Feminism in the Forest: Lessons we can learn from our ape cousins.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, two closely related species of apes have set up home in the trees surrounding the picturesque Congo River. Although they are cousins and share many anatomical similarities, their social lives are immensely different.

One group, residing just to the South of the river, spends their days in relative peace, snacking on fruit and leaves together, taking group naps, and engaging in social grooming. If a problem arises that threatens to shake up the group, instead of settling it with violence they resolve the conflict in a more enjoyable way – through sex.

If we travel just North of the river we will find the second group, who spend their days in a less peaceful manner. Violence is more common, food isn’t always shared fairly amongst the group, and friendship bonds are less common. If a problem arises, they battle it out until somebody is sent running to the trees for cover.


So why do these cousins display such different social psychologies?


It all comes down to leadership. One group is a ruled by females, while the other is ruled by males. I’ll give you a moment to figure out which is which…

If you haven’t figure it out, the first species I mentioned are the matriarchal Bonobos. For this species, the women call the shots, resulting in a fairly diplomatic and chilled out society. The only time violence occurs is when a male oversteps his mark and tries it on with one of the younger females, resulting in him being promptly chased off the property by the older matriarchs. Bonobos have no time for sexism.

The second species I mentioned are the patriarchal Chimpanzees. This group prefers to have a male in charge, leading to higher rates of violence against both males and females within the group, and high levels of conflict between nearby tribes.

Which group would you rather live with? To me, a life without violence but plenty of snacks to share around sounds perfect, but it got me thinking – How common is matriarchy in the animal kingdom? And if this matriarchal way of life is so great, why is patriarchy so dominant in human society?


Let’s find out!

7(5) d


The animal kingdom displays a whole range of different social structures, and as it turns out, matriarchy can be seen in many of our favourite species. Take for example, the majestic African elephant, who form hierarchical groups where the most confident, social and wise female elephant is elected as leader. The herd strongly depends on her wisdom, and she will guide them to water and food, make decisions in moments of crisis, and offer compassion to the members of her group when needed. This type of matriarchal behaviour is also seen in the killer whale, where both sons and daughters remain with their mothers in tight family groups for the rest of their lives, following her guidance.

And it doesn’t stop there. Strong matriarchal communities also occur in honeybees, hyenas, lions, mole rats, meerkats, and ants – just to name a few!


Not quite the King of the Savannah


So what about us humans? 


Well, if you look at the definition of matriarchy as a society or government led by women, it’s somewhat safe to say that we do not follow the examples of our Bonobo relatives. New Zealand recently ranked number 10 in the world for gender equality, but still there is a 12% pay gap, only 31% of politicians are female, and in our top 50 businesses not a single CEO is a woman. Outside of New Zealand not much is different. As you may know, a narcissistic, war-thirsty human cheeto was recently considered a better option than a women to run one of the most influential countries, and now holds the fate of the Western world in his tiny little hands. The patriarchy is real.




But have we always been this way? Since the evolution of humans, has society determined women to be worth less than men? Let’s take a look at our early Homo sapien ancestors and our cousins the Neanderthals.

When we think of early Neanderthals, the image of big, brawny cavemen comes to mind. Men wielding stone weapons and chasing down mammoths, draped in the furs of those unfortunate enough to meet the end of one of their spears. What we don’t picture is the women running along side them. By examining the fractured and damaged bone fragments of Neanderthal women, researchers were able to determine that both the women and men were considered completely equal, hunting along side one another to find dinner.

On the other hand, early humans left Africa with separate sex roles firmly in place. Since our ancestors were mostly scavengers that didn’t rely on big game for food like the Neanderthals, group hunting wasn’t a necessity. Instead, men hunted smaller animals, and created tools and shoes, while women and children gathered grains and seeds, and fashioned together animal traps, nets and clothes. Our ancestors understanding of the benefits of gender roles gave us a leg up when it came to evolution, allowing us to collect more resources which helped develop our large brains, facilitated pair-bonding, and maybe even helped with the development of language, art and jewelry. It also gave us a massive survival advantage compared to Neanderthals, that unfortunately ended up going extinct.

However it’s important to note that just because early humans had defined gender roles it did not mean they were not equal, with evidence suggesting that tasks were divided fairly amongst the sexes and both were treated with equal respect. It wasn’t until our ancestors made a switch from their hunter-gatherer lifestyle to agriculture that inequality emerged. When people began to farm the land, life became more labour-intensive. The use of hoes and ploughs to help with daily tasks became popular, and larger, more muscular men found that they were more efficient in getting farm work done compared to women. As men worked in the fields, women took up jobs in the home. Ultimately, this new division of gender roles gave rise to a culture which associated women’s place as being in the home, lessened women’s bargaining power, and created new gender norms that have persisted through to today.


So at the end of the day, we can thank our ancestors for their gender norms that allowed us to evolve and get to where we are now. On the issue of equality though, we’re going to have learn a few lessons from the Bonobo.



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