Chimps, The Animal That (Also) Cooks
For a while there, we humans thought we had a lock on so many higher functions. We bragged about being the only animal to use tools or communicate through language.
Over and over, though, we've been disabused of our notions of exceptionalism. Check out these primates using tools to harvest oysters.
Ultimately, it seems like the only uniquely human behavior we have left is that we are the animal that cooks.
And while this may technically still be true--in the sense that humans are the creature that lights the fire and tends the flames and stirs the grub--the chimpanzees are onto us.
Researchers have known for a while that given the choice chimps prefer cooked food to raw. But a new study seems to indicate that chimps have enough going on upstairs to comprehend the concept of cooking.
Which is to say, chimps will purposefully place food into an oven to cook it. OK, yes, the "oven" is actually a bowl with a false bottom through which researchers replaced the raw with cooked food. But if the chimps are not technically cooking, the result is the same. The chimps know the magic bowl will alter food in a way they'll prefer. (In much the same way, I don't understand how my microwave works; I just know when I put food in it and press a button, it gets hot, and I like it that way.)
What's more, the chimps are willing to delay gratification to realize a more delectable form of the food. In the study, chimps given cooked food would eat it right away. But chimps given raw food would hold onto it, seeking to cook it in the magic oven. This demonstrates a level of self-restraint I often fail to achieve at lunch: containers of cold pasta or leftover takeout don't always make it to the microwave before nom-nom-nom!
The earliest evidence of humans controlling fire is about 1 million years ago, give or take. But the actual practice of using fire for cooking could go back even further. Quite a bit further. Research like this seems to suggest our early ancestors had the capacity to understand the concept of cooking and to quickly grok its value and usefulness, while also possessing the self-restraint to put off immediate gratification.
If the first cookout was an accident (lightning strike, tasty roasted insects), it could have been quickly followed by more purposeful BBQs.
For their part, our clever primate cousins have also been known to wash their food before eating.
And they're also known to seek out a cocktail, using folded leaves as cups to drink fermented sap from palm trees.
Sounds like they're ready for summer BBQ season. And maybe a prime(ate)-time show on the Food Network.