New Study: Chimpanzees Show Innate Ability To “Cook” Food, Prefer Cooked Food

Richard Wrangham in his popular 2009 book, Catching Fire said that cooking made us human, that it shaped our evolution. It made our gastroinestinal tract smaller than an ape’s, and our brain larger.

This new study says that:

Several of the fundamental psychological abilities necessary to engage in cooking may have been shared with the last common ancestor of apes and humans, predating the control of fire.

Indeed, chimpanzees today display the ability and the desire to cook their food:

Cognitive Capacities For Cooking In Chimpanzees, Royal Society, Proceedings B, 3 June 2015

The transition to a cooked diet represents an important shift in human ecology and evolution. Cooking requires a set of sophisticated cognitive abilities, including causal reasoning, self-control and anticipatory planning. Do humans uniquely possess the cognitive capacities needed to cook food? We address whether one of humans’ closest relatives, chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes), possess the domain-general cognitive skills needed to cook.

Across nine studies, we show that chimpanzees:

(i) prefer cooked foods
(ii) comprehend the transformation of raw food that occurs when cooking, and generalize this causal understanding to new contexts
(iii) will pay temporal costs to acquire cooked foods
(iv) are willing to actively give up possession of raw foods in order to transform them
(v) can transport raw food as well as save their raw food in anticipation of future opportunities to cook.

To cook, you have to be patient, giving up immediate gratification for something you see as more valuable. You also have to imagine, that is, to envision something that doesn’t yet exist, and to deliberately plan and act to see that vision realized. Early humans had these qualities. It looks like other animals also possess them.

Which begs the question …

If chimpanzees possess this set of fundamental psychological capacities for cooking, why do wild chimpanzees not actually cook their food?

These researchers gave three reasons. One was that chimpanzees don’t control fire. Although they’ve been known to observe it and will use it opportunistically:

Wild chimpanzees will calmly monitor the movements of natural fires [29], and even actively seek out roasted seeds from burnt habitats [30].

Two, wild chimpanzees don’t typically eat foods such as potatoes, tubers, and roots that benefit from cooking for digestion. They enjoy raw leaves, tender shoots, and fruits, “whereas hominin diets uniquely incorporate starchy tubers.” So there was less impetus to learn to cook.

The third reason is something Wrangham broached in his book – the social nature of cooking. It was one of the most controversial sections, as I recall. He said that to depend on cooked food you needed someone to tend the fire while someone else gathered the food. And the fire-tender needed protection. (He says this supported monogamy, not so much romantic monogamy, more like a protectionist scheme.) The cooked food would need to be shared. There’s a lot of cooperation in all this. Chimpanzees, they said, may have been unwilling to engage in these cooperative social behaviors.

The New York Times posted this video showing the “oven” the chimpanzees in this study used to “cook” their food:

What these researchers discovered is an innate preference and ability. This is different from teaching a chimpanzee to use fire to cook. Here’s Kanzi, a pygmy chimpanzee, building a fire by himself then cooking food with it, after he has watched others do it. The Telegraph has some amazing photographs of him here. He’s using a frying pan!

3 thoughts on “New Study: Chimpanzees Show Innate Ability To “Cook” Food, Prefer Cooked Food

  1. Melinda

    I just LOVE stories like this about the intelligence of non-human animals! It’s almost always so much higher than we give them credit for…. Hope you don’t mind if I share this.

    1. Bix Post author

      The bottom video of Kanzi isn’t related to the study at the beginning, but it’s still fascinating. I agree that it’s always more than we give them credit for, but maybe that’s how science works … slowly. We have crows here that “cook”. They take a piece of bread and drop it into a bowl of water and move it around with their beak, then eat it. It’s a very purposeful act. I was flabbergasted.


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