Alternative Apes

Sometimes I wonder what humanity would be like if we had split off from a different species.  How many of the problems that afflict us as a species are the result of our unique evolutionary heritage?


Satu the Orangutan at the San Diego Zoo 2My personal favorite of the non-human great apes.  Orangutans are by far the least gregarious of all apes.  Mothers spend almost all their time with their children for the first eight years or so of their lives, but after that, they part.  Fathers take no part in raising children at all.  Females will spend time together, especially relatives, but any other contact is much more rare.  Adult males, those with cheek flanges, like Satu here, can’t stand to be around each other.  They make loud calls as they travel through the forest in order to alert others to their presence, and their primary interaction is in the form of brutal fights for dominance.  Sub-adult males are more tolerant of others and are more likely to be tolerated by adult males, but they don’t group together like chimpanzees, bonobos, and humans.  Females are the most social, tending to live in static ranges, unlike the transitory males, and interacting with other orangutans of both sexes.  Orangutans are more dimorphic than humans, with adult males approximately twice the size of females.

In terms of their diet, orangutans primarily eat fruit, with some vegetables and meat, when they can catch it, which may include squirrels and monkeys.  But up to 90% of their diet is composed of fruit.  They also eat insects, honey, nuts, leaves, and eggs, among other things.

Satu the Orangutan at the San Diego ZooIn terms of intelligence, orangutans may beat out chimpanzees, depending on your metrics.

Had humans split off from the orangutan line, I expect the primary unit of society would be small villages, composed of women and their children.  These villages would get most of their food from orchards, with some fields and livestock, but minimally so.  Population and range would probably be greatly limited by where sufficient fruit could grow, but we’d probably have much more greenery around us.  When children reached adulthood, the men would go out on their own, possibly in small bands when sub-adult, while the females would either stay at home or travel to another village to settle down.

The males would be wanderers, lone hunter-gatherers, traveling from village to village in an attempt to impress some of the village women sufficiently to mate with them.  With orangutans as masters of the long call, perhaps these men would be natural bards.  Their time in any village would presumably be limited to long enough to mate and eat before departing, and they’d need to be kept segregated from any other adults.  I personally think this sort of society would make for an interesting story, so who knows?  Maybe we’ll see it someday.


Gorillas tend to live in troops of a single adult male silverback, his harem, and their offspring.  Sometimes, other males remain in the troop, subordinate to the silverback, but ready to take over if he dies.  If the silverback was the only adult male, though, his death prompts the females and children to disperse to other groups.  Gorillas are even more sexually dimorphic than orangutans, and an adult male in the wild can weigh nearly 400 pounds, while females tend to weigh about half that.  Like the other non-orang great apes, they spend most of their time on the ground.

Male Gorilla in SF ZooTheir diet is less exciting than the orangutans’, tending to consist mostly of leaves, stems, shoots, and other plant parts humans tend to avoid, although they do supplement this with fruits.  Sometimes termites and ants are eaten as well.

Had humans split off from gorillas, we’d probably have the harem as the basic unit of society, perhaps ruled by a dynasty of silverbacks who would take over in succession.  One wonders whether they might invent the heritage-fraternity…  As with orangutans, you probably wouldn’t see much male cooperation, although I think you’d also see less female cooperation, since they wouldn’t interact with females outside their harems much.  It’d be interesting to see their crops: plants bred for leaves and stems more than humans’ preference for roots and fruits.  Celery and lettuce might end up as popular crops.

I think you’d see the emergence of big men, but probably not much larger political units.  If I wrote a story in this world, I’d probably want to write about a Genghis Khan-type figure, uniting the various harems into a real kingdom.


BonoboLastly, we have the bonobos.  Technically, we split off from the chimpanzee-bonobo line, and then later, they split into two separate species.  However, bonobos appear to be more divergent.  Firstly, their behavior is pretty unique in the animal kingdom.  Secondly, their territory is very limited, and, from what I’ve read, if regular chimpanzees are exposed to regular food surpluses, as the bonobos are, they tend to act more bonobian, which to me suggests that bonobos are likely to be the result of a population of chimpanzees that have been left in more fruitful territory for long enough to become a new species.  However, we are equally related to both chimpanzees and bonobos, but I think comparing the chimp patriarchy and the bonobo matriarchy to human societies, it must be admitted that politically, we’re more chimp.

Bonobos mostly eat fruit, but they also eat leaves, honey, eggs, and meat from small animals.  As implied earlier, their societies are matriarchal.  Males get their status from their mother.  Like chimpanzees, bonobos live in large troops, of up to 100 individuals.  There is much less violence in bonobo society than in chimpanzee society, as well.  What is more common, and indeed, what bonobos are known for, is sex.  Bonobos engage in missionary position sex, tongue kissing, oral sex, genito-genital rubbing (tribadism), rump rubbing, penis fencing, and more.

Had humans split off from bonobos, we wouldn’t be that much different, existing in towns and cities, but we’d be matriarchal, with power held by collectives of women, and senior women holding more authority more generally.  You’d see much less war and violence, and a lot more sex, so maybe we missed out, evolutionarily speaking.  It’d be interesting to imagine how diplomatic negotiations might go…  Perhaps instead of marriage treaties we’d just have orgy treaties and hope everyone was happy enough afterwards to come to a happy settlement?  This would be another interesting world to write stories in, but they’d probably end up rated NC-17, so maybe that’s for another pen name…

Still, I think it’d be interesting to get a chance to visit such societies.  What do you think?

This entry was posted in Musings and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Alternative Apes

  1. BAP Blog says:

    Orangutan are strangely appealing to me. The one I saw in captivity as a kid is what made me stop going to zoos, and that line of reasoning led me to give up meat that year too. It was so sad seeing such an enormous and powerful primate caged and laughed at.

    As for me… I know I’m at least part bonobo!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.