Human self-control evolved in our early ancestors, becoming particularly evident around 500,000 years ago when they developed the skills to make sophisticated tools, a new study suggests.

While early hominins such as Homo erectus could craft basic handaxes as early as 1.8 million years ago, our hominin ancestors began to create more elaborate and carefully designed versions of these tools sometime before 500,000 years ago.

The authors of the study1, from the University of York, say these advances in craftsmanship suggest individuals at this time possessed characteristics which demonstrate significant self-control, such as concentration and frustration tolerance.

Senior author of the study, Dr Penny Spikins, from the Department of Archaeology said: "More sophisticated tools like the Boxgrove handaxes start to appear around the same time as our hominin ancestors were developing much bigger brains.23

The researchers also point to evidence that the production of highly symmetrical and elaborate axes would have required knowledge and skill accumulated over a life time.

  • 1. The study highlights a collection of 500,000 year-old flint axes unearthed from a gravel quarry in the village of Boxgrove in West Sussex. The axes are highly symmetrical suggesting careful workmanship and the forgoing of immediate needs for longer term aims.
  • 2. "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.
  • 3. "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."

James Green, Penny Spikins. Not just a virtue: the evolution of self-controlTime and Mind, 2020; 1 DOI: 10.1080/1751696X.2020.1747246

We rely constantly on self-control in every aspect of our lives. Although it is not an ability unique to humans, our elevated levels of self-control may have played a key role in our evolution. Self-control is likely to have been key to many of the traits such as prosociality, that define modern humans. Despite this, attempts to study the evolution of self control through characteristics of the archaeological record have been few. Studies of related concepts such as inhibitory control have often been vague and do not reflect the whole scope of self-control. Defining self-control as arising from a combination of cognitive abilities including inhibition and the conscious regulation of emotions, this paper sets out a novel approach. We identify links between material culture, behaviours and the cognitive–emotional processes underlying them and produce testable predictions of what increases in these abilities might look like in the archaeological record. Using an example, we consider how late Acheulean handaxes (bifaces) demonstrate five characteristics that can be related to forms of self-control: deliberate practice, forward planning, time and energy investment, hierarchical processing, and distress tolerance. This provides some initial insights and lays the groundwork for future research in this area.

KEYWORDS: Self-controlinhibitionhuman evolutionself-domesticationcognitive evolutionAcheuleanbifaceshandaxes