Chimps Would Totally Cook if Only We Made Ape-Friendly Ovens

By Alissa Walker on at

For a long time, the only two things that have really separated humans from apes is our ability to make fire and and our propensity towards chips. Turns out that chimpanzees likely possess both these qualities as well, thanks to a study that claims they have the “desire” to cook.

A New York Times story reports on two anthropological studies from Harvard and Yale which are attempting to show how cooking spurred evolutionary changes. Using chimps to represent humans before the onset of cave cuisine, the researchers wants to know if they could understand the difference between raw and cooked food, and—more importantly—if they had the patience to make it happen.

The chimps in the study were given slices of raw sweet potato, which they could then trade for a slice of cooked sweet potato by putting it into a contraption that appeared to make the potato cook. No, they didn’t just let the apes go wild at the grill, however, says Dr. Felix Warneken:

“We invented this magic cooking device,” Dr. Warneken explained in an interview: two plastic bowls that fit closely together with pre-cooked food hidden in the bottom tub.

When a chimpanzee placed a raw sweet potato slice into the device, a researcher shook it, then lifted the top tub out to offer the chimp an identical cooked slice of sweet potato.

It was known that chimps prefer cooked food, but it was an open question whether chimps had the patience to wait through the pretend “shake and bake” process. And, the researchers wanted to know if the animals could understand “that when something raw goes in there it comes out cooked,” said Dr. Warnaken.

The chimps showed a number of indications that, given a real cooking opportunity, they had the ability to take advantage of it. They resisted eating raw food and put it in the device, waiting for cooked food. They would bring raw food from one side of a cage to the other in order to put it in the device. And they put different kinds of food in the device.

Of course, this might not be as much about cooking as it is about simply having food preferences: The chimps liked the cooked potato more than the raw potato, so they were willing to wait around for the better version, which they knew came out of this magic tub. That’s not really the same as busting out a pan and frying up some latkes. Dr. Laurie Santos, a researcher who had done similar work, said that the nuance would also be lost on “most teenagers who are microwaving their pot pies.”

Which leads me to my two last questions. If chimps could operate ovens (which the researchers think they could), why go through all the trouble to build these “magic cooking devices” when you could just teach them how to press POTATO on a microwave? And finally, how long will it be until we see a chimp version of Chopped?

[New York Times]