Hundreds of thousands of years ago, humans discovered cooking. In the process, we unlocked additional calories and nutrients that were otherwise inaccessible, helping to fuel our large brains.
Now, cognitive scientists have shown that our preference for cooked food may have a strong genetic foundation, stretching back perhaps as far as the common ancestors we share with chimpanzees.
At a sanctuary in the Republic of Congo, Felix Warneken and Alexandra G. Rosati, of Harvard and Yale respectively, taught chimpanzees how to “cook.” The actual process was just a ruse—chimps dropped an uncooked slice of sweet potato or carrot into a bowl nested in another, and after a brief shake by researchers, a pre-cooked slice was revealed in the bottom bowl—but it shows that our ape cousins have the foresight, patience, and palates to prefer cooked food over raw.
James Gorman, reporting for the New York Times:
The research grew out of the idea that cooking itself may have driven changes in human evolution, a hypothesis put forth by Richard Wrangham, an anthropologist at Harvard and several colleagues about 15 years ago in an article in Current Anthropology, and more recently in his book, “Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human.”
He argued that cooking may have begun something like two million years ago, even though hard evidence only dates back about one million years. For that to be true, some early ancestors, perhaps not much more advanced than chimps, had to grasp the whole concept of transforming the raw into the cooked.
The new work suggests that the instinctive capacity to prefer cooked food may date back farther than 1 million years, lending credence to Wrangham’s hypothesis that cooking provided the energy to allow human brains to grow larger.
So if chimpanzees like cooked food, too, what’s held them back? The inability to control fire, mostly. Jon Hamilton at NPR points out that Kanzi, a bonobo, which is a close relative of chimpanzees, is an avid chef after being taught how by people.
Warneken and Rosati wanted to test their hypotheses on a larger group, and finish the study in less time than it would take to train a crew of chimps, which is how they settled on their clever “cooking” method with the nested bowls.
Wrangham argues that cooking, which unlocks additional calories and nutrients, helped propel brain development in ancient human evolution. Without it, he says, we wouldn’t be the clever apes we are today.