A chimpanzee peeling a fruit. Photos: University of Portsmouth/PA WireA chimpanzee peeling a fruit. Photos: University of Portsmouth/PA Wire

Chimpanzees may learn to prepare food by watching their companions in the same way that humans develop their cooking skills from their family members, according to new research.

University of Portsmouth psychologists, Bruce Rawlings and Marina Davila-Ross, say their study shows that our closest living relative may be capable of rudimentary human-like traditions within food preparation and they claim it gives an insight into how humans have developed culture.

Their research, published in the journal Animal Cognition, looked at whether chimpanzees socially acquire their natural food preparation skills, known as “extractive foraging” (such as opening hard-shelled fruit) from within their communities. Extractive foraging is an essential skill for both chimpanzees and ancient humans, requiring a combination of intelligence and dexterity.

Planning in advance indicates intelligence

Rawlings said: “Culture is a hallmark of the human species; we far exceed all other animals in the way we learn skills from within our social communities, particularly within the context of food and cuisine. There is still a huge debate about whether humans are the only species capable of cultural traditions, and indeed how and when this capacity evolved.

“But the clear differences in the natural way the three chimpanzee groups opened the fruits is most likely the result of social learning, which helps form certain behaviour in chimpanzees in a similar way to early human cultures.

“As humans we might learn the best way to crack a nut or how to stone a peach from watching someone else and it appears chimpanzees learn how to handle food in similar ways.”

The study also reported that the chimpanzees occasionally cracked open the hard-shelled fruits and then put the fruits aside to open a few other fruits in a similar way. This indicates that fruits are prepared in advance to eat them one after another at a later stage.

Planning in advance indicates a form of intelligence, and these findings link with evidence from the wild where chimpanzees prepare their tools for ant fishing well before using them.

The scientists studied distinct social groups of chimpanzees at the Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage in Zambia, Africa. The groups were living in close proximity and in the same kind of environment but the three groups differed in the way they opened the same hard-shelled fruit.

The chimpanzee groups also differed in the number of techniques they combined to open the fruits, with one group averaging almost double the number of techniques for each fruit than the other groups.