What we can learn about self-control from our 500,000-year-old ancestors

What would you say truly separates man from animals? Intellect and creativity are two human characteristics that immediately come to mind, and would undoubtedly be most people’s response to that question. Both intellect and creativity would prove wholly useless, though, if it were not for our ability to exercise discipline and self-control. What’s the point of great knowledge or an innovative idea if one lacks the control necessary to utilize those gifts?

Self-control is an ultra-important, yet often disregarded human trait. Now, a fascinating new study has traced back the beginnings of self-control in early man. According to researchers from The University of York, humans evolved the ability to exercise self-control and discipline around 500,000 years ago.

How in the world were researchers able to create such a timeline? By studying tools and weapons from that period. While some of our earlier, more primitive hominin ancestors were creating very basic hand axes as far back as 1.8 million years ago, a newly discovered collection of 500,000-year-old flint axes shows a clear progression towards more meticulous and thought out craftsmanship. The fine details on these tools would not be possible without a certain level of self-control.

The hand axes were discovered in a gravel quarry within the village of Boxgrove in West Sussex, South England. Researchers say the axes are very symmetrical, suggesting that the tools’ creators understood the merits of slow and carefully-planned construction.

“More sophisticated tools like the Boxgrove handaxes start to appear around the same time as our hominin ancestors were developing much bigger brains,” explains senior study author, Dr. Penny Spikins, from the Department of Archaeology, in a university release. “The axes demonstrate characteristics that can be related to self-control such as the investment of time and energy in something that does not produce an immediate reward, forward planning, and a level of frustration tolerance for completing a painstaking task.”

Self-control is especially relevant right now, as we all wrestle with the challenges of social distancing and lockdowns. No one is thrilled about these measures, but we understand that they’re for the best. So, we exercise self-control and inconvenience ourselves to save lives.

“In the present day, our capacity for self-control has become particularly important. Without the advanced levels of self-control we possess as a species, lockdown would be impossible. It takes self-control to put the needs of the community first rather than focus on our own immediate ends. Our study offers some clues as to where in human history this ability originated,” Dr. Spikins comments.

The research team also believes that the axes wouldn’t have been possible without lifelong learning and repeated practice. So, as far as they can tell, each ax was the product of a lifetime’s worth of dedication to learning and honing one’s craft. What’s more distinctly human than that?

“By deciphering the mental and physical processes involved in the production of prehistoric artifacts, we can gain valuable insights into the abilities of the individuals who made them,” says James Green, lead study author and a Ph.D. student in the Department of Archaeology at the University of York.

To put in perspective just how hard to construct these axes are, a group of participants was asked to try and recreate the tools found at Boxgrove, and it took each person 16 hours of practice just to construct a somewhat-recognizable handaxe.

“These axes demonstrate social learning and effortful activity directed at honing skills. They also provide some of the earliest evidence of something being deliberately made in a sequence from a picture in someone’s mind,” Green concludes.

One can’t help but wonder how our 500,000-year-old ancestors would react to current-day social distancing. If these axes are anything to go on, modern man’s predecessors would have no problem exercising some self-restraint.

The full study can be found here, published in The Journal of Archaeology, Consciousness, and Culture.

John Anderer is a frequent contributor to Ladders News.