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Why didn’t chimpanzees learn to cook?

A study has shown that chimps prefer the taste of cooked food begging the question why they never learnt to do it for themselves.

Researchers believe the answer lies in their inability to control fire as well as not being able to trust others within their group not to steal their food while it is being prepared.

The experiment earlier this year, is reported by Oxford University students’ magazine Bang! Science.

Scientists from Harvard University, led by Dr Felix Warneken, say that chimps have most of the mental capacities required to cook food. Their experiment showed chimps preferred cooked food, were willing to wait for raw food to be cooked, and also put raw food in a box for it to be replaced with cooked food.

But while chimpanzees never learnt to cook themselves, Warneken says the findings suggest that the mental skills required for cooking were in place up to seven million years ago – much earlier than previously believed.

“Humans must have adopted cooking fairly early in their evolution,” he said.

With the cognitive ability in place to cook, all our ancestors would have needed to develop was the ability to control fire and the capacity to trust others.

Others, such as Professor Chris Stringer, of the Natural History Museum in London, are not so sure.

“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”.

Bang! quotes an even more blunt palaeontologist Professor Fred Spoor. “Who cares that early humans may have liked the idea of cooked food?” he asks. “Perhaps they would have liked eating naturally roasted carcasses of animals occasionally trapped in savannah fires, but that is not cooking.”

Bill Condie

Bill Condie

Bill Condie is a science journalist based in Adelaide, Australia.

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