Biology Magazine

Can Chimpanzees Cook?

Posted on the 28 June 2015 by Reprieve @EvoAnth
Can chimpanzees cook?

Cooking food was a big leap in our evolution. It helps break down the food before we eat it, making it a lot easier for us to extract nutrients from it. In turn, this helps us get all the energy we need to fuel our big brains. But whilst this was a big evolutionary leap was it a big intellectual leap? How smart did our ancestors have to be before they could figure out fire and cooking?

Or could our earlier ancestors with chimp-sized brains have figured out the secrets of fire?

To study this question scientists looked at another species with chimp-sized brains: chimps. Could chimpanzees cook? It may surprise you to learn that the answer is yes! However, this is only if they're given a set of matches and taught how to use them by humans. So surely the fact that these chimpanzees cook is just a case of monkey see, monkey do. They don't really understand what's going on or else they'd be cooking food in the wild. And they aren't so they don't.

However, this research reviewed these cases of cooking chimps and found they actually do have a pretty deep understanding of what's going on. They understand that cooking transforms the food, they're willing to give up food to have it transformed, they prefer the cooked food to uncooked food and will even set aside raw food so they can cook it later. They can even generalise from their knowledge and figure out how to cook new foods they've never cooked before.

In other words, chimpanzees cook and they understand this process really well. In fact, the only thing that really seems to be holding them back is their ability to start the fire in the first place. Is this because they're a bit dim, or do they simply lack the dexterity needed? Sadly this research doesn't reveal the answer.

However, the fact that these chimpanzees cook does have some interesting implications for our ancestors. It means that the mental groundwork needed for cooking was likely present all along. All we needed was the literal spark to get fire started and cooking would have likely soon followed, along with all the benefits that entails.


Warneken, F., & Rosati, A. G. (2015). Cognitive capacities for cooking in chimpanzees. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences, 282(1809), 20150229.

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