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Planet Earth

Chimps Have the Mental Capacity to Cook Their Food


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If you give a chimpanzee a potato, it's going to want to cook it, so long as it's given the right tools. Chimps, according to a new study, possess the cognitive foundation required to cook raw foods. In a battery of tests, chimps not only demonstrated that they preferred cooked food, but that they were also willing to delay eating raw foods in order to enjoy a cooked meal later. It’s a level of planning, self-control and understanding that was thought to be uniquely human.

Baked Potatoes

Let’s make this clear from the start: There’s a big difference between having the psychological tools necessary to cook and whipping up a three-course meal. But the psychological tools are important: Animals tend to be greedy opportunists; most will gobble up their food instantly, and very few species would give up food already in their possession to be placed in a cooking device. Cooking requires an ability to forgo instant gratification, something humans do all the time — though it can be difficult. In a series of nine experiments meant to emulate the process of cooking using potatoes and faux ovens, chimps proved that they have what it takes to be the foodies of the animal kingdom. First and foremost, chimps revealed a clear preference for cooked food. In a trial with 29 chimps from the Tchimpounga Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Republic of Congo, 88 percent chose a cooked potato over a raw potato. The results were similar even if they had to wait for their cooked potato. Good start. In the following tests, chimps demonstrated other cooking-related cognitive abilities. Scientists used bowls to simulate two cooking device to test whether chimps would use them to “cook” their food. When chimps placed a raw slice of potato into the “cooking” device, researchers would shake the bowl and then pull out a cooked slice. They could also use a “control” bowl that was shaken, but the potato remained raw. In 87.5 percent of the trials, chimps used the “cooking” bowl. When scientists moved the cooking device to the opposite end of the cage, chimps made the effort to transport their slices to the “cooker.” Even if scientists left the test area with the “cooker” in tow, chimps would save their raw slices and wait for the “cooker” to return. Researchers published their findings in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Kiss the Cooks

Overall, the study shows us that chimps have the mental tools to cook their food, but for various reasons they didn't evolve cooking behaviors. That may be because the chimp diet isn’t really improved by cooking foods on their regular menu, which primarily consists of fruits, seeds and nuts. Researchers also note that wild chimps may not be willing to engage in the social dynamics of cooking, in which resources and cooking devices are shared communally. However, studying our closest primate cousins’ inclinations toward cooked food can help researchers better understand why early humans adopted the practice long ago. The results suggest that the adoption of fire may have led rapidly to cooking, supporting claims that the culinary arts originated early in our history.

Photo credit: Nataliia Melnychuk


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