In a series of fascinating assessments, our closest kin preferred cooked vegetables to raw ones, were willing to wait for food to be cooked and understood what could and couldn’t be cooked.
The conclusions, established on nine experiments performed at the Tchimpounga Sanctuary in Republic of Congo and published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, suggest that chimps have all the brainpower needed to cook, including planning, causal understanding, and the ability to postpone gratification.
They do lack the ability to produce fire. But if they were given a source of heat, chimps “might be quite able to manipulate (it) to cook,” said developmental psychologist Felix Warneken of Harvard University, who conducted the study with Alexandra Rosati.
While the discovery may seem cryptic, it tenders support to the idea that cooking accelerated human evolution. As what Harvard’s Richard Wrangham proposed about a decade ago, that cooked food is easier to digest, stimulating the development of large brains in our australopithecine ancestors.
If chimps have the cognitive skills to cook, likely australopithecines did too, said Wrangham, who was not involved in the study: “It suggests that with a little extra brainpower, australopithecines could indeed have found a way to use fire to cook food.”
This archaeological evidence evokes humans began using fire 1 million years ago.
The chimps learned that one transforms potatoes from raw to cook. Offered a choice of which device to put food in, they almost always opted for the “cooker,” presenting they understood and willingly waited for the raw-to-cooked transformation.
Chimps did not put pieces of wood that scientists gave them, instead they grasped the only food that can be cooked.
Surprisingly, chimps were often willing to walk across a room to cook even they usually eat food immediately. When the first one did this, the scientists wondered if they had a single “chimpanzee genius,” Warneken said. Still others exhibited the same ability, grasp the idea of cooking and delaying gratification to do it.