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Stonehenge, England, erected by Neolithic peoples ca. 4500-4000 years ago. Archaeology is often an important field when it comes to understanding prehistory.
Human history and prehistory
before Homo (Pliocene)
Three-age system prehistory
>> Lower Paleolithic: Homo, Homo erectus,
>> Middle Paleolithic: early Homo sapiens
>> Upper Paleolithic: behavioral modernity
>> Neolithic: civilization
>> Near East | IndiaEuropeChinaKorea
>> Bronze Age collapseAncient Near EastIndiaEuropeChinaJapanKoreaNigeria
see also: Modernity, Futurology

Prehistory (Latin, præ = before; Greek, ιστορία = history) is a term used to describe the period before recorded history. Paul Tournal originally coined the term Pré-historique in describing the finds he had made in the caves of southern France.[citation needed] It came into use in France in the 1830s to describe the time before writing, and the word "prehistoric" was introduced into English by Daniel Wilson in 1851.[1][2]

The term "prehistory" can be used to refer to all time since the beginning of the universe, although it is more often used in referring to the period of time since life appeared on Earth, or even more specifically to the time since human-like beings appeared.[3] In dividing up human prehistory, prehistorians typically use the Three age system, whereas scholars of pre-human time periods typically use the well defined Rock record and its internationally defined stratum base within the geologic time scale. The three-age system is the periodization of human prehistory into three consecutive time periods, named for their respective predominant tool-making technologies; the Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age.

The occurrence of written materials (and so the beginning of local "historic times") varies generally to cultures classified within either the late Bronze Age or within the Iron Age. Historians increasingly do not restrict themselves to evidence from written records and are coming to rely more upon evidence from the natural and social sciences, thereby blurring the distinction between the terms "history" and "prehistory."[citation needed] This view has recently been articulated by advocates of deep history.



Because, by definition, there are no written records from human prehistory, dating of prehistoric materials is particularly crucial to the enterprise. Clear techniques for dating were not well-developed until the 19th century.[4] The primary researchers into Human prehistory are prehistoric archaeologists and physical anthropologists who use excavation, geologic and geographic surveys, and other scientific analysis to reveal and interpret the nature and behavior of pre-literate and non-literate peoples.[5] Human population geneticists and historical linguists are also providing valuable insight for these questions.[6] Cultural anthropologists help to provide context of marriage and trade, by which objects of human origin are passed among people, thereby allowing for a rich analysis of any article that arises in a human prehistoric context.[7] Therefore, data about prehistory is provided by a wide variety of natural and social sciences, such as paleontology, biology, archaeology, palynology, geology, archaeoastronomy, comparative linguistics, anthropology, molecular genetics and many others.

Human prehistory differs from history not only in terms of its chronology but in the way it deals with the activities of archaeological cultures rather than named nations or individuals. Restricted to material processes, remains and artifacts rather than written records, prehistory is anonymous. Because of this, the reference terms used by prehistorians such as Neanderthal or Iron Age are modern labels, the precise definition of which is often subject to discussion and argument.

The date marking the end of prehistory, that is the date when written historical records become a useful academic resource, varies from region to region. For example, in Egypt it is generally accepted that prehistory ended around 3200 BC, whereas in New Guinea the end of the prehistoric era is set much more recently, at around 1900 AD.

Stone Age


Map of early human migrations, according to mitochondrial population genetics. Numbers are millennia before the present (accuracy disputed).

"Paleolithic" means "Old Stone Age," and begins with the first use of stone tools. The Paleolithic is the earliest period of the Stone Age.

The early part of the Paleolithic is called the Lower Paleolithic, which predates Homo sapiens, beginning with Homo habilis (and related species) and with the earliest stone tools, dated to around 2.5 million years ago.[citation needed] Homo sapiens originated some 200,000 years ago, ushering in the Middle Paleolithic. Anatomic changes indicating modern language capacity also arise during the Middle Paleolithic.[citation needed] The systematic burial of the dead, the music, early art, and the use of increasingly sophisticated multi-part tools are highlights of the Middle Paleolithic.

Throughout the Paleolithic, humans generally lived as nomadic hunter-gatherers. Hunter-gatherer societies tended to be very small and egalitarian, though hunter-gatherer societies with abundant resources or advanced food-storage techniques sometimes developed sedentary lifestyles with complex social structures such as chiefdoms, and social stratification. Long-distance contacts may have been established, as in the case of Indigenous Australian "highways."


The "Mesolithic," or "Middle Stone Age" (from the Greek "mesos," "middle," and "lithos," "stone") was a period in the development of human technology between the Paleolithic and Neolithic periods of the Stone Age.

