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What Are Great Apes?

Michael Anissimov
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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Great apes are members of the family Hominidae, which includes humans, chimps, gorillas, and orangutans. There is one species of human (Homo sapiens), two species of chimpanzee (common chimpanzee and pygmy chimpanzee, also known as the bonobo), two species of gorilla (western gorilla and eastern gorilla), and three species of orangutan (Bornean orangutan, Sumatran orangutan, and Tapanuli orangutan), though throughout the last few million years there have been dozens of other great apes, some of which (like Homo neanderthalis) were arguably as intelligent as modern humans.

Great apes are large, tailless primates, distinguished from "lesser apes" (gibbons) by a larger size, greater brain-to-body ratio, and generally more human-like and less monkey-like anatomical features. Still, within this group there is considerable variation. These apes evolved from African lesser apes about 18 million years ago, orangutans split from the rest of the apes about 14 million years ago, gorillas split off about 7 million years ago. Until recently, it was thought that chimps and humans split between 3 and 5 million years ago, but more fossil finds (Sahelanthropus) suggest the split happened earlier, between 6 and 7 million years ago.

Great apes are all extremely intelligent. Each one is probably smarter than every other member of the animal kingdom. All the great apes engage in some degree of tool use. Their semi-precision grip allows them to use rocks or sticks for various purposes, including as weapons. Gorillas have been observed testing water depth with sticks. Chimpanzees are known to lure termites out of their nests using sticks. Though chimpanzee tool use in the wild was popularized by Jane Goodall in the 1960s, all the great apes have since been observed using tools. It is uncertain which ape aside from humans is the most intelligent, but recent research seems to point to the orangutan, which are intelligent enough to build leak-proof roofs over their nightly nests.

Of the great apes, only one, the orangutan, is primarily arboreal (tree-dwelling). The others dwell on the ground, with only one, the human, being able to swim. In central Africa, the Congo River divides the two primary chimp species: the common chimp and the bonobo. Their genetic separation occurred about 1.5 - 2 million years ago, when the Congo River first formed. The differences between the two are superficial in anatomy, but deep in diet and social structure. The bonobos eat only fruit, and have an egalitarian, nonviolent, matriarchal, highly sexual society, while common chimps are omnivorous and have a social structure based on an alpha male leading a troop of beta males.

Of course, the most unusual of the great apes is the human. Humans have numerous anatomical differences with the other apes, including large brains, bipedal locomotion, tall stature, hairless bodies, excess body fat, and more. Evolutionary biologists have yet to come up with decisive reasons to explain all of these differences, but various theories have been presented.

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Michael Anissimov
By Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov is a dedicated All Things Nature contributor and brings his expertise in paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism to his articles. An avid blogger, Michael is deeply passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. His professional experience includes work with the Methuselah Foundation, Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and Lifeboat Foundation, further showcasing his commitment to scientific advancement.
Discussion Comments
By anon286536 — On Aug 21, 2012

"Evolutionary biologists have yet to come up with decisive reasons to explain all of these differences, but various theories have been presented."

It was already answered: we have alien genes. Just look up junk DNA.

By anon195366 — On Jul 11, 2011

@Tufenkian925: Primate is the name of the *order* the great ape family belongs to.

By anon143316 — On Jan 15, 2011

How do we know there is only one species of human being? Maybe there are two, three, four species amongst us, all so close in our make up that it is difficult to tell the difference. All with a combination of each others traits through interbreeding.

By Tufenkian925 — On Jan 15, 2011

Scientific evidence obviously points to us being a part of the Primate family.

By hangugeo112 — On Jan 15, 2011

In Africa, Bantu tribes treated the native Pygmies and Khoi-San bushmen as subhuman due to the European ideals of Social Darwinism. The dire results of German scientific presumption derived from Darwins ideas applied in a wrong light have echoed throughout the world, and we will continue to feel their effects unless there is a drastic change.

By arod2b42 — On Jan 15, 2011


Scientifically, humans have everything in common. There is no difference which is strong enough to make any people to be considered as a different species. Everyone can intermarry and reproduce perfectly, and we do.

In a societal and anthropological light, it would be ridiculous to apply the theories of Darwin to running a society or classifying people. This is what the Nazis did, and it had horrible consequences. In trying to apply the idea of "survival of the fittest" to a society, there is mixed interpretation and personal prejudices ruin everything. Morally, Social Darwinism is bankrupt, even though it might make some sense on the scientific level.

By Proxy414 — On Jan 15, 2011

Why is it that there are only one species of humans?

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov is a dedicated All Things Nature contributor and brings his expertise in paleontology, physics,...
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