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For a timeline of events in the early history of the universe and prehistoric Earth, see Timeline of prehistory.
Massive stone pillars at Göbekli Tepe, in southeast Turkey, erected for ritual use by early Neolithic people 11,000 years ago.

Prehistory means literally "before history", from the Latin word for "before," præ, and Greek ιστορία. Human prehistory is the period from the time that behaviorally and anatomically modern humans first appear until the appearance of recorded history following the invention of writing systems. Since both the time of settlement of modern humans, and the evolution of human civilisations, differ from region to region, prehistory starts and ends at different moments in time, depending on the region concerned.

Sumer in Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt were the first civilisations to develop their own scripts, and to keep historical records; this took place already during the early Bronze Age. The neighbouring civilisations of the Ancient Middle East were the first to follow. Most other civilisations reached the end of prehistory during the Iron Age.[citation needed]

Definition: different approaches[edit]

A prehistoric man and boy.

The term "prehistory" can refer to the vast span of time since the beginning of the Universe, but more often it refers to the period since life appeared on Earth, or even more specifically to the time since human-like beings appeared.[1][2] The notion of "prehistory" began to surface during the Enlightenment in the work of antiquarians who used the word 'primitive' to describe societies that existed before written records.[3] The first use of the word prehistory in English, however, occurred in the Foreign Quarterly Review in 1836.[4]

In dividing up human prehistory, historians typically use the three-age system, whereas scholars of pre-human time periods typically use the well-defined geologic 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. This system emerged during the late nineteenth century in the work of British, German and Scandinavian archeologists, antiquarians and anthropologists.[5] Another division of history and prehistory can be made between those written events that can be precisely dated by use of a continuous calendar dating from current and those that can't. The loss of continuity of calendar date most often occurs when a civilization falls and the language and calendar fall into disuse. The current civilization therefore loses the ability to precisely date events written through primary sources to events dated to current calendar dating.[original research?]

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".[6][7][8] This view has been articulated by advocates of deep history.

This article is concerned with human prehistory, or the time since behaviorally and anatomically modern humans first appear until the beginning of recorded history. There are separate articles for the overall history of the Earth and the history of life before humans.

By definition, there are no written records from human prehistory, so dating of prehistoric materials is crucial. Clear techniques for dating were not well-developed until the 19th century.[9]

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.[1] Human population geneticists and historical linguists are also providing valuable insight for these questions.[2] Cultural anthropologists help provide context for societal interactions, by which objects of human origin pass among people, allowing an analysis of any article that arises in a human prehistoric context.[2] 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, reference terms that prehistorians use, such as Neanderthal or Iron Age are modern labels with definitions sometimes subject to debate.

The date marking the end of prehistory in a particular culture or region, that is, the date when relevant written historical records become a useful academic resource, varies enormously 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. In Europe the relatively well-documented classical cultures of Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome had neighbouring cultures, including the Celts, and to a lesser extent the Etruscans, with little or no writing, and historians must decide how much weight to give to the often highly prejudiced accounts of these "prehistoric" cultures in Greek and Roman literature.

Stone Age[edit]


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.[10] Evidence of control of fire by early humans during the Lower Paleolithic Era is uncertain and has at best limited scholarly support. The most widely accepted claim is that H. erectus or H. ergaster made fires between 790,000 and 690,000 BP in a site at Bnot Ya'akov Bridge, Israel. The use of fire enabled early humans to cook food, provide warmth, and have a light source at night.

Early 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.[11] During the Middle Paleolithic Era, there is the first definitive evidence of human use of fire. Sites in Zambia have charred bone and wood that have been dated to 61,000 B.P. The systematic burial of the dead, 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,[12] 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."


Main article: Mesolithic

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 that 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.


Main article: Neolithic
Entrance to the Ġgantija phase temple complex of Hagar Qim, Malta, 3900 BC.[13]
An array of Neolithic artifacts, including bracelets, axe heads, chisels, and polishing tools. Neolithic stone artifacts are by definition polished and, except for specialty items, not chipped.

