Question of the Week

Are we the only animals to cook our food?

Sun, 16th Nov 2008

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Kathleen, Oregon asked:

Are we the only animals to cook food, why do we do it and does it give us an advantage over other animals?


cookingWe put this to:

Robert Foley, Professor of Human Evolution at the Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies, Cambridge.

Cooking is certainly unique to humans. There’s no other species that does it. There’s obvious reasons for that because we’re the only ones that can make fire which is a pre-requisite. In a away fire comes first and cooking becomes a process after it. It’s becoming clear that really cooking provides quite a number of advantages. Richard Wrangham from Harvard has been doing a lot of experiments looking at how cooking can change the nutritional value of food. What it seems is that the process of warming food up: in a sense denaturing it has a number of effects. One is that food is much more tender. That we know. If you eat a cooked carrot instead of a raw carrot it’s much easier. We can spend less time chewing, we can swallow it faster and we can digest it faster. It seems that it’s an extension of things we see in other animals. Animals who use techniques often in their stomachs to tenderise food seem to try and make it more easily absorbable. If we turn to the other question of when all this happened the real question is when do we first find evidence of fire? That seems to be about half a million years ago or so. We don’t find direct evidence of cooking then but we do see over the next 100,000 years or so the beginnings of things like burnt stone which suggests that meat is cooked. It’s probably goes quite a long way back in our evolutionary history and some people would argue it’s really a very major change in the way we are able to live and survive.

Peter Lucas, Professor of Anthropology, George Washington University, USA

The second possible advantage for cooking is that it improves digestion. We’ve done a model study here particularly with Zhongquan Sui when she was here – she’s now at the University of Perdue. She found that yes, cooking does to a certain extent improve digestion. You only need cook something for a fraction of the time that you actually do in order for it to be digested properly. The cooking times that people adopt when they normally say this is cooked seem to reflect strong mechanical changes in the food. In other words, these are things that affect you perception of food texture and allow you actually to eat it very much easier, very much shorter eating times than you would do if they’re raw. That I think I would give as the essential answer at the moment.


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We Are The Only Animals To Actually Cook Our Own Food, But other animals capture there own. DanilovesHim, Tue, 11th Nov 2008

So do we, don't we? Isn;t that what a fishing rod is for?! chris, Wed, 12th Nov 2008

While not actually 'cooking' other animal do prepare their food for consumption.

New videos of ants fixing an entrée of fruit fly stew show that it's the youngsters who do the colony's version of cooking. What's more, they don't nibble as they cook but wait to be served their fair share.

Ants prepare their meat not by heating but by marinating it with digestive enzymes to create a glistening protein slurry. With their hourglass figures, adult ants have such tiny waists that solid food can't pass through to their abdomens. Biologists already knew that the blob-shaped larvae predigest meat. Some scientists had suggested that the adults feed meat to the larvae and return later for some regurgitated protein slurry.

some animal chew and regurgitate for their young, monkeys have been observed washing potatoes, and other animals bury and allow food to rot before consumption. JnA, Wed, 12th Nov 2008

And Steve Yanoviak, whom we have interviewed on the programme previously, reported that the ants he studies in the Amazon like to eat bird droppings because they are mineral-rich (particularly phosphates, which can be in short supply). But, whilst bird droppings often form a "cake" which dries onto a leaf, I guess that doesn't count as cooking does it?

Chris chris, Wed, 12th Nov 2008

For the ants it's table service.

Any ideas on why we do it?

Presumably it's because we can. Cooking tends to soften most things, helping our measly little human teeth to chew and therefore aid digestion.
Maybe it assists with an 'eat and run' mentality, just in case another predator gets wind of our meal.

I've been trying to think of a 'preservation' angle, but I doubt that cooked food lasts longer than uncooked food at least enough to make that a 'reason'. JnA, Thu, 13th Nov 2008

I think it was a matter of taste. Early man probably had food cooked for him in forest fires, liking the taste of those parts of animals and vegetation which were cooked, rather than burnt he imitated this effect. I should think other animals have found the same, but so far haven't managed to get Curry's to deliver a hob & oven to the jungles and Savannah's. Don_1, Thu, 13th Nov 2008

More nutrition can be obtained from food when it is cooked.
Cooking can render indigestible material edible, (or vice versa  ). RD, Thu, 13th Nov 2008

Japanese macaques (monkeys) wash and season their potatoes...

The Japanese macaques do have access to hot volcanic water, so it is perhaps a matter of time before they are boiling their veggies.
RD, Thu, 13th Nov 2008

I believe we are straying from the question.

