Nearby, the bonobos are housed in another glassed enclosure. They sit on a raised platform, like actors on a stage, and there are rows of seats to watch the performance. Adults sit on the benches; children are up close, next to the glass, trying to grab the apes’s attention.
A girl succeeds in drawing one away from the group. She places her hand on the glass; the bonobo, squatting opposite her on the other side, mirrors the gesture. The girl, excited now and full of giggles, shifts her hand to another spot; the bonobo follows. This imitation game persists until the bonobo is bored; instead of repeating the gesture the ape picks up straws lying on the floor and tosses them at the girl. The girl is hysterical, and she does not know how to respond.
Who is playing with whom?
I am stunned by what I see. These apes resemble humans closely, yet they aren’t us. Something happened millions of years ago, an accident, or a series of them, which led some of our ancestors on a different evolutionary path. Others were left behind.
The pathos here, among these apes trapped in their evolutionary branch with no hope of progress, is unmissable, but I’m not sure how better off we humans really are. Bonobos, in particular, are socially more evolved than humans in some ways: they do not fight with and kill each other, and they have devised ways to deescalate tensions by engaging in sexual acts.