Bonobos Say No by Shaking Heads Like Humans?

According to new video, bonobos shake their heads, human style, to discourage other bonobos from doing something, researchers say.

For the first time, according to researchers, bonobos have been recorded shaking their heads to discourage other bonobos from doing something—perhaps a "primitive precursor of the human head shake."

© 2010 National Geographic; video courtesy Christel Schneider


Unedited Transcript

Human mothers may yell at their toddlers for playing with their food. But what do other primates do?

This bonobo mom, Ulindi, is trying to get her infant Luiza, to stop playing with a piece of leek.

Eventually, she pulls it away.

But the infant goes back for the leek, and the mother begins shaking her head back and forth, as if to say, “no, no, no.”

This display, reported in a recent issue of the journal “Primates,” was just one of many similar displays of bonobos observed by researcher Christel Schneider and colleagues at six different zoos in Europe.

While bonobos have been observed shaking their heads sideways before, it was mostly in instances of play. Schneider says these are the first observations of bonobos trying to prevent another from engaging in a certain activity.

Schneider suggests this could reflect a ‘primitive precursor of the human head shake’ showing negativity to another. But further study should be done to find the answer.

The videos are from 190 hours of recorded observations of several species of primates, including bonobos, chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans, over a 7-year period.

The researchers cite other research suggesting “bonobos differ from other apes in social-problem-solving strategies because their emotional temperament affords cooperative behavior.”

They also point out that head shaking with a negative connotation has been reported in chimpanzees, but only in single-case observations. And they suggest more research to determine if the bonobos are actually closer to humans in the head-shaking behavior than chimps.