While they may not exactly be gourmet experts, chimpanzees have enough cognitive skills to allow them to cook, according to a new study.

Researchers from Harvard University and Yale University discovered that chimpanzees are capable of understanding the concept behind cooking food. The animals have shown that they can postpone their need to eat raw food immediately and instead have it cooked in a similar manner as humans do.

These findings suggest that the trait could potentially be inherent in the common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees.

In a series of nine experiments conducted at the Tchimpounga Sanctuary in the Republic of Congo, the Harvard and Yale researchers studied how a group of chimpanzees would act in different scenarios.

Harvard psychologist Felix Warneken explained that the first experiment had the chimpanzees choose between raw or cooked sweet potatoes. Many of the animals chose the cooked sweet potatoes over the raw ones.

The second experiment determined whether or not the chimpanzees were capable of waiting for their food to be cooked, while the third and fourth experiments showed the animals choosing to cook their own food. They did this through the help of simple cooking devices that they learned how to operate.

The fifth experiment confirmed the chimpanzee's aptitude for rudimentary cooking.

The sixth experiment showed that the animals could apply their simple cooking skills to other foods such carrots, and the seventh experiment had the chimps select between edible and inedible items and cook them. They cooked the slices of raw potatoes instead of the chips of wood they were given.

The final experiment involved the chimpanzees transporting their food a considerable distance in order to cook it. It also showed how the animals chose to save their food for future cooking.

Regarding the simple cooking materials that were given to the chimpanzees, Yale University psychologist Alexandra Rosati said that the devices they used in the experiment were chosen with the safety of the animals in mind.

"There are some ethical issues with providing the chimpanzees access to actual fire—given the danger," Rosati said.

Humans are the only primates known to have the ability to properly control fire for different uses. The early humans, known as Homo erectus, are believed to have cooked their own food around 2 million years before modern man evolved.

Rosati said that Homo neanderthalensis could have also cooked their food during their time based on evidence of cooked items discovered in the fossilized teeth of Neanderthals.

The recent study points to the ability of primates to grasp the concepts of planning, cause-and-effect and delayed gratification. These are the three most well-known mental facilities needed to be able to cook.

The researchers believe their findings can help explain how and when man first learned how to cook.

"Understanding when and how this dietary shift occurred is a pressing problem in biology," the researchers wrote in the study.

"If the cognitive abilities necessary to engage in cooking are also present in chimpanzees, it would support models in which control of fire rapidly led to cooking."

The Harvard University and Yale University study is published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Photo: Steve Snodgrass | Flickr 

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