Chimps Grasp Cooking, But Fire Still Too Tricky — Does This Prove Something Amazing About Us?

If only chimps could start a fire — or be trusted with an oven — they’d really be into cooking.

That’s what primate researchers have concluded after spending two years testing chimps’ ability to understand the process. They found that they have the cognitive ability to grasp the concept, but lack the other key skills needed to actually boil an egg.

Cooking is actually a pretty complicated idea since “it’s tied up in how animals make decisions about time and value,” said Harvard Evolutionary Biologist Alexandra Rosati.

In nine different experiments, researchers learned some very important things about chimps: They prefer cooked food, they understand that cooking makes food taste better, and they have the patience to wait for the process to take place, National Geographic reported.

Scientists figured all this out by simulating an oven with a “magic cooking device,” just two close-fitting bowls with a hidden chamber at the bottom that held a pre-cooked snack. It was “cooked” when scientists shook the bowls, the New York Times added.

One of the chimps, Maya, took a while to understand what cooking was and what it did to food, psychologist and fellow study author Felix Warneken said. But finally, he caught on — putting a raw treat into the magic oven himself. Felix shook it for him.

“Maya got really excited. He started vocalizing and practically jumping up and down. You could practically see the light bulb turn on in his head with the insight that his food was now being ‘cooked.’ “

But it isn’t only fire that keeps chimps from cooking themselves, even though they are mentally able to do so. They’re also really untrustworthy, unwilling to part with their precious meal long enough, in fear that someone else will take it, BBC added.

The point of this experiment with the chimps isn’t so that we can strap aprons on them and stick them in a kitchen. It’s actually to answer a question fundamental to human evolution, though not all scientists are convinced of the controversial theory behind it.

That theory belongs to primatologist Richard Wrangham, who thinks humans became as smart as we are because we started eating cooked food about two million years ago, giving rise to Homo erectus. In this recent test, chimps were our stand-in, and they proved that our ancestors had the same cognitive foundation. He thinks our ability to understand cooking appeared up to 7 million years ago.

All humans needed was a spark, quite literally — the ability to make fire. But there’s one fact pokes holes in the theory: the use of fire only came about at the much earlier 400,000-year mark, a London professor, Fred Spoor, told BBC.

“To put it bluntly, who cares that early humans may have liked the idea of cooked food? Perhaps they would have liked eating naturally roasted carcasses of animals occasionally trapped in savannah fires, but that is not cooking.”

Still, Maya and her fellow chimps are still one step closer to being cooks. We just have to teach them how to wear gloves and hair nets.

[Photo Courtesy Cameron Spencer / Getty Images]