A new study suggests that chimps have the cognitive skills necessary for cooking—such as patience—even if they don't control fire. Christopher Intagliata reports
If you cozy up to a campfire this summer, ponder what Charles Darwin called, quote, "probably the greatest [discovery] ever made by man"—the control of fire. The anthropologist and primatologist Richard Wrangham has argued that the control of fire—and thus, cooking—has actually shaped our bodies and our brains.
But cooking isn't just about controlling fire.
"When you think about cooking, it actually has a lot of complex components." Yale psychologist Alexandra Rosati.
"So 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."
She and her colleague Felix Warneken, (VAR-neken) at Harvard, wanted to know if chimps also possess these basic cognitive qualities—even though they do not cook or control fire. So they performed a series of experiments in a chimp sanctuary in the Republic of [the] Congo. They confirmed—as past studies have—that chimps prefer cooked over raw food. But they also found that chimps will patiently refrain from eating raw food right in front of them if they think there's a chance it might get cooked. The chimps will even load raw food into what they thought was a "cooking device"—in reality a container with a false bottom, by which researchers would replace the raw food with cooked.
And chimps will even transport food across a room to one of those cooking devices, rather than eat it raw. At least sometimes.
"They'd often try to carry it with their mouth, because chimpanzees are knuckle walkers, and you'd almost see them accidentally eat the food on their way over, almost like "oops" they couldn't even resist, because they were carrying the food in their mouth." The results are in the Proceedings of the Royal Society: B. [Felix Warneken and Alexandra G. Rosati, Cognitive capacities for cooking in chimpanzees]
The researchers say these findings suggest that the common ancestor of chimps and humans may have also had this predisposition to cooking—so when fire was discovered, cooking caught on fast.
But for chimps who might have serious culinary aspirations, there’s a catch.
"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."
Something else to chew on as you and your human friends gather round the grill this summer, sharing in the bounty.
[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]