‘No more raw bananas!’ Study finds chimps would actually prefer flambé

Watch out Tom Colicchio. A chimpanzee might be gunning for your job as judge on “Top Chef.”

A new study shows that our closest primate relatives possess some of the mental skills required to cook and appreciate prepared dishes. The report was published today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.

Cooking involves more than just cracking an egg into a frying pan and holding it over a flame. It requires the premeditation of gathering ingredients and the subsequent patience of tailoring a meal rather than immediately consuming those raw elements.

Plus roasting, stewing and baking increases the energy content within food. An early primeval understanding of these benefits may have fueled the human development of large brains and frames. However, some evolutionary biologists argue that humans originally learned how to master fire for heat and lighting and that cooking came later as a side-effect.

“Thus, understanding when and how this dietary shift occurred is a pressing problem in biology,” says the report from psychologists Felix Warneken of Harvard University and Alexandra Rosati of Yale University. “If the cognitive abilities necessary to engage in cooking are also present in chimpanzees, it would support models in which control of fire rapidly led to cooking.”

So using a batch of nine challenges, Warneken and Rosati tested chimpanzees’ cognitive capacities toward cooking, namely motivation, patience, causal understanding of prepared food and planning. We highlight a subset of the tests below. Each video runs for approximately 20 to 30 seconds:

1. “We’ll have the roasted potatoes.”

Chimps prefer cooked food. Twenty-nine chimps were given the choice between a roasted sweet potato and a raw one, they chose the cooked version 88 percent of the time. The researchers allowed the chimps to taste each option before choosing, which was the case for all of the following tests.

No surprises here, given prior research had shown the same, but this experiment served as the foundation for the more nuanced trials below.

2. “This chef is taking forever…”

This test showed that 16 chimps opted for a cooked sweet potato over a raw one, even if the chimps had to wait a minute to receive the treat.

3. “Let’s cook tonight.”

Next, the chimps learned about the process of cooking via a shell game. The scientists started by presenting raw sweet potatoes to the chimp before tossing the food into a bowl with a false bottom. The researchers shook the bowl and then opened the secret compartment that contained the cooked food. The team performed this switcheroo eight times with a chimp, so it could pair the idea of food preparation — shaking the bowl — with receiving a roasted snack.

The researchers then allowed 23 chimps to choose between food prepared with and without “cooking.” The apes preferred the latter 87 percent of the time.

The real question revolved around whether the primates would cook a meal on their own. This decision would require holding a raw piece of food and then resisting the urge to immediately devour it. That’s a tough choice for chimps, as previous studies show that the apes don’t enjoy giving up their food.

Next, the chimps were given the option of cooking themselves, which they did 85 percent of the time. Additional experiments showed that chimps did the same with raw carrots, but they wouldn’t cook inedible wood chips.

4. “Let’s take a walk over to the kitchen.”

Finally, the researcher tested if 13 chimps had the patience to carry a piece of food across their pen in order to cook it. Four out of five times, the chimps would wait.

The chimps would also store food for up to three minutes in preparation of cooking.

“To our knowledge, this is the first evidence that apes can plan for the future by saving food for future transformation,” the authors write. “Together, these results indicate that chimpanzees and humans share several of the essential psychological capacities needed to cook food.”

So why don’t chimps cook in the wild? Well, they can’t control flames, so the authors conclude that “the earliest adoption of fire may have led rapidly to the development of cooking, supporting claims that cooking originated early in human evolution.”

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