"Neolithic" means "New Stone Age." Unlike the Paleolithic, when more than one human species existed, only one human species (Homo sapiens sapiens) reached the Neolithic.[14] Homo floresiensis may have survived right up to the very dawn of the Neolithic, about 12,200 years ago.[15] This was a period of primitive technological and social development. It began about 10,200 BC in some parts of the Middle East, and later in other parts of the world[16] and ending between 4,500 and 2,000 BC. The Neolithic is a progression of behavioral and cultural characteristics and changes, including the use of wild and domestic crops and of domesticated animals.

Early Neolithic farming was limited to a narrow range of plants, both wild and domesticated, which included einkorn wheat, millet and spelt, and the keeping of dogs, sheep and goats. By about 6,900–6,400 BC, it included domesticated cattle and pigs, the establishment of permanently or seasonally inhabited settlements, and the use of pottery. The Neolithic period saw the development of early villages, agriculture, animal domestication, tools and the onset of the earliest recorded incidents of warfare.[17] The Neolithic era commenced with the beginning of farming, which produced the "Neolithic Revolution". It ended when metal tools became widespread (in the Copper Age or Bronze Age; or, in some geographical regions, in the Iron Age).The term Neolithic 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.

The monumental building at Luni sul Mignone in Blera, Italy, 3500 BC.

Settlements became more permanent with some having circular houses with single rooms made of mudbrick. Settlements might have a surrounding stone wall to keep domesticated animals in and protect the inhabitants from other tribes. Later settlements have rectangular mud-brick houses where the family lived together in single or multiple rooms. Burial findings suggest an ancestor cult where people preserved skulls of the dead. The Vinča culture may have created the earliest system of writing.[18] The megalithic temple complexes of Ġgantija are notable for their gigantic structures. Although some late Eurasian Neolithic societies formed complex stratified chiefdoms or even states, states evolved in Eurasia only with the rise of metallurgy, and most Neolithic societies one the whole were relatively simple and egalitarian.[19] Most clothing appears to have been made of animal skins, as indicated by finds of large numbers of bone and antler pins which are ideal for fastening leather. Wool cloth and linen might have become available during the later Neolithic,[20][21] as suggested by finds of perforated stones which (depending on size) may have served as spindle whorls or loom weights.[22][23][24]


Main article: Chalcolithic


Painting of a Copper Age walled city, Los Millares, Iberia

In Old World archaeology, the "Chalcolithic", "Eneolithic" or "Copper Age" refers to a transitional period where early copper metallurgy appeared alongside the widespread use of stone tools. During this period, some weapons and tools were made of copper. This period was still largely Neolithic in character. It is a phase of the Bronze Age before it was discovered that adding tin to copper formed the harder bronze. The Copper Age was originally defined as a transition between the Neolithic and the Bronze Age. However, because it is characterized by the use of metals, the Copper Age is considered a part of the Bronze Age rather than the Stone Age.

Chalcolithic copper mine in Timna Valley, Negev Desert, Israel

An archaeological site in Serbia contains the oldest securely dated evidence of copper making at high temperature, from 7,500 years ago. The find in June 2010 extends the known record of copper smelting by about 800 years, and suggests that copper smelting may have been invented in separate parts of Asia and Europe at that time rather than spreading from a single source.[25] The emergence of metallurgy may have occurred first in the Fertile Crescent, where it gave rise to the Bronze Age in the 4th millennium BC (the traditional view), though finds from the Vinča culture in Europe have now been securely dated to slightly earlier than those of the Fertile Crescent. Timna Valley contains evidence of copper mining 9,000 to 7,000 years ago. The process of transition from Neolithic to Chalcolithic in the Middle East is characterized in archaeological stone tool assemblages by a decline in high quality raw material procurement and use. North Africa and the Nile Valley imported its iron technology from the Near East and followed the Near Eastern course of Bronze Age and Iron Age development. However the Iron Age and Bronze Age occurred simultaneously in much of Africa.

