Chimps Have the Mental Capacity to Cook Their Food

By Carl Engelking | June 3, 2015 3:09 pm


If you give a chimpanzee a potato, it’s going to want to cook it, so long as it’s given the right tools.

Chimps, according to a new study, possess the cognitive foundation required to cook raw foods. In a battery of tests, chimps not only demonstrated that they preferred cooked food, but that they were also willing to delay eating raw foods in order to enjoy a cooked meal later. It’s a level of planning, self-control and understanding that was thought to be uniquely human.

Baked Potatoes

Let’s make this clear from the start: There’s a big difference between having the psychological tools necessary to cook and whipping up a three-course meal. But the psychological tools are important: Animals tend to be greedy opportunists; most will gobble up their food instantly, and very few species would give up food already in their possession to be placed in a cooking device. Cooking requires an ability to forgo instant gratification, something humans do all the time — though it can be difficult.

In a series of nine experiments meant to emulate the process of cooking using potatoes and faux ovens, chimps proved that they have what it takes to be the foodies of the animal kingdom. First and foremost, chimps revealed a clear preference for cooked food. In a trial with 29 chimps from the Tchimpounga Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Republic of Congo, 88 percent chose a cooked potato over a raw potato. The results were similar even if they had to wait for their cooked potato. Good start.

In the following tests, chimps demonstrated other cooking-related cognitive abilities. Scientists used bowls to simulate two cooking device to test whether chimps would use them to “cook” their food. When chimps placed a raw slice of potato into the “cooking” device, researchers would shake the bowl and then pull out a cooked slice. They could also use a “control” bowl that was shaken, but the potato remained raw. In 87.5 percent of the trials, chimps used the “cooking” bowl.

When scientists moved the cooking device to the opposite end of the cage, chimps made the effort to transport their slices to the “cooker.” Even if scientists left the test area with the “cooker” in tow, chimps would save their raw slices and wait for the “cooker” to return. Researchers published their findings in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Kiss the Cooks

Overall, the study shows us that chimps have the mental tools to cook their food, but for various reasons they didn’t evolve cooking behaviors. That may be because the chimp diet isn’t really improved by cooking foods on their regular menu, which primarily consists of fruits, seeds and nuts. Researchers also note that wild chimps may not be willing to engage in the social dynamics of cooking, in which resources and cooking devices are shared communally.

However, studying our closest primate cousins’ inclinations toward cooked food can help researchers better understand why early humans adopted the practice long ago. The results suggest that the adoption of fire may have led rapidly to cooking, supporting claims that the culinary arts originated early in our history.


Photo credit: Nataliia Melnychuk/Shutterstock

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Mind & Brain, top posts
  • dusheck

    Why not just give them a microwave oven and skip all the subterfuge?

    • jimbow

      not as fun

  • Rick Bowman

    Is that Caesar? OMG!, it starts…..

    • jimbow

      he does look like him, we do need them as pets then slaves

  • Emmia Silk

    I may be missing something, but what I think is happening is a process of trade, not a process of production. The chimpanzee is trading an uncooked potato slice for a cooked potato slice. I believe I’ve read about chimpanzees showing a willingness to trade either with each other or with humans.
    However, I can’t be sure, because I don’t know what the simulated cooking machine looked like.

    • Dominic Stone

      The study included an experiment (“experiment 7”) in which the chimp was given an edible and non-edible item (“visually similar”) along with the presented cooking device. The chimpanzees tended to place the edible item in the device significantly more often than the non-edible item, suggesting that they understood, on some level, that the apparatus transformed raw into cooked food and did not simply trade raw-for-cooked. If the process was based only on trading, you would expect that each item would be placed into the device equally.

      • Barry Gloger

        Cooking involves understanding that a process using dangerous fire is used to convert a food item into something tastier, more digestible, etc. All this experiment does is document that a chimp is willing to forego instant gratification by trading a food item for a better food item and that it understands certain things have trade value and others don’t.

  • Luke101

    “Cooking requires an ability to forgo instant gratification, something humans do all the time”

    –Really? I hadn’t noticed ….

    • MildredCLewis



  • Michael Toglia

    Wouldn’t that show a propensity for dehydrating various fruits and vegetables in the sun? I think it’s more about trading too

  • Alan

    Given that chimps are covered in highly flammable
    fur, and they sink like rocks in water–can’t swim, not surprised they
    didn’t get cozy enough with fire to learn how to cook.

  • Karen Beer

    I wish I’d inherited the “chimps-like-to-cook gene.” Unfortunately, the only kitchen-friendly gene I have is the “me-want-to-eat” gene. It works fairly well for getting leftovers into the microwave, but hasn’t evolved much past that point.

  • Overburdened_Planet

    “…88 percent chose a cooked potato over a raw potato. The results were similar even if they had to wait for their cooked potato.”

    More interesting is why 12% of those chimps continued to choose raw over cooked potatoes.

    “That may be because the chimp diet isn’t really improved by cooking foods on their regular menu, which primarily consists of fruits, seeds and nuts.”

    Then why not instead experiment with fruits, seeds and nuts that had been heated or roasted, as fire would provide?

    Doesn’t heating fruits increase their sweetness?

    And I don’t know about anyone else, but I prefer dry roasted seeds and nuts.

    And I imagine fire is something chimps would run away from, so what have we really learned?

  • ericlipps

    Well, one pretty basic problem is that wild chimps don’t have fire.

  • Kathleen Sisco

    A Harvard professor wrote a book Cooking with Fire that says we only became truly human when we ate cooked food. Our system needs the cooked food to adequately process and extract the nutrients. Made a lot of sense. So we opted for fire to keep warm and then went for the cooked proteins?

  • Dana Shoham

    check this study out



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