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Friday, December 5, 2008

Bonobos Hunt Monkeys

Picture - Caroline Deimel

I totally forgot to post on this when Martin Surbeck and Gottfried Hohmann's paper came out in Current Biology on the discovery that bonobos hunt other primates (Primate hunting by bonobos at LuiKotale, Salonga National Park)...

...BUT today a great op-ed piece came out in the International Herald Tribune by Marlene Zuk
entitled "Nice females also hunt" which puts their paper in an interesting contemporary context.

(Published: December 4, 2008)

What is it about sex and hunting? The recent discovery that among bonobos - those small chimpanzee relatives previously known for their active sex lives and female-dominated societies - females as well as males hunt prey, has taken the pundits aback.

According to at least some conventional primatology wisdom, the leaner, meaner chimpanzees evolved male bonding and thus an aggressive and hierarchical society through the thrill of the chase, while bonobos groomed, hugged or performed other acts not suitable for description in a family newspaper.

Some anthropologists and psychologists take this further, tracing human aggression and male violence to an early history of hunting. Locating a living animal, stalking it and killing it are thought to represent aggressive acts, and because in the hunter-gatherer society, men are supposed to have done much of the hunting, the reasoning goes that natural selection for good hunters gave us, willy-nilly, hostile men.

We humans have certainly made hunting into a masculine avocation, and we like to point to male animals as bolstering that macho stereotype. Even when women hunt, like the moose-chasing Sarah Palin, we emphasize the aftermath, not the killing. Every news item about the vice-presidential hopeful talked not about her ability to bring down that moose, but to "field dress" it. We're more comfortable when women prepare food instead of shooting it in the head. But that's our gender stereotype, not a reflection of anything inherent in the act of bringing down prey.

But hunting is a more widespread - and less glamorous - profession than it is sometimes made out to be. And it has less to do with aggression than you might think.

It's true that competition among males for access to fertile females is common among animals from butterflies to baboons, and the wrangling can be vicious. But the link between being aggressive and predatory is tenuous. We usually think of predators as animals like wolves or eagles subduing large, usually warm-blooded, prey, but why dismiss insectivores like, say, warblers or hedgehogs, from their ranks?

Some biologists refer to any food item as "prey" and talk about animals like seed-eating kangaroo rats as seed predators. Even if that is going a bit too far, why is a hawk swooping down on a rabbit seen as more aggressive than a songbird snapping its bill against the hard shell of a beetle? Hunting is getting food, not waging war.

To be sure, group hunting such as that seen in the chimpanzees and now the bonobos as well as many human societies does involve elaborate behavioral rituals. And in some cultures, hunting, because it requires bravery when the prey is itself dangerous, is used as a test of manhood. But this does not mean that predation itself is aggressive in any form.

Even if predation were aggressive, the fact remains that in virtually all animals that eat live food, males and females both hunt. In lions, of course, females even do most of the hunting; male violence is directed toward the rival males and their offspring. The role of male hunting in human evolution is the subject of hot debate among anthropologists. But except for a few kinds of animals, males do not go out and bring home the bacon (or the caterpillars) while the females stay home with the kittens, pups or chicks. Both sexes share the foraging duties. Any tendencies toward aggressive behavior that evolved out of hunting food would have to occur in both sexes.

It is undeniable that aggression, violence, dominance and war are all "gendered" in our society; that is, they all have connotations with maleness and femaleness. And I am not suggesting that human aggression is just as common in women as it is in men. But the idea that hunting somehow signals a tendency toward violence should be as much of a surprise to us as it would be to the bonobo.

Marlene Zuk is the author of "Riddled With Life: Friendly Worms, Ladybug Sex, and the Parasites That Make Us Who We Are."

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