Bronze Age[edit]

Main article: Bronze Age
Ox-drawn plow, Egypt, ca. 1200 BCE.

The Bronze Age is the earliest period in which some civilisations have reached the end of prehistory, by introducing written records. The Bronze Age or parts thereof are thus considered to be part of prehistory only for the regions and civilisations who adopted or developed a system of keeping written records during later periods.[citation needed]

The invention of writing coincides with the early beginnings of the Bronze Age. Soon after the appearance of writing, people started creating written accounts of events and "keeping book" of administrative matters.[citation needed]

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 ores, and then combining them 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 3000 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.

Iron Age[edit]

Main articles: Iron Age and Classical antiquity

The Iron Age is not part of prehistory for all civilisations who had introduced written records during the Bronze Age. Most remaining civilisations did so during the 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.


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 (1950)." BCE stands for Before Common Era".

Lower Paleolithic
Middle Paleolithic
Upper Paleolithic
  • c. 45,000 BP / 43,000 BCE – Beginnings of Châtelperronian culture in France.
  • c. 40,000 BP / 30,000 BCE – First human (Aboriginal Australian) settlement in Sydney,[30][31] Perth[32] and Melbourne.[33]
  • c. 32,000 BP / 30,000 BCE – Beginnings of Aurignacian culture, exemplified by the cave paintings ("parietal art") of Chauvet Cave in France.
  • c. 30,500 BP / 28,500 BCE – New Guinea is populated by colonists from Asia or Australia.[34]
  • c. 30,000 BP / 28,000 BCE – A herd of reindeer is slaughtered and butchered by humans in the Vezere Valley in what is today France.[35]
  • c. 28,000–20,000 BP – Gravettian period in Europe. Harpoons, needles, and saws invented.
  • c. 26,500 BP – Last Glacial Maximum (LGM). Subsequently the ice melts and the glaciers retreat again (Late Glacial Maximum). During this latter period human beings return to Western Europe (see Magdalenian culture,) and enter North America from Eastern Siberia for the first time (see Paleo-Indians, pre-Clovis culture and Settlement of the Americas.)
  • c. 26,000 BP / 24,000 BCE – People around the world use fibers to make baby-carriers, clothes, bags, baskets, and nets.
  • c. 25,000 BP / 23,000 BCE – A settlement consisting of huts built of rocks and mammoth bones is founded near what is now Dolní Věstonice in Moravia in the Czech Republic. This is the oldest human permanent settlement that has yet been found by archaeologists.[36]
  • c. 23,000 BP / 21,000 BCE – Small-scale trial cultivation of plants in Ohalo II, a hunter-gatherers' sedentary camp on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, Israel.[37]
  • c. 16,000 BP / 14,000 BCE – Wisent sculpted in clay deep inside the cave now known as Le Tuc d'Audoubert in the French Pyrenees near what is now the border of Spain.[38]
  • c. 14,800 BP / 12,800 BCE – The Humid Period begins in North Africa. The region that would later become the Sahara is wet and fertile, and the Aquifers are full.[39]
  • c. 9,400–9,200 BCE – Figs of a parthenocarpic (and therefore sterile) type are cultivated in the early Neolithic village Gilgal I (in the Jordan Valley, 13 km north of Jericho). The find predates the domestication of wheat, barley, and legumes, and may thus be the first known instance of agriculture.[40]
  • c. 9,000 BCE – Circles of T-shaped stone pillars erected at Göbekli Tepe in the Southeastern Anatolia Region of Turkey during pre-pottery Neolithic A (PPNA) period. As yet unexcavated structures at the site are thought to date back to the epipaleolithic.
  • c. 8,000 BC / 7000 BCE – 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.[41] In early agriculture at this time the planting stick is used, but it is replaced by a primitive plow in subsequent centuries.[42] Around this time, a round stone tower, now preserved at about 8.5 meters high and 8.5 meters in diameter is built in Jericho.[43]
  • c. 3,700 BCE – Cuneiform writing appears in Sumer, and records begin to be kept. According to the majority of specialists, the first Mesopotamian writing was a tool that had little connection to the spoken language.[44]
  • c. 3,300 BCE – Approximate date of death of "Ötzi the Iceman", found preserved in ice in the Ötztal Alps in 1991. A copper-bladed axe, which is a characteristic technology of this era, was found with the corpse.
  • c. 3,000 BCE – Stonehenge construction begins. In its first version, it consisted of a circular ditch and bank, with 56 wooden posts.[45]