The Mesolithic period began at the end of the Pleistocene epoch, some 10,000 BP, and ended with the introduction of agriculture, the date of which varied by geographic region. In some areas, such as the Near East, agriculture was already underway by the end of the Pleistocene, and there the Mesolithic is short and poorly defined. In areas with limited glacial impact, the term "Epipaleolithic" is sometimes preferred.

Regions that experienced greater environmental effects as the last ice age ended have a much more evident Mesolithic era, lasting millennia. In Northern Europe, societies were able to live well on rich food supplies from the marshlands fostered by the warmer climate. Such conditions produced distinctive human behaviours which are preserved in the material record, such as the Maglemosian and Azilian cultures. These conditions also delayed the coming of the Neolithic until as late as 4000 BC (6,000 BP) in northern Europe.

Remains from this period are few and far between, often limited to middens. In forested areas, the first signs of deforestation have been found, although this would only begin in earnest during the Neolithic, when more space was needed for agriculture.

The Mesolithic is characterized in most areas by small composite flint tools — microliths and microburins. Fishing tackle, stone adzes and wooden objects, e.g. canoes and bows, have been found at some sites. These technologies first occur in Africa, associated with the Azilian cultures, before spreading to Europe through the Ibero-Maurusian culture of Northern Africa and the Kebaran culture of the Levant. Independent discovery is not always ruled out.


Entrance to the Ġgantija phase temple complex of Hagar Qim, Malta[8]

"Neolithic" means "New Stone Age." This was a period of primitive technological and social development, toward the end of the "Stone Age." Beginning in the 10th millennium BCE (12,000 BP), the Neolithic period saw the development of early villages, agriculture, animal domestication, tools and the onset of the earliest recorded incidents of warfare.[9] The Neolithic term is commonly used in the Old World, as its application to cultures in the Americas and Oceania that did not fully develop metal-working technology raises problems.


A major change, described by prehistorian Vere Gordon Childe as the "Agricultural Revolution," occurred about the 10th millennium BC with the adoption of agriculture. The Sumerians first began farming ca. 9500 BC. By 7000 BC, agriculture had been developed in India and Peru separately; by 6000 BC, to Egypt; by 5000 BC, to China. About 2700 BC, agriculture had come to Mesoamerica.

Although attention has tended to concentrate on the Middle East's Fertile Crescent, archaeology in the Americas, East Asia and Southeast Asia indicates that agricultural systems, using different crops and animals, may in some cases have developed there nearly as early. The development of organised irrigation, and the use of a specialised workforce, by the Sumerians, began about 5500 BC. Stone was supplanted by bronze and iron in implements of agriculture and warfare. Agricultural settlements had until then been almost completely dependent on stone tools. In Eurasia, copper and bronze tools, decorations and weapons began to be commonplace about 3000 BC. After bronze, the Eastern Mediterranean region, Middle East and China saw the introduction of iron tools and weapons.

The technological and social state of the world, circa 1000 BC.

The Americas may not have had metal tools until the Chavín horizon (900 BC). The Moche did have metal armor, knives and tableware. Even the metal-poor Inca had metal-tipped plows, at least after the conquest of Chimor. However, little archaeological research has so far been done in Peru, and nearly all the khipus (recording devices, in the form of knots, used by the Incas) were burned in the Spanish conquest of Peru. As late as 2004, entire cities were still being unearthed.

The cradles of early civilizations were river valleys, such as the Euphrates and Tigris valleys in Mesopotamia, the Nile valley in Egypt, the Indus valley in the Indian subcontinent, and the Yangtze and Yellow River valleys in China. Some nomadic peoples, such as the Indigenous Australians and the Bushmen of southern Africa, did not practice agriculture until relatively recent times.

Before 1800 AD, most populations did not belong to states. Scientists disagree as to whether the term "tribe" should be applied to the kinds of societies that these people lived in. Some tribal societies transformed into states when they were threatened, or otherwise impinged on, by existing states.[citation needed]

Agriculture made possible complex societies — civilizations. States and markets emerged. Technologies enhanced people's ability to harness nature and to develop transport and communication.

Bronze Age

Ox-drawn plow, Egypt, ca. 1200 BC.

The term Bronze Age refers to a period in human cultural development when the most advanced metalworking (at least in systematic and widespread use) included techniques for smelting copper and tin from naturally-occurring outcroppings of copper ores, and then smelting those ores to cast bronze. These naturally-occurring ores typically included arsenic as a common impurity. Copper/tin ores are rare, as reflected in the fact that there were no tin bronzes in Western Asia before 3,000 BC. The Bronze Age forms part of the three-age system for prehistoric societies. In this system, it follows the Neolithic in some areas of the world.

