We already knew chimpanzees were smart, and that they like to mimic human behaviors. A new study reveals even more about these curious cousins of ours: they like to cook. In fact, they may prefer cooked foods over raw eats. It turns out that chimps not only recognize the transformation from raw food to cooked (they know it’s the same food), but they also have the ability to save cooked food and transport it over a distance, which suggests that they understand the importance of a good home-cooked meal.
The study supports the idea that humans also discovered this fairly early on in our evolution and that, regardless of the control of fire, chimps likely have the cognitive ability to cook. “It is an important question when cooking emerged in human evolution,” said Felix Warneken, the John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Social Sciences at Yale University and co-author of the study. “We thought one way to get at this question is to investigate whether chimpanzees, in principle, have the critical cognitive capacities for cooking. If our closest evolutionary relative possesses these skills, it suggests that once early humans were able to use and control fire they could also use it for cooking.”
Rather than starting from the point of whether or not chimps could control fire, which is where most scientists start, Warneken and his associates, instead, wondered—if provided with the right conditions—whether or not the chimps would be capable of making the mental leap to cooking. With the help of the Jane Goodall Institute’s Tchimpounga Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Republic of Congo, they studied wild-born chimpanzees and tried to replicate the results of earlier studies. For example, one study demonstrated chimps “preferred sweet potato that had been ‘cooked’—placed in a hot pan, without butter or oil, for one minute—to raw, and showing that the chimpanzees were more willing to pay a temporal cost, in the form of a minute-long wait, to obtain the preferred cooked food.”
Other tests looked to see if the chimps understood the transformation of raw to cooked food and whether or not they would spontaneously try and cook different foods. Usually, when chimpanzees have food, Warneken said, they eat it. They usually “can’t wait” to eat it or, want that instant gratification. To their surprise, when the chimps were presented with a piece of raw food and a cooking device, they preferred to cook it and get the food as a reward in return. “The first time one of the chimps did this, I was just amazed,” Alexandra Rosati, the study’s co-author, said. “I really had not anticipated it. When one of them did it, we thought maybe this one chimp is just a genius, but eventually about half of them did it.”
Further, the chimps do not try to cook everything. Once given a piece of raw potato and a piece of wood, the chimp did not try to cook the wood. They seem to understand what items can be cooked and what cooking is for. And a few studies suggested that chimps are capable of keeping tools for later use, but “those studies are very different from cooking,” Rosati said. “A tool can be valuable because you can use it in the future, but you can’t eat it now. When it comes to cooking, you have something—food—that has intrinsic value.”
However, the chimps were willing to wait and transport food to a cooking device. Once given a piece of raw food, rather than eat it right away, the chimps carried the food to a cooker positioned four meters (about 12 feet) away. Later, the chimps were given food and then made to wait until Warneken appeared with the cooking device until a few minutes later. “At the beginning, this is a very difficult inference,” Rosati said. “But later on, they understood that he’s going to come back, so if they can hold onto the food for that three minutes, they can transform it into cooked food. In the control condition, they got the same amount of food, but he never showed up. If they didn’t think they were going to be able to cook the food, they ate it.”
Being able to control fire was not, necessarily the driving force to cooking food, Warneken said. Instead, it’s possible that humans—just as they have observed wild chimps do—observed fire and ate cooked food left behind by it. Making the connection and learning how to control the flame, wouldn’t have been too far behind. Someone alert the Food Network.