elephant named Happy recognized herself in the mirror. The complex behavior is shared only with humans, great apes and dolphins.

  • Cephalopods have big brains

    Binyamin Hochner

    Are octopi, squids and cuttlefish smart? That's a matter of scientific intrigue, but such cephalopods are certainly among the brainiest invertebrates in the sea. The cephalopod brain surrounds the esophagus, but shares with the human brain features of complexity such as folded lobes and distinct regions for processing visual and tactile information. The how-smart debate swirls around deciphering observations that the creatures have a seemingly irrepressible curiosity, a disdain for boredom, an ability to learn and the capacity to use tools. The octopus pictured here exerts precise muscle control to eat.

  • Crows get crafty

    Alex Kacelnik et al.  /  University of Oxford

    Crows are crafty critters: They fashion tools from twigs, feathers and other bits of debris to snare food from hard-to-reach places. A crow named Betty, pictured here, uses a straight wire she bent into a hook to retrieve food from a tube. The birds are born with a tool-making ethic, but they hone their craft by watching their elders, a sign of higher intelligence. Ravens, a type of crow, have even been shown to manipulate the outcomes of their social interactions for added protection and more food.

  • Squirrels can be deceptive

    Gabriel Bouys  /  AFP - Getty Images file

    Is the squirrel pictured here plotting deception? Perhaps. Researchers recently reported that the rodents put on elaborate shows of deceptive caching to thwart would-be thieves. The behavior increased in a lab experiment after squirrels observed humans stealing their peanuts. The researchers called the finding a sign that squirrels can interpret intentions of others, though it could just be a case of learned behavior. Other studies have shown the critters make three-dimensional maps to recall where they cache their nuts. And squirrels in California will cover their fur in the scent of rattlesnakes to mask their own scent from predators.

  • Man's best friend

    University of Vienna

    Are dogs intelligent or just really good at basic obedience? They can learn to sit, lie down and fetch, for example, but can they read their owner's intentions? Research suggests they can at least find food in response to non-verbal cues, a type of understanding that scientists think may be akin to the human ability to understand someone else's point of view. The dog in the experiment pictured here accurately discriminated between photos of dogs and photos of landscapes — an indication the dog was able to form the concept of "dog."

  • Cats are adaptable

    Bob Pennell  /  AP

    Like dog owners, some cat owners have trained their pets to sit down, roll over and jump through hoops. Cats learn the tricks by observation and imitation, egged on with positive reinforcement. But training cats is harder than dogs. Does that mean they are less intelligent? Not necessarily. Cat experts say felines are just different. They are solitary animals, motivated by the need to survive. This has allowed them to adapt to a variety of domestic environments for at least 9,500 years - even the hoods of cars.

  • Pigs are wise ... and clean

    Paulo Whitaker  /  Reuters

    Here's the dirt on pigs: They are perhaps the smartest, cleanest domestic animals known - more so than cats and dogs, according to some experts. But pigs don't have sweat glands, so they roll around in the mud to stay cool. A sign of their cleverness came from experiments in the 1990s. Pigs were trained to move a cursor on a video screen with their snouts and used the cursor to distinguish between scribbles they knew and those they were seeing for the first time. They learned the task as quickly as chimpanzees.

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