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Last Updated on March 6, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 312

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The book Mama's Last Hug by Frans de Waal is a true story about the lives of primates and chimpanzees, the relationships they build with one another and with the researchers, and the emotions they can display and comprehend. De Waal has studied primates for many decades, and in particular, he is interested in emotional development and intelligence within them.

The central figures in this nonfiction work are Jan van Hooff and Mama.

Jan van Hooff

Jan van Hooff is a Dutch biologist who has studied chimpanzees, in particular Mama, for quite some time. His experiences studying them have led him to the conclusion that they are intelligent and emotional creatures with a deep capacity both for interpersonal emotion and for understanding and relating to human emotions. His details in the story are meant to elucidate the similarities between chimpanzees and humans, as both he and the author argue that the intelligence divide between the two species is significantly smaller than what was previously believed.


Mama is the matriarch of a chimpanzee family, leading and caring for them while they are studied by Jan and his coworkers. She has grown connected to and fond of Jan, and their relationship has grown into one of close familiarity and kinship. Mama is the primary member of the family studied and discussed in the book, and her emotional capacity is on display in heartwarming fashion in the story.

In the book, Mama is on the verge of death and is essentially getting her affairs in order with all of her relatives—the other chimpanzees. Knowing her demise is imminent, Jan goes to visit her for a final time to say goodbye. The title of the book comes from "Mama's last hug" before she passes away, a video that eventually went viral after she embraced Jan solemnly and tenderly, knowing that she would never see him again.