The Bronze Age is the earliest period of which we have direct written accounts, since the invention of writing coincides with its early beginnings.[citation needed]

Iron Age

In archaeology, the Iron Age refers to the advent of ferrous metallurgy. The adoption of iron coincided with other changes in some past cultures, often including more sophisticated agricultural practices, religious beliefs and artistic styles, which makes the archaeological Iron Age coincide with the "Axial Age" in the history of philosophy.

Timeline of human prehistory

All dates are approximate and conjectural, obtained through research in the fields of anthropology, archaeology, genetics, geology, or linguistics. They are all subject to revision due to new discoveries or improved calculations. BP stands for "Before Present."

  • c. 32,000 BP - Aurignacian culture begins in Europe.
  • c. 30,000 BP / 28,000 BC - A herd of reindeer is slaughtered and butchered by humans in the Vezere Valley in what is today France.[14]
  • c. 28,500 BCE - New Guinea is populated by colonists from Asia or Australia.[15]
  • c. 28,000 BP - 20,000 BP - Gravettian period in Europe. Harpoons, needles, and saws invented.
  • c. 26,000 BP / c. 24,000 BC - Women around the world use fibers to make baby-carriers, clothes, bags, baskets, and nets.
  • c. 25,000 BP / 23,000 BC - A hamlet consisting of huts built of rocks and of mammoth bones is founded in what is now Dolni Vestonice in Moravia in the Czech Republic. This is the oldest human permanent settlement that has yet been found by archaeologists.[16]
  • c. 20,000 BP or 18,000 BC - Chatelperronian culture in France.[17]
  • c. 16,000 BP / 14,000 BC - Wisent sculpted in clay deep inside the cave now known as Le Tuc d'Audoubert in the French Pyrinees near what is now the border of Spain.[18]
  • c. 14,800 BP / 12,800 BC - The Humid Period begins in North Africa. The region that would later become the Sahara is wet and fertile, and the Aquifers are full.[19]
  • c. 8000 BC / 7,000 BC - In northern Mesopotamia, now northern Iraq, cultivation of barley and wheat begins. At first they are used for beer, gruel, and soup, eventually for bread.[20] In early agriculture at this time, the Planting stick is used, but it is replaced by a primitive Plow in subsequent centuries.[21] Around this time, a round stone tower, now preserved to about 8.5 meters high and 8.5 meters in diameter is built in Jericho.[22]
  • c. 3700 BC - Cuneiform writing appears and records begin to be kept.
  • c. 3000 BC - Stonehenge construction begins. In its first version, it consisted of a circular ditch and bank, with 56 wooden posts.[23]

By region

Old World
New World

See also


  1. ^ Simpson, Douglas (1963-11-30). "Sir Daniel Wilson and the Prehistoric Annals of Scotland, A Centennial Study". Proceedings of the Society, 1963-1964. Retrieved 2009-02-22. 
  2. ^ Wilson, Daniel (1851). The archaeology and prehistoric annals of Scotland. p. xiv. 
  3. ^ Fagan, Brian. 2007. World Prehistory: A brief introduction New York:Prentice-Hall, Seventh Edition, Chapter One; Renfrew, Colin. 2008. Prehistory: The Making of the Human Mind." New York: Modern Library
  4. ^ Graslund, Bo. 1987. The birth of prehistoric chronology. Cambridge:Cambridge University Press.
  5. ^ Fagan, Brian. 2007. op cit.
  6. ^ Renfrew, Colin. 2008. op cit
  7. ^ Renfrew, Colin. 2008. op cit
  8. ^
  9. ^ The Perfect Gift: Prehistoric Massacres. The twin vices of women and cattle in prehistoric Europe
  10. ^ Shea, J. J. 2003. Neanderthals, competition and the origin of modern human behaviour in the Levant. Evolutionary Anthropology 12: 173-187.
  11. ^ "Mount Toba Eruption - Ancient Humans Unscathed, Study Claims". Retrieved 2008-04-20. 
  12. ^ This is indicated by the M130 marker in the Y chromosome. "Traces of a Distant Past," by Gary Stix, Scientific American, July 2008, pages 56-63.
  13. ^ Ibid.
  14. ^ Gene S. Stuart, "Ice Age Hunters: Artists in Hidden Cages." In Mysteries of the Ancient World, a publication of the National Geographic Society, 1979. Pages 11-18.
  15. ^ James Trager, The People's Chronology, 1994, ISBN 0-8050-3134-0
  16. ^ Gene Stuart, Ibid., page 19.
  17. ^ Encyclopedia Americana, 2003 edition, volume 6, page 334.
  18. ^ Gene S. Stuart, Ibid., pp 8-10.
  19. ^ "Shift from Savannah to Sahara was Gradual," by Kenneth Chang, New York Times, May 9, 2008.
  20. ^ Kiple, Kenneth F. and Ornelas, Kriemhild Coneè, eds., The Cambridge World History of Food, Cambridge University Press, 2000, p. 83
  21. ^ "No-Till: The Quiet Revolution," by David Huggins and John Reganold, Scientific American, July 2008, pages 70-77.
  22. ^ Fagan, Brian M, ed. The Oxford Companion to Archaeology, Oxford University Press, Oxford 1996 ISBN 978-0-521-40216-3 p 363
  23. ^ Caroline Alexander, "Stonehenge," National Geographic, June 2008.

