The simple act of putting food to fire involves a set of complex tasks we often take for granted. Cooking also demands critical cognitive abilities like delayed gratification, the skills to prepare and mix ingredients and the creation of utensils to facilitate sizzling goodness. For most of us, cooking is an act that distinguishes humans from other animals, an exercise in reason, so we believe, that animals can’t possibly emulate on their own.
The perception that only humans can learn how to cook on their own is being challenged by research published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. In it, researchers discuss the results of a series of experiments on wild-born chimpanzees in which the chimps were tasked to learn how to cook on their own.
In principle, [chimps]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. FELIX WARNEKEN, harvard profesor and co-author of the study
Previous research has shown that most animals do in fact prefer easier to digest cooked foods over raw ones, and that chimps, when taught directly, can learn how to cook using utensils. The researchers of this paper, however, were interested in taking this one step further, and discover whether or not highly intelligent primates like chimpanzees are capable of learning how to cook food on their own.
How the chimps fared when learning how to cook
The experiments consisted of showing chimps how the placement of raw foods in a cooking device (in this case, a bottomless bowl without fire – the scientists would replace the raw potato with cooked ones once the chimps completed the task) produces a cooked state. Specifically, the researchers wanted to know if the chimps could first grasp this process in concept. Amazingly, the chimps were able to understand that the device cooked the food. The chimps also exhibited patience, a key cognitive demand in the process of cooking, and waited diligently until the food was (ostensibly) fully cooked for eating.
People focus on the control of fire because that seems so salient, but even if you had a fire stick, several other insights are required before you can use it for cooking. Obviously, chimps can’t control fire, but we were trying to hypothesize about some of the other aspects of cooking, like the causal understanding that if you put this raw food on the fire it creates cooked food, or, at the extreme end of our study, the ability to plan. Alexandra Rosati, another author of the study
Next, the researchers tested the chimps’ ability to emulate the act of cooking themselves. To conduct the experiment, researchers placed distance between the raw potatoes and the actual cooking device. This separation required chimps to pick up the raw potato, and instead of eating it on the spot, carry them the distance to where the cooking device was kept.
On some occasions, the chimps succeeded. Many accidentally ate the potato along the way since chimps use their knuckles to walk and therefore must often use their mouths to carry food. Still, the research strongly suggests that chimps and humans share many of the evolutionary traits needed for learning how to cook, with a few key differences that most likely precludes chimps from ever learning how to cook en masse as a species like humans did.
Cooking is sort of this very strange behavior because people do it together. Knowing something about the social behavior of chimps suggests that might actually be a really serious problem for them. So in contrast to humans, who will gather food and bring it back to a central location and cook it together, and share the food, chimps sort of eat on the go and they don’t really share food in that kind of way. So this sort of social explanation suggests that could be a really serious constraint on the evolution of cooking.