Bonobos and chimpanzees remember familiar conspecifics for decades

Laura S Lewis*, Erin Gerrish Wessling, Fumihiro Kano, Jeroen M G Stevens, Josep Call, Christopher Nicholas Krupenye

*Corresponding author for this work

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Recognition and memory of familiar conspecifics provides the foundation for complex sociality and is vital to navigating an unpredictable social world [Tibbetts and Dale, Trends Ecol. Evol. 22, 529–537 (2007)]. Human social memory incorporates content about interactions and relationships and can last for decades [Sherry and Schacter, Psychol. Rev. 94, 439–454 (1987)]. Long-term social memory likely played a key role throughout human evolution, as our ancestors increasingly built relationships that operated across distant space and time [Malone et al., Int. J. Primatol. 33, 1251–1277 (2012)]. Although individual recognition is widespread among animals and sometimes lasts for years, little is known about social memory in nonhuman apes and the shared evolutionary foundations of human social memory. In a preferential-looking eye-tracking task, we presented chimpanzees and bonobos (N = 26) with side-by-side images of a previous groupmate and a conspecific stranger of the same sex. Apes’ attention was biased toward former groupmates, indicating long-term memory for past social partners. The strength of biases toward former groupmates was not impacted by the duration apart, and our results suggest that recognition may persist for at least 26 y beyond separation. We also found significant but weak evidence that, like humans, apes may remember the quality or content of these past relationships: apes’ looking biases were stronger for individuals with whom they had more positive histories of social interaction. Long-lasting social memory likely provided key foundations for the evolution of human culture and sociality as they extended across time, space, and group boundaries.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere2304903120
Number of pages10
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Issue number52
Early online date18 Dec 2023
Publication statusPublished - 26 Dec 2023


  • Long-term social memory
  • Social knowledge
  • Social relationships
  • Eye-tracking primitives
  • Cognitive evolution


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