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'Top Chef Ape Edition'? Chimps may have mental capacity to cook

Chimpanzees may not only be able to learn how to cook, but prefer a cooked meal over a raw one, a new study says. They'd look funny in those poofy chef hats, however.

"Monkey Meals with Bonzo" could give reality TV a ratings boost.Matthew Hoelscher/Wikimedia

Cooking seems like one of those things that sets us apart from our evolutionary cousins. However, chimpanzees may prefer a home-cooked meal to one that came straight off the tree, according to a new study, and may even be able to learn to cook for themselves. Could a chimp cooking show on the Food Network be in our future?

The results of the study published Wednesday in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B journal suggest chimpanzees have the same mental capability to cook their food as humans do. The study also showed that the animals actually prefer to eat food that's been cooked and were willing to accomplish certain tasks in order to cook their grub.

Researchers from Harvard and Yale examined the behavior of wild chimpanzees living at the Jane Goodall Institute's Tchimpounga Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Center located in the Republic of Congo.

They gave the chimps an elementary cooking device that would allow them to cook and slice a raw sweet potato and another device that wouldn't cook or slice the potato at all. According to the study, a vast majority of the chimpanzees chose to use the Ron Popeil-esque device that I've dubbed as "The Sweet Potatonator" to cook their potatoes.

Additional tests conducted for the study showed that chimpanzees could grasp other basic concepts of cooking. The animals also preferred to cook other foods like carrots and were able to show that they knew that only edible items could be cooked. They were also willing to wait to give food the time it needed to cook and even transported and saved raw foods so they could cook them later, according to the study.

Alexandra Rosati, a co-author of the study who worked as a postdoctoral fellow in Yale University's Department of Psychology and will become an assistant professor at Harvard's Department of Human Evolutionary Biology, said she believes these behaviors show that cooking may have been one of the reasons that humans' early ancestors learned how to control fire.

"We can't date the control of fire with cognition studies, but we can start to date these other skills that come into play for cooking," Rosati said in an article that appeared in the Harvard Gazette. "This type of comparative psychological evidence can tell us a great deal about our evolutionary past. I think it supports the idea that cooking emerged early in human evolution, because it suggests all the cognitive pieces were there. All we needed was control of fire."

Kanzi the bonobo masters the kitchen
The findings appear to back up similar claims about our human ancestors from researchers such as Harvard Biological Anthropology Professor Richard Wrangham, author of the book "Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human," that cooking happened in the early stages of human evolution and helped early humans advance towards a new age of evolution and cognition.

The latest study may sound like something that turns the "Planet of the Apes" movies into documentaries instead of fictional, cautionary tales about mankind's destructive tendencies. However, other chimpanzees have shown that they can learn to prepare food. Meet Kanzi, a bonobo, or pygmy chimpanzee, from the Iowa Primate Learning Sanctuary in Des Moines, Iowa, who has not only learned how to start and control fires with matches and lighters but can also cook his own meals using grills, pans and even sticks to roast marshmallows for a tasty snack or dessert, according to a BBC documentary.

Unfortunately, we couldn't find any studies that explored whether humans' development of foods such as the Hot Pocket, the Steak-umm or the Monster Thickburger caused an evolutionary step backward for mankind.

(Via BBC)