External links

Redirecting to Prehistory

Simple English

Pre-history is the time before people began to write, from 12,000BC - 3000BC. The word comes from the Ancient Greek words προ (pre = "before") and ιστορία (historia = "history"). A man named Paul Tournal first used the French word Préhistorique. He found things made by man more than ten thousand years ago in some caves in France. The word was first used in France around 1830 to talk about the time before writing. Daniel Wilson used it in English in 1851.

Things from pre-history are called pre-historic. Pre-history can start at the start of the universe but the word more often means a time when there was life on Earth; dinosaurs are called prehistoric animals and cavemen are called prehistoric people. Very little is known about pre-history because it was not written down by the people who lived then. There are no written records (or "history") which can be looked at, read, or studied. What we do know about pre-history is what we know because of things like tools, bones, and cave drawings. Pre-history ends at different times in different places when people began to write.

In pre-history, people lived in groups called tribes and lived in caves or tents (houses made from animal skin). They had simple tools made from bones and sticks, which they used to hunt and to make simple things. They made fire from flint and steel and they used fire to cook food and to stay warm. They made clothes out of animal skins. Society started when people began doing specialized jobs. This is called the division of labor. The division of labor made people depend on one another and led to more advanced civilizations.

Some important sciences that are used to find out more about pre-history are palaeontology, astronomy, biology, geology, anthropology, and archaeology. Archaeologists study things left over from prehistory to try to understand what was happening. Anthropologists study the traces of human behavior to learn what people where doing and why.

After people started to record events, first by drawing symbols (called pictographs) and then by writing, it became much easier to tell what happened, and history started. These records can tell us the names of leaders (like Kings and Queens), important events like floods and wars, and the things people did in their daily lives. The time when prehistory ended and history started is different in different places, depending on when people began to write and if their records were kept safe or lost so they could be found later on. In places like Mesopotamia, China, and Ancient Egypt, things were recorded from very early times (around 3200 BCE in Ancient Egypt) and these records can be looked at and studied. In New Guinea the end of prehistory came much later, around 1900.

Timeline of Earth

  • 4,500 million years ago – Earth formed out of smaller rocks flying around the sun
  • 3,500 million years ago – first very simple and tiny forms of life in the seas
  • 600 million years ago - first animals, also in the seas
  • 500 million years ago - first plants and animals on land
  • 230 million years ago – first dinosaurs appear
  • 65 million years ago – dinosaurs disappear, and mammals take their place as dominant animals
  • 30 million years ago - first apes
  • 2.5 million years ago - first humans

Timeline of people

  • 2.5 million years ago – Start of Lower Paleolithic age, during which a type of early pre-human called Australopithicus lived. These people made tools out of bones and stones and made shelters out of branches.
  • 1 million years ago – A type of early human called Homo erectus lived. People made hand axes and wooden spears.
  • 250, 000 years ago – First Homo sapiens (modern people). People make fire. People use bolas. People hunt elephants.
  • 100, 000 years ago – Middle Paleolithic age. Neanderthal people lived. People live in caves and make cave drawings. People begin to bury dead people.
  • 40, 000 years ago – Upper Paleolithic age. Cro-Magnon people lived. People make spears from antlers. People make houses from hides (animal skins). People paint cave drawings and make things out of clay. People make needles out of antlers. People make jewellery.
  • 16, 000 years ago – Ice age ends in Britain. People make bows and arrows. People use dogs to hunt and to carry things.
  • 18, 000 BCE – 9, 500 BCE – Mesolithic age. People start to change from hunting and gathering food to growing crops.
  • 8, 000 BCE – People in the Near East grow crops. People use farm animals.
  • 7, 000 BCE – People use copper to make tools.
  • 6, 000 BCE – British Isles move away from Europe.
  • 4, 500 BCE – 2, 300 BCE – Neolithic age.
  • 2, 580 BCE – The Egyptians build the Great Pyramids in Giza. People in the Middle East use iron and make plows.
  • 2, 400 BCE – People make Stonehenge in England.
  • 3, 300 BCE – 1, 200 BCE – Bronze Age. People make tools out of bronze.
  • 1, 200 BCE – 400 CE – Iron Age. People make tools out of iron. Roman Empire rises and falls.

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