As far as I know we are the only animals that cook our food, advantage to it would likely be lowered chances of food borne diseases especially since our digestive systems are pretty delicate as compared to other creatures. markoky, Fri, 14th Nov 2008

I think, we are the only animals that actually cook their food, because we are the only ones who took controll of fire...

...but some animals benefit from fires whenever they can. In africa for example you can watch storcks searching for burned animals right behind the fireline...

atrox, Fri, 14th Nov 2008

I believe this can be boiled down to simply that although we as humans are omnivores, our roots lean towards herbivore lifestyles somewhat more than carnivorous ones.  This fact can be seen in our teeth, in which those of the leaf eating variety outweigh those for tearing flesh. As well, our intestinal set up more closely resembles a herbivore's.  All of these factors can be seen together when people eat a lot of raw meat they often contract problems because they simply don't have the proper enzymes to fully digest all of the many things inside flesh.  Therefore it is presumable that our ancestors who discovered roasting meet by the heat of fire thus breaks down the meat so that is easier and healthier to consume, had a great advantage over others that didn't. Of course every metabolism is different, and the healthy and desirable ratios of cooking very on the individual, echoing the fact that different cultures will have evolved in different ways to best accommodate they're unique circumstances.  Based on this, people will have tendencies to pick the degree of cooking to their meat which are purely biological, and peppered with upbringing and exposure, result in what they choose to chew, or eschew.    InCharacter, Tue, 18th Nov 2008

Welcome to the site.
I'm not sure about the validity of your point since we often cook vegetables too; but I'd like to thank you for starting your post in this thread with the phrase "I believe this can be boiled down" which made me smile. Bored chemist, Tue, 18th Nov 2008

I'm glad you enjoy it, I was hoping someone would. However, the fact that we will also cook vegetables does not undermine the validity of the point.  When the vegetables are cooked, they become easier to digest, and often more nutrients are extracted.  Another benefit to those that discovered this process. Of course sometimes it will be done for pure culinary pleasure, but often the previous point is a factor.  If animals could do this, and it be to their benefit, it's presumable they would. InCharacter, Thu, 20th Nov 2008

I believe we are the only animals to cook our food, but I have heard of some primates washing their food.

We cook our food to kill off germs, and because I would really not enjoy a raw steak.

WE are not, however, the only creatures to colonize (for lack of a better word) other creatures; some breeds of ants will enslave and raise other ants and even other insects. They are used as slaves to gather food and even raised for consumption. Onlyinterestednotdevoted, Thu, 20th Nov 2008

I do not agree that we cook our food to kill germs as i do not think humans knew about germs half a million years ago. Perhaps the humans who cooked their food survived where as the humans who ate raw meat died out. However this would raise the question - why would humans not evolve like meat eating animals to be able to live off raw meat? Before we dicovered fire, surely we were eating animals raw. I cant imagine that once humans discovered how to make fire they declared: 'Right! I'm sick of roots and berries - let's have one of those four legged things!' Morgan, Thu, 25th Dec 2008

RD - "More nutrition can be obtained from food when it is cooked." That is completely false, the opposite is true. bananafish, Wed, 20th May 2009

I agree with the most recent post and I cannot believe it took that far down the thread for someone to bring it up... cooking kills nutrients. I happened upon this site after googling why we cook. I recently watched the movie "food matters" and it says when we cook foods the changes they undertake make our bodies think they are invading when we eat them. As such our immune systems mount an attack, but that this does not happen with raw foods. So I wanted to see if cooking was required to kill bacteria OR if it's required by our factory farmed food because of the higher incidence of harmful bacterias, etc. If there was a better way to keep our foods from getting germs on them and we fed our bodies more healthfully by eating raw, would we? I'm sure there's a better way! Joe, Thu, 23rd Jul 2009

Bananafish and Joe have a some review to do. Go live and thrive without fire. Go live in a native wild without fire and animal product/flesh. Bond, Wed, 23rd Mar 2011

the reason humans cook is we evolved from a species that cooked Homo-erectus used fire to cook. which means when we evolved from them into Homo-sapiens our digestive systems evolved to require the cooking of foods both meat and plant based as most plants are either not very nutritious in their raw state (as we don't have complex gut systems like herbivores) or actually harmful raw many are goitrogenic raw. as for saying go into the wild where there is no fire Homo-sapien have always had fire as our ancestors homo-erectus had fire and as long a you can find wood you can start a fire to cook. we may have evolved from a herbivore but we are a long long way removed from that ancestor our ancestors were eating meat 4 million years ago and is shown in the fossil records before homo-sapiens evolved. the teeth argument again hate to tell you this but it is a flawed argument for either side as the teeth argument would lead to the belief that gorillas, baboons and hippos were carnivores steve119, Sun, 13th Jan 2013

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