Playful Like Bonobos

By September 13, 2011 No Comments

Last night I had the pleasure of meeting the Chilean bonobo researcher Isabel Behncke at a CD launch event hosted by the novelist Amy Tan. Isabel regaled me with tales of field research in the Congo, both the difficulty of getting access to wild bonobos due to the political turmoil in the DRC, and also the thrill of observing and filming our close cousins while they do their thing. Here’s a recent TED Talk she gave, with some amazing video clips, detailing their sense of play:

The only time I have seen bonobos up close was at the San Diego zoo when I was in town for the Darwin Symposium in 2009. I watched a group of bonobos chase each other around and frolic and play, but also witnessed something striking. One female left the group and sequestered herself in a little enclave in the rock, and proceeded to stick her fingers down her throat, inducing vomiting. She puked up a pile of whatever into her hand, smelled it, examined it, and gobbled it down again, licking her fingers. A few minutes later, she stuck her fingers down her throat again, threw up again, and ate it again. I watched her induce vomiting three times, eat it three times, and then hop out of the enclave and go rejoin the group, with just as much in her stomach, give or take, as when she started.

I asked Isabel if she had ever seen anything like this “Bonobo Bulimia” phenomenon in the wild and she said no, and neither has she ever heard of anyone observing it, but there is one published paper that seems to outline a similar observation of a captive bonobo at the Frankfurt zoo.

I wonder, since the behavior I saw in San Diego included both inducing vomiting and eating it again, whether this is really analogous to an eating disorder like bulimia. It could instead fall under the category of exploratory play behavior, which might result from an individual simply discovering a button or trigger by which you can induce a surprising response from the body, and then playing with it to discover its parameters.

Of course masturbation is the example that springs most easily to mind, and the one we are all familiar with, as are bonobos. But there are others. I still remember when I first discovered as a kid that I could take a square of toilet paper, grab it at the corners, and twist it into a thin rigid stick. Inserting this slowly into a nostril as far as it will comfortably go and slowly turning it while inhaling through your nose will reliably cause you to sneeze, again and again and again, as many times as you like. If you enjoy the feeling of a sneeze, beware abusing this power (though it is a good way to wake yourself up if you need to work and start feeling horribly drowsy).

Likewise, I remember when I first learned, around the age of 8, that I could choose to throw up any time I wanted just by tickling my uvula. Several times throughout my youth when I felt like I had eaten something that was making me feel ill, I would simply go to the washroom, hug the toilet, give myself a tickle and get rid of it. I haven’t done this for a while simply because one learns over the course of a lifetime what kind of eating habits sit right and what kinds don’t, but I still remember how it felt to discover both of those triggers. It felt like a form of empowerment, of acquiring control over reflexes. Maybe that’s what the bonobo I saw was doing.

The CD launch, by the way, was for Afropolitan by Derrick Ashong (aka DNA) and Soulfége. We heard tracks from Afropolitan and a passionate articulation of its guiding philosophy by Derrick, who is a definitely a kindred spirit, a genre-pushing intellectual MC, my favorite kind. Speaking of genre-pushing intellectual hip-hop heads, Paul Miller aka DJ Spooky was also there, cool party.

Check out the record…


Baba Brinkman

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