By region[edit]

Old World
New World

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Fagan, Brian. 2007. World Prehistory: A brief introduction New York:Prentice-Hall, Seventh Edition, Chapter One
  2. ^ a b c Renfrew, Colin. 2008. Prehistory: The Making of the Human Mind." New York: Modern Library
  3. ^ Eddy, Matthew Daniel (2011). "The Line of Reason: Hugh Blair, Spatiality and the Progressive Structure of Language". Notes and Records of the Royal Society 65: 9–24. doi:10.1098/rsnr.2010.0098. 
  4. ^ Eddy, Matthew Daniel (2011). "The Prehistoric Mind as a Historical Artefact". Notes and Records of the Royal Society 65: 1–8. doi:10.1098/rsnr.2010.0097. 
  5. ^ Matthew Daniel Eddy (Ed.) (2011). Prehistoric Minds: Human Origins as a Cultural Artefact. Royal Society of London. 
  6. ^ The Prehistory of Iberia: Debating Early Social Stratification and the State edited by María Cruz Berrocal, Leonardo García Sanjuán, Antonio Gilman. Pg 36.
  7. ^ Historical Archaeology: Back from the Edge. Edited by Pedro Paulo A. Funari, Martin Hall, Sian Jones. Pg 8.
  8. ^ Through the Ages in Palestinian Archaeology: An Introductory Handbook. By Walter E. Ras. Pg 49.
  9. ^ Graslund, Bo. 1987. The birth of prehistoric chronology. Cambridge:Cambridge University Press.
  10. ^ The Essence of Anthropology 3rd ed. By William A. Haviland, Harald E. L. Prins, Dana Walrath, Bunny McBrid. Pg 83.
  11. ^ Race and Human Evolution. By Milford H. Wolpoff. Pg 348.
  12. ^ Vanishing Voices : The Extinction of the World's Languages. By Daniel Nettle, Suzanne Romaine Merton Professor of English Language University of Oxford. pp. 102–103.
  13. ^
  14. ^ "World Museum of Man: Neolithic / Chalcolithic Period". World Museum of Man. Retrieved 21 August 2013. 
  15. ^ Lyras; et al. (2008). "The origin of Homo floresiensis and its relation to evolutionary processes under isolation". Anthropological Science. 
  16. ^ Figure 3.3 from First Farmers: The Origins of Agricultural Societies by Peter Bellwood, 2004
  17. ^ The Perfect Gift: Prehistoric Massacres. The twin vices of women and cattle in prehistoric Europe
  18. ^ Winn, Shan (1981). Pre-writing in Southeastern Europe: The Sign System of the Vinča Culture ca. 4000 BC. Calgary: Western Publishers. 
  19. ^ Leonard D. Katz Rigby; S. Stephen Henry Rigby (2000). Evolutionary Origins of Morality: Cross-disciplinary Perspectives. United kingdom: Imprint Academic. p. 158. ISBN 0-7190-5612-8. 
  20. ^ Harris, Susanna (2009). "Smooth and Cool, or Warm and Soft: Investigatingthe Properties of Cloth in Prehistory". North European Symposium for Archaeological Textiles X. Retrieved 5 September 2013. 
  21. ^ "Aspects of Life During the Neolithic Period" (PDF). Teachers' Curriculum Institute. Retrieved 5 September 2013. 
  22. ^ Gibbs, Kevin T. (2006). "Pierced clay disks and Late Neolithic textile production". Proceedings of the 5th International Congress on the Archaeology of the Ancient Near East. Retrieved 5 September 2013. 
  23. ^ Green, Jean M (1993). "Unraveling the Enigma of the Bi: The Spindle Whorl as the Model of the Ritual Disk". Asian Perspectives (University of Hawai'i Press) 32 (1): 105–24. 
