Chimpanzees are loads of fun, or so movies and TV shows would have us believe. They’re charming, intelligent, affectionate—just like us. But they really are just like us: They can be violent and domineering, and they are deeply intolerant of strangers. They do, indeed, share most of our DNA.
Bonobos, another species of ape, also share more than 98 percent of our DNA, but it’s less likely you’ve heard of them. There are fewer of them, they were discovered by scientists more recently, and they haven’t been well-studied yet. But their differences from chimps are fascinating. Bonobos are female-dominated, have staggering amounts of sex of all varieties and are naturally cooperative and altruistic. They’re also in serious danger of being wiped out by hunters.
Vanessa Woods, an Australian chimp aficionado, had never heard of bonobos herself until she fell for Brian Hare, an American scientist whose dream is to compare the behavior of chimps and bonobos living in Congolese sanctuaries and figure out what the differences reveal about human evolution. Bonobo Handshake is Woods’ beguiling story of falling in love with bonobos and the Congo while her marriage to Hare matured.
Bonobos turn out to be easy to like; the Democratic Republic of Congo is more problematic. Following decades of the brutal Mobutu dictatorship, it’s been wracked by unimaginably vicious civil wars. Lola ya Bonobo, the sanctuary where Woods and Hare work, is a paradise surrounded by horror.
Woods is candid about her own emotional immaturity at the beginning of her adventures. Just as her husband learns about humans by studying apes, Woods comes to terms with herself through interaction with bonobos and their keepers. Her Congolese friends, human and animal, rise above their traumas and teach her much about courage, endurance and tolerance.