Science & Environment

Cooking skills may have emerged millions of years ago

Chimp eating a leaf Image copyright SPL
Image caption Cooking is an uniquely human skill, but how close are chimps to rustling up a snack?

New research suggests that chimps have most of the mental capabilities needed to cook food.

This suggests that the ability to cook food is deep seated and may have arisen in human ancestors millions of years ago.

The conclusions also indicate that humans may have developed the ability to cook very soon after they learned how to control fire.

The study has been published in one of the journals of the Royal Society.

Surprising as it may seem, even boiling an egg requires advanced mental skills. Whereas other animals tend to start eating whatever food they find or hunt straight away, humans can store and cook their food, even if we are fairly hungry, because we know that if we wait what we eventually eat will taste better.

It seems that our ability to smack our lips at the prospect of a delicious, well prepared meal requires a similar inspired leap of the imagination as producing art, developing language and creating the technologies that make us uniquely human.

So when your mind wanders and thinks of a nice meal when you should really be paying attention to something else, be assured that it is this foodie forethought that makes us human.

Masterchef

So when did we first develop this ability? To find out, according to Dr Felix Warneken of Harvard University conducted a simian MasterChef contest in which he conducted a series of experiments on chimpanzees to see whether they had what it took to be cooks.

Clearly chimps can't cook and so there was no point in giving them a bag of shopping and letting them loose in a kitchen with assorted pots and pans, amusing though the spectacle might have been.

Instead, Dr Warneken carried out a series of experiments to test the individual cognitive skills the chimps needed to be able to cook. He looked to see if they preferred cooked rather than raw food, whether they could wait until raw food could be cooked and if they would put raw food into a box that scientists switched for cooked food. He found that they passed all these tests and more.

So why don't chimps cook? Not being able to control fire is one reason and another, according to Dr Warneken, is that cooking requires what he describes as "social skills" that chimps don't possess.

By social skills he is not alluding to their unremarkable table manners nor their lack of witty dinner party conversation. Rather, it is their inability to trust others in their social groups not to steal their food while they are preparing to cook it that he is referring and it is this he believes is one of the key factors holding them back from being able to cook. Gulping something down as soon as you have foraged it is the surest way of keeping it safe.

Image copyright MAURICIO ANTON/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY
Image caption The controlled use of fire led to the emergence of cooking

According to Dr Warneken, his experiments show that that most of the mental skills needed to cook were there in human ancestors between 5 to 7 million years ago and so all it took for the first emergence of the culinary arts was the controlled use of fire and the ability to trust other people not to pinch our food while our back was turned.

"Trust is another component for cooking to become a practice in a social group," he said.

"This is required in addition to the individual psychological capacities that we targeted in our experiments."

The motivation for the study was to investigate a controversial theory that cooking was necessary for human brains to become larger. The idea by the primatologist Prof Richard Wrangham, also at Harvard, is that cooking enabled our ancestors to eat more protein, which helped our ancestors develop their brains.

The results indicate that early humans had everything in place once they had learned to control fire and so, according to Dr Warneken, supports Prof Wrangham's ideas.

"For this hypothesis to work humans must have adopted cooking fairly early in their evolution," he said.

Experts in human evolution say that they find it "interesting" that chimpanzees and humans share several of the essential psychological capacities needed, but believe that the chimp study does not add much new information to the human story.

Digestible

Prof Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum in London said: "Cooking was an important milestone for humans in terms of making meat more digestible and neutralising pathogens and toxins, also for its social role, but best evidence for the ability to make fire at will only shows in the last 400,000 years".

Fred Spoor, a professor at University College in London who studies human evolution, said: "Cooking did not happen until 300,000 to 400,000 years ago. That is late in 7 million years of human evolution, so 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."

And as for the idea of cooking driving the transition to bigger brains?

"Substantially larger brains initially emerge around 1.5 million years ago and a major leap was around 500,000 years ago," said Prof Spoor.

"Hence, meat eating probably made this possible but whether roasting played a role at 1.5 million years ago is an open question, because there is poor or no evidence (for it at this time). Cooking at 500,000 years ago is more likely."

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