Science News

Can Chimpanzees Cook?

Fri, 5th Jun 2015

Tom Crawford

Chimpanzees possess all of the required cognitive abilities for cooking, according to a new study from Harvard University.Chimpanzee

"Cooking is a very complex behaviour, presenting a lot of cognitive challenges, and we found that chimpanzees possess these abilities," study author Alexandra Rosati explains.

The shift in the human diet from raw to cooked foods is believed to have been a key step in the rapid evolution of our species. This study, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, suggests that we have long held the capacity to cook and it is other factors that may have prevented the development from coming sooner.

"Our ability to cook predates our ability to control fire, suggesting that as soon as fire was controlled, bam, we could have started cooking."

Previous studies have largely concentrated on establishing the origin of this ability to control fire, but Rosati and her colleagues approached the problem from a different angle. They considered the actual mental capabilities required for the development of cooking, for example the preference for cooked food, and the willingness to sacrifice an instant reward in the form of raw food for a greater reward in the future once it has been cooked.

In the new study, wild-born orphan chimpanzees at Tchimpounga sanctuary in the Republic of Congo were first given a choice between a piece of raw sweet potato and a piece that had been cooked for one minute. Almost all of them preferred the cooked food.

But the major surprise came when they were introduced to the "chimpanzee microwave"- a revolutionary new cooking device that even the worst cooks can't fail to use. A raw piece of food is placed into a hole at the top of the bucket, which is then shaken for one minute before, voila, a cooked piece of food comes out of the hole at the bottom. This, of course, isn't black magic but a clever trick. Unbeknownst to the chimpanzees, the bucket is fitted with a false bottom and the cooked piece of food is already concealed inside.

In more than half of the experiments the chimpanzee would choose to place the raw food in the cooking device and wait for a cooked piece, rather than simply eating the raw piece right away. "This really shocked us, as chimpanzees are notoriously protective of their food," explains Rosati. "Animals have issues with self control when it comes to food."

A particularly cheeky subject by the name of Maya shared the scientists' excitement. "He would always eat the raw food as soon as we gave it to him and then just look at the cooking device. But one time he just went for it and was jumping with excitement as the cooked food was returned, you could practically see the light bulb switch on in his head."

So, can we expect a chimpanzee to be competing on the next season of Masterchef? Unfortunately not. Because, despite possessing all of the cognitive skills required to engage in cooking, chimpanzees are still missing the key ingredient - the control of fire. But with the aid of the "chimpanzee microwave", the premiere of 'Chimpanzee Masterchef' might be a lot closer than you think...

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