Sunday, June 7, 2015

CHIMPANZEE CHEFS! (This isn’t a joke, it’s actually quite scientific)


            I was just skimming over the headlines for Top Science News, and read, “Chimps: Smart Enough to Cook their Own Food?” I immediately knew this would be the subject of my third blog post.
            We share an astonishing amount of our genome with chimpanzees, and research is still uncovering genetic overlap. A recent study proposed that our cognitive capacity for cooking is shared by chimps. This includes an inclination towards cooked food, the ability to distinguish between cooked and raw food, and the discipline to save and transport food for cooking purposes. These therefore appeared early in evolution. Earlier studies on this focused more on the role of fire in cooking and the evolution of the human ability to cook, but these researchers took a different angle.
            The authors focused on aspects of cooking we don’t think about, because they are so inherently human. The first series of experiments replicated previous experiments, showing that chimpanzees were willing to wait extra time to receive cooked food instead of raw food. In the second experiment, chimps were given two devices, a cooking device and a device that left a sweet potato unchanged. The use of both devices was demonstrated, and the chimps quickly understood the transformation at work and chose food from the cooked device. The last procedure tested the chimps’ discipline. They were given pieces of raw sweet potato and a cooking device, and consistently cooked the sweet potato, instead of eating it right away. This contradicted a lot of well-respected research regarding animal difficulty with self-control regarding food consumption. Chimps did the same with other foods, and distinguished edible from non-edible. They consistently were willing to transport food for cooking opportunities. Food was given at one side of the enclosure, while the cooking device was at the opposite side. The chimps consistently transported the food and cooked it, instead of eating it immediately.
            This raises fascinating questions. Why do chimpanzees not cook in the wild? Although the control of fire is a critical cooking element they don’t have, other factors are involved. How does their diet play a role? How does social context affect the expression of these cognitive abilities in chimpanzees? Was it the first adoption of fire that sparked the development of cooking in ancestral humans? Clearly, much more research is necessary to flush out the details of this chimpanzee chef story.


The link to the study the ScienceDaily article corresponds to:
http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/282/1809/20150229

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