Meet our closest living relatives

The closest living relatives to humans are apes called chimpanzees and bonobos. You have probably heard of chimpanzees before, also known as chimps.


Chimpanzees in Kibale National Park. Image by Kent MacElwee vi Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

But the bonobo, sometimes called the pygmy chimpanzee, is less familiar to people. Bonobos are smaller and more slender than their chimpanzee cousins.


Bonobos. Image by Pierre Fidenci via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.5).

Bonobos live only in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, while chimpanzees live in many countries across West and Central Africa.  

Another difference between bonobos and chimpanzees is the way they behave. Both bonobos and chimpanzees are social animals – this means that they live in groups.

Chimpanzees are sometimes violent or aggressive towards other chimpanzees. Chimpanzees are very territorial – when different communities of chimpanzees meet each other at territory borders they may fight. They sometimes have the chimp equivalent of wars. 

Bonobos are often called “hippies of the forest” because they are well known for being peaceful with members of their social group. 

Bonobos grooming:

Shared grooming among bonobos. Image courtesy of Martin Surbeck.

Studying our close relatives may help us understand our own behavior

There have been several long-term studies of chimpanzee populations, but it has been harder for scientists to carry out long-term research on bonobos. Scientists are still working to understand how bonobo social groups are structured and if different groups behave peacefully when they meet in overlapping (shared) territory.

A bonobo:

A Bonobo. Image by Zweer de Bruin via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

A group of scientists led by primatologist Liran Samuni set out to study what happens when bonobo groups meet. The researchers followed bonobo groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Kokolopori Bonobo Reserve. They compared bonobo behavior to chimpanzee groups in Uganda’s Kibale National Park.

Between January 2017 and December 2019, observers followed bonobo groups daily from dawn to dusk, recording their behavior with the aim of understanding their social structure.

The researchers found that bonobos maintain strong and distinct social groups, like chimpanzees form communities. They also found that different groups of bonobos have frequent and peaceable interactions with each other.  

Scientists who study our closest living relatives hope to learn about human behavior too. Scientists think that understanding why chimpanzee groups fight each other might help us understand why human groups fight. Likewise, learning why bonobo groups tolerate each other might help us understand how human groups evolved the ability to cooperate and work peacefully together.

This story was adapted for kids. It is based on an article by Charles Mpaka, published on

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Samuni, L., Langergraber, K. E., & Surbeck, M. H. (2022, June 21). Characterization of Pan social systems reveals in-group/out-group distinction and out-group tolerance in bonobos. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 119(26). doi:10.1073/pnas.2201122119