Human prehistory is the period between the use of the first stone
tools c. 3.3 million years ago and the invention of writing systems.
The earliest writing systems appeared c. 5,300 years ago, but writing
was not used in some human cultures until the 19th century or even
later. The end of prehistory therefore came at very different dates in
different places, and the term is less often used in discussing
societies where prehistory ended relatively recently.
Sumer in Mesopotamia, the
Indus valley civilisation
Indus valley civilisation 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. Neighbouring civilizations were the first to follow. Most other
civilizations reached the end of prehistory during the
Iron Age. The
three-age system of division of prehistory into the Stone Age,
followed by the
Bronze Age and
Iron Age, remains in use for much of
Eurasia and North Africa, but is not generally used in those parts of
the world where the working of hard metals arrived abruptly with
contact with Eurasian cultures, such as the Americas, Oceania,
Australasia and much of Sub-Saharan Africa. These areas also, with
some exceptions in Pre-Columbian civilizations in the Americas, did
not develop complex writing systems before the arrival of Eurasians,
and their prehistory reaches into relatively recent periods; for
example 1788 is usually taken as the end of the prehistory of
The period when a culture is written about by others, but has not
developed its own writing is often known as the protohistory of the
culture. 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
This article is concerned with human prehistory, the time since
behaviorally and anatomically modern humans first appeared until the
beginning of recorded history. Earlier periods are also called
"prehistoric"; there are separate articles for the overall history of
the Earth and the history of life before humans.
History of the term
2 Means of research
3 Stone Age
7 By region
8 See also
10 External links
Massive stone pillars at Göbekli Tepe, in southeast Turkey, erected
for ritual use by early
Neolithic people 11,000 years ago
A prehistoric man and boy
Man in wilderness
The term "prehistory" can refer to the vast span of time since the
beginning of the
Universe or the Earth, 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.
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
In dividing up human prehistory in Eurasia, 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
History of the term
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. The first use of the
word prehistory in English, however, occurred in the Foreign Quarterly
Review in 1836.
The use of the geologic time scale for pre-human time periods, and of
the three-age system for human prehistory, is a system that emerged
during the late nineteenth century in the work of British, German and
Scandinavian archeologists, antiquarians and anthropologists.
Means of research
The main source for prehistory is archaeology, but some scholars are
beginning to make more use of evidence from the natural and social
sciences. This view has been articulated by advocates of
The primary researchers into human prehistory are 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. Human
population geneticists and historical linguists are also providing
valuable insight for these questions. 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. 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
Iron Age are
modern labels with definitions sometimes subject to debate.
The concept of a "Stone Age" is found useful in the archaeology of
most of the world, though in the archaeology of the
Americas it is
called by different names and begins with a Lithic stage, or sometimes
Paleo-Indian. The sub-divisions described below are used for Eurasia,
and not consistently across the whole area.
Main article: Paleolithic
Map of early human migrations, according to mitochondrial population
genetics. Numbers are millennia before the present (accuracy
"Palaeolithic" 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 Palaeolithic is called the Lower Palaeolithic,
Homo sapiens, beginning with
Homo habilis (and related
species) and with the earliest stone tools, dated to around 2.5
million years ago. Evidence of control of fire by early humans
Lower Palaeolithic 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 (before
the present period) 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.
Homo sapiens originated some 200,000 years ago, ushering in the
Middle Palaeolithic. Anatomic changes indicating modern language
capacity also arise during the Middle Palaeolithic. During the
Middle Palaeolithic 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 Palaeolithic, humans generally lived as nomadic
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" known as songlines.
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 Palaeolithic and
Neolithic periods of 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 "Epipalaeolithic" is sometimes
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
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.
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 Ħaġar Qim, Malta,
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." Although there were several species
of human beings during the Paleolithic, by the
Neolithic only Homo
sapiens sapiens remained. (
Homo floresiensis may have survived
right up to the very dawn of the Neolithic, about 12,200 years
ago.) 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 and ended 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.
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
Neolithic period saw the development of early villages,
agriculture, animal domestication, tools and the