  24. ^ Cook, M (2007). "The clay loom weight, in: Early Neolithic ritual activity, Bronze Age occupation and medieval activity at Pitlethie Road, Leuchars, Fife". Tayside And Fife Archaeological Journal 13: 1–23. 
  25. ^ "Serbian site may have hosted first copper makers". ScienceNews. July 17, 2010. 
  26. ^ Shea, J. J. 2003. Neanderthals, competition and the origin of modern human behaviour in the Levant. Evolutionary Anthropology 12: 173–187.
  27. ^ "Origin of Clothing Lice Indicates Early Clothing Use by Anatomically Modern Humans in Africa". Molecular Biology and Evolution. September 2010. 
  28. ^ "Mount Toba Eruption - Ancient Humans Unscathed, Study Claims". Retrieved 2008-04-20. 
  29. ^ a b 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.
  30. ^ Macey, Richard (2007). "Settlers' history rewritten: go back 30,000 years". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 5 July 2014. 
  31. ^ "Aboriginal people and place". Sydney Barani. 2013. Retrieved 5 July 2014. 
  32. ^ Sandra Bowdler. "The Pleistocene Pacific". Published in 'Human settlement', in D. Denoon (ed) The Cambridge History of the Pacific Islanders. pp. 41–50. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. University of Western Australia. Archived from the original on 16 February 2008. Retrieved 26 February 2008. 
  33. ^ Gary Presland, The First Residents of Melbourne's Western Region, (revised edition), Harriland Press, 1997. ISBN 0-646-33150-7. Presland says on page 1: "There is some evidence to show that people were living in the Maribyrnong River valley, near present day Keilor, about 40,000 years ago."
  34. ^ James Trager, The People's Chronology, 1994, ISBN 0-8050-3134-0
  35. ^ 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.
  36. ^ Stuart, Gene S. (1979). "Ice Age Hunters: Artists in Hidden Cages". Mysteries of the Ancient World. National Geographic Society. p. 19. 
  37. ^ The Origin of Cultivation and Proto-Weeds, Long Before Neolithic Farming Ainit Snir et al., PLOS July 22, 2015 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0131422
  38. ^ Stuart, Gene S. (1979). "Ice Age Hunters: Artists in Hidden Cages". Mysteries of the Ancient World. National Geographic Society. pp. 8–10. 
  39. ^ "Shift from Savannah to Sahara was Gradual," by Kenneth Chang, New York Times, May 9, 2008.
  40. ^ Kislev et al. (2006a, b), Lev-Yadun et al. (2006)
  41. ^ Kiple, Kenneth F. and Ornelas, Kriemhild Coneè, eds., The Cambridge World History of Food, Cambridge University Press, 2000, p. 83
  42. ^ "No-Till: The Quiet Revolution," by David Huggins and John Reganold, Scientific American, July 2008, pages 70–77.
  43. ^ Fagan, Brian M, ed. The Oxford Companion to Archaeology, Oxford University Press, Oxford 1996 ISBN 978-0-521-40216-3 p 363
  44. ^ Glassner, Jean-Jacques. The Invention of Cuneiform: Writing In Sumer. Trans.Zainab,Bahrani. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003. Ebook.
  45. ^ Caroline Alexander, "Stonehenge," National Geographic, June 2008.

External links[edit]