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Apes are us

Ape evolution table
• All dates are approximate
• Based on recent scientific knowledge and theories

The ape family

Gibbon   Orangutan   Gorilla
Gibbon   Orangutan   Gorilla
© PictureWendy   © Desert Photo   © Kabir
Bonobo   Human   Chimpanzee
Bonobo   Human   Chimpanzee
© Tim Ellis   © God   © Sebastian Niedlich
• Click on an image to enlarge it

Apes are big tailless monkeys

The first thing that distinguishes apes from monkeys is the loss of their tail; even if some true monkeys, such as the Barbary macaque, are also tailless.
They are also generally larger.
They have developed more mobile shoulder joints and arms and are agile climbers.
When they leave the trees, they walk on all fours while leaning on the knuckles of their hands (knuckle-walking).
Omnivorous, their menu is varied and elaborate, but they prefer fruits above all.
Apes sleep long nights since the darkness lasts twelve hours in the tropical regions where they live.
Helpless at birth, they have an extended childhood because they depend on what they've learned to survive.
Outstandingly intelligent, their faces are very expressive.

Great apes sleep
in nests in the trees

Very few people know that apes (except gibbons) sleep in a nest high up in a tree.
Every evening, each ape takes two to twenty minutes to construct a cozy new nest.
Some even make simple «day nests» to take a nap.
They bend several branches and weave them together so that they can support their weight.
Then, they add softer plant material to make the nest more comfortable.

Bonobo resting in nest
Bonobo in his nest
© teresehart

Nest making is more intricate than one would expect and young apes learn how to do it from their mother.
Sleeping on the ground would be too dangerous, so only some male gorillas do it.
Knowing about nests is important for us humans because we have also slept in them for the major part of our history.


Chimpanzees, along with bonobos, are our closest living relatives.
Contrarily to us, they have hair on the forehead and none on the eyebrows.
Chimpanzees are totally dependent on their mother until they are five, become adults at thirteen and can live up to fifty.

  Female Male
Height 2  to 3.5  feet 3  to 4  feet
Weight 65  to 105  pounds 90  to 130  pounds
Home Western and Central Africa
Diet Fruits, leaves, flowers, seeds, animals...
© Jerry Wen

They live in communities of ten to sixty individuals in a hierarchised male dominated society.
During the day, they separate into smaller parties to look for food. The composition of these groups changes fluidly.
Chimpanzee behavior is stunningly similar to our own; they indulge in fighting, alliances, betraying, murder, hunting, warfare, ...


Bonobos look very much like chimpanzees, but they are a bit slender.
Just like humans, they have diverged from the chimpanzee line, but they have done so lately; about one million years ago.
Their darker, longer hair is parted in the middle.

  Female Male
Height 2  to 3  feet 2.5  to 3.5  feet
Weight 55  to 95  pounds 80  to 115  pounds
Home Congo Basin forests
Diet Fruits, leaves, flowers, seeds, animals...
© Courtney Bolton

Bonobos are particularly interesting for us because of their distinctive behavior and lifestyle.
They have a female dominated society, where seniority is the important factor.
They live in communities of 25 to 75 or more, but are much less aggressive than chimpanzees.

Young bonobo
Young bonobo
© Courtney Bolton

Bonobos are known as the «free-love» chimp because of the role sex has come to play in their everyday lives.
You may agree or not with them, but they prove that male domination is not inscribed in our genes.


Humans have their own chapter; Walking on two feet and the first humans.


There are two species of gorillas, both containing two sub-species.
They are the largest living primates.
Mature males are twice the size of the females and grow large canines.
The hair on their back turns grey, that's why they are called silverbacks.
They are so big and heavy that the branches won't support their weight anymore.

  Female Male
Height 4.4  to 4.9  feet 5.4  to 5.9  feet
Weight 130  to 200  pounds 300  to 400  pounds
Home Tropical & subtropical forests of Africa
Diet Fruits, leaves, stems, shoots, buds, ...
© brokinhrt2

In spite of their frightening looks, gorillas are shy, peaceful vegetarians.
They form harem type societies, where several females with their youngs will search the protection of a silverback.
Gorillas are also highly intelligent.


Orangutans can only be found on two islands; Borneo and Sumatra, and this isolation has created two sub-species.
The words «orang hutan» mean «man of the forest» in Malay and Indonesian.
As with gorillas, there is a marked difference in size (dimorphism) between the two sexes.
The males still live in trees, but often have to come down to the ground to go from one to another.
They develop huge fleshy pads circling their face.

  Female Male
Height 2.6  to 3.5  feet 4  to 4.5  feet
Weight 65 to 110  pounds 110  to 200  pounds
Home Borneo and Sumatra
Diet Fruits, leaves, shoots, stems, buds, ...
Male orangutan
© Mikaku

Orangutans lead lonely lives; food sources where they live being too limited to permit grouping.
Orangutan mothers take care of their child all by themselves for seven years before the next is born.
They teach them everything they need to know to survive.
Orangutans are also known for their wise intelligence.


There are several species of gibbons. They are not considered as great apes, but as lesser apes.
This is a bit insulting. Their faults include being smaller and having diverged earlier, but they are as tailless as the other apes.
Only gibbons can perform «brachiation», swinging from branch to branch, at high speed and over great distances, making them the most agile mammal in the trees.

  Female Male
Height 2  to 3.3  feet 2.5  to 3.5  feet
Weight 8  to  18 pounds 10  to 20  pounds
Home Southeast Asia's tropical rain forests
Diet Fruit pulp, leaves, flowers, seeds, ...
© Trisha Shears

Gibbons are monogamous, for a while at least. They form pairs and raise the children together.
Every day, the couple sings a duet of elaborate calls and rarely goes down from the trees.

Common ancestors

New species usually appear when part of a population gets isolated from the rest and is subjected to different environmental pressures for so long that it ends up becoming a new species.
For the human race, this happened about seven million years ago when we diverged from the chimpanzee line.
So we share our ancestors with the chimpanzees.
However, we can't call those ancestors «chimpanzees» because, just like us, today's chimpanzees have evolved over the last seven million years.
It is best to name them «common ancestors» to both humans and chimpanzees.


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