Can Chimpanzees Cook?

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The Human Brain, Impulse Control, and the Evolution of Cooking.

Garret Stirland | Staff Writer

Photo By Julie Ostler @jules1lo Cooking and the brain jo (1)

Humans are the only creatures in the animal kingdom known to cook their food. However, chimpanzees may be making a run at culinary. Cooking food is something that seems very instinctual to us as human beings. However, when examined closely a wide variety of complex thought and action goes into turning an oven on and off.

Alexandra Rosati from Yale, and Felix Warneken from Harvard, conducted a study in a chimpanzee sanctuary aimed at investigating whether chimpanzees prefer cooked or raw food. The researchers gave the chimps a slice of raw sweet potato, with an option to place it in a cooking device (magic bowl), which would cook it and be returned to the chimp. Rosati and Warneken found the majority of chimpanzees were willing to delay the immediate gratification of eating the raw sweet potato for the chance at eating it cooked.

Placing food in a magic cooking bowl may sound simple, but it is no small feat.

“When you think about cooking, it actually has a lot of complex components. You have to plan for the future. You have to have some self-control by refraining to eat raw food you already have right now. You might want to have some causal reasoning to understand how cooking transforms the food,” said Rosati in a written statement.

Not only did the chimpanzees show enough self-control to resist the urge of initially eating the potato, some chimps were willing to transport the food across the enclosure, in their mouth, in order to cook the potato.

Many researchers in the scientific community speculate that diet was a leading factor in the evolution of our species brain. When you put that Mac-n-Cheese in the pot to boil, you are using millennia of evolutionary fine-tuning. It’s not the size of your brain that matters, but rather the ability to realize, “Hey, I am going to eat this potato after I stick it in the oven”.

“We often say ‘you are what you eat’, but evolutionary logic dictates that sometimes ‘you are what you’d rather eat’,” said Daniel E. Lieberman in his novel, The Story of the Human Body.

Discovering fire is often referenced as one of the greatest achievements in human history. Fire has helped our species survive in some of the coldest climates in the world, like the frozen tundra of Alaska, Canada, and even Utah. A preference for cooked food could have been a factor in our obsession with fire.

“I think this is a subtle confirmation of our evolution. Without the mental control and discipline we would not be able to evolve as we did. There are more diseases and risks in raw food than in cooked food. I think if chimps had the opportunity, through out time, to further develop social groups and other constructs, they would. It’s all about fire in my opinion, and if chimps want to eat cooked food, they are going to have to use fire. I think that this study is evidence that supports a correlation with our own evolution,” said UVU senior Austin Stevenson.

Certainly, the chimps in this study have a long way to go before creating a dish to impress Gordon Ramses. With more research studies like this, it offers a fascinating glimpse into our own history and evolutionary development.