Missing link alive and well in Nuneaton

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The Independent Online
THE MISSING link is alive and well and living with her family and friends in a Warwickshire zoo.

The role of Twycross zoo near Nuneaton in unravelling the history of human evolution may not be obvious, but it is home to Diatou, a 17-year-old bonobo, or pigmy chimpanzee. Bonobos are very similar to Australopithecus ramidus, the 4.4 million year-old fossils found in Ethiopia which this week were hailed as the missing link between apes and early humans.

Diatou lives with four other bonobos at the zoo, which is trying to preserve the species from extinction. Watching Diatou padding about her pound is the closest one can get to a picture of how Australopithecus ramidus may have looked millions of years ago.

Bonobos come from a remote area of Zaire in west central Africa - where they are hunted as food and captured as pets for the rich. Their habitat is gradually being destroyed by logging companies and only 10,000 remain, which is half the population 20 years ago.

Bonobos have more in common with humans than any other animal. They are the only chimps to walk erect with any ease.

Perhaps the most striking evidence that a chimpanzee like Diatou provides the missing evolutionary link is the bonobo's capacity with language.

Bonobos, unlike common chimps and other apes, can modulate their voices and produce a far wider variety of sound.

Research in the United States by Georgia State University Language Research Centre has shown that bonobos can 'say' at least 300 words using a series of symbols on a keyboard linked to a video screen. The bonobo's voice modulation and linguistic abilities prompt the question as to when and why in evolution the relevant 'hard wiring' in the brain developed to handle language. It raises the possibility that very early humans may have developed relatively sophisticated language at a much earlier date than scientists have so far dared to suggest.

But there is one substantial social difference between bonobos and modern humans. The former enjoy great sexual equality and live in non-hierarchical egalitarian communities.

(Photograph omitted)