Chimpanzees and Cooking

Yesterday’s biggest science story was that Harvard scientists discovered chimpanzees have the mental capacity to develop the ability to cook.

Now, while the headlines would have you believe that chimpanzees are fully capable of cooking food, they actually aren’t. In fact, the authors of the study even have a whole paragraph devoted to why that isn’t true.

But first, let’s talk about what exactly happened in this study.

The study was designed with the idea that there are certain psychological prerequisites to the development of cooking. Briefly, one must first understand that:

  1. Cooked food tastes better than raw food
  2. Cooking requires time, and you must wait for food to cook
  3. Cooking requires a willingness to refrain from eating any raw food already in possession
  4. Cooking is what causes the transformation of raw food into cooked food
  5. You can transport and store raw food, in anticipation of future opportunities to cook it

In order to test the chimpanzees for the ability to understand these five concepts, the researchers set up nine experiments, all of which employed a fake oven to transform raw sweet potatoes into cooked sweet potatoes. Basically, the oven had a false bottom through which researchers could switch out the food. Of course, when all was said and done, the researchers did demonstrate that chimpanzees display an understanding of the 5 essential concepts they claim are prerequisites for the ability to cook.

However, there are many limitations to this study that should be noted:

  1. Tubers, like the sweet potato, are not a normal part of the chimpanzee diet. Instead, their diet mainly consists of fruits.
  2. Wild chimpanzees obviously do not have the ability to control fire — we aren’t living on the Planet of the Apes after all. If anything, this limitation alone should remove from your mind the idea that chimpanzees are able to cook.
  3. Cooking had no impact when used on foods typical of the chimpanzee diet, such as fruit.
  4. Most importantly, cooking is a very social activity that involves the pooling of resources. Wild chimpanzees would likely monopolize resources and/or steal from each other, making a whole mess of the situation before actually cooking anything.

So at the end of the day, what can we really gain from this study? What the results do suggest is that the ability to cook food occurred very early on in human evolution. See, the researchers found that the chimpanzee, a mere primitive ape, is capable of understanding the basic concepts behind cooking. Thus, all that might have been needed to move forward was simply the ability to control fire. In addition, the fact that these chimpanzees were able to infer new opportunities to improve the quality of their food, despite minimal experience with any form of a so-called “oven” in the wild, is also quite interesting. In fact, one could argue that early humans likely inferred that fire might present an opportunity to transform their food, not long after they were able to control it.

Ultimately, all of this means that for scientists studying the life of early humans, the development of cooking may have occurred much more earlier in our timeline than previously thought. What it certainly does not mean is that chimps are actually able to cook!

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