I recently returned from a trip to South Africa and Uganda where I had the privilege of spending time with some amazing Mountain Gorilla families in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Mountain Gorilla families vary in size, but average about 25 members. It was explained to us that they are ruled by the one silverback male who reigns over an assortment of females (sometimes 8 – 10) and their offspring. A female’s primary role is to tend to her one baby (twins are very rare) of which she will have one every 4 years or so. She will not conceive while breast-feeding. When young males grow to be black backs and then young silver backs themselves, they will either fight the existing leader for his position in the family, or make off with a few of the females (or sometimes pick off a few from another family) to start his own clan. Nobody needs to go hunting as the gorillas are vegetarians, sitting for hours and hours feasting on their favorite leaves and stems.
BUT… what if the researchers have it upside down? What if a Mountain Gorilla family is basically a band of sisters, enjoying days of mothering their babies and hanging out together, using the males in the tribe for protection and mating? What if we thought about it that way? The mothers and babies I witnessed were living such loving, peaceful lives whereas the males had to worry about their place in the hierarchy. If one silverback didn’t overthrow another for top role in the family, he would be wandering solo in the forest. But for the females, days were relatively simple: eat, sleep, play, groom. We would all be perfect mothers if the distractions of the world were kept at bay…..
Other primates that share title of “ape” with gorillas are chimpanzees, orangutans, bonobos, and, well, humans.
Bonobos are similar looking to chimpanzees and their natural habitat are the forests of the Congo, not many miles from the forest in which I spent time with my gorillas. A pioneering primate researcher named Amy Parish from San Diego has studied them for decades and her work concludes that bonobos society is dominated by the females. Female bonding works to control individual males despite the males’ larger size. They choose their own mates and grab the best food for themselves. huh….
It is also widely held that other matriarchal animal species are: bees, elephants, killer whales, and lions. I find it interesting to look at the types of societies animal species create and why… Now I am thinking about the assumptions that we have traditionally made about these societies. Patriarchal ? Matriarchal? Maybe we shouldn’t assign human labels…