Chimps not only have the brain power to understand the concept of cooked food, but they are willing to delay eating raw food if they know it can be cooked. This highlights impressive cognitive abilities, such as the foresight and patience to resist their urge of eating food..

Image via PBS.


Don’t expect the primates to start competing against Gordon Ramsay, but they just love roasted potatoes. Scientists noticed that chimps would give up a raw slice of sweet potato in the hand for the prospect of a cooked slice of sweet potato a bit later. That kind of self control came as a surprise initially.

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“Many primate species, including chimpanzees, have difficulty giving up food already in their possession and show limitations in their self-control when faced with food,” the Harvard researchers who conducted the study note.

Sure, chimps lack the technical abilities to cook, but if they are given the necessary tools (an oven) they “might be quite able to manipulate (it) to cook,” said developmental psychologist Felix Warneken of Harvard University, who conducted the study with Alexandra Rosati. An experiment showed that when given a functional oven and a non-functioning oven, chimps always placed the potatoes in the functioning one – in other words, they preferred cooked potatoes. It was already known that chimps prefer cooked food, so researchers took things one step further: they gave the chimps raw potatoes; before they were shown the concept of cooking, they simply took the potato and ate it, but once they had been introduced to cooking, they chose not to eat it wait for it to be cooked.

“The first time one of the chimps did this, I was just amazed,” study co-author Alexandra Rosati who is moving to Yale University said. “I really had not anticipated it. When one of them did it, we thought maybe this one chimp is just a genius, but eventually about half of them did it,” Rosati pointed out.

Aside for the chimps’ abilities, this also suggests that cooking emerged early in human evolution. The earliest archaeological evidence of cooking is about 1 million years old, but in light of this discovery, it may be that cooking emerged when humans had the mental abilities of today’s chimps, about 2 million years.

“What is particularly interesting about cooking is it’s something we all do, but it involves a number of capacities that, even without the context of cooking, are thought to be uniquely human. That is why we wanted to study this in chimpanzees,” explained Felix Warneken from Harvard University.

The research was inspired by the work of Richard Wrangham, an anthropologist at Harvard and several colleagues about 15 years ago in an article in Current Anthropology. Wrangham went on to describe his findings in a book, “Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human.” He too argued that cooking evolved around 2 million years ago.

As for the chimps, Warneken believes that they would be able to operate a simple oven, and they have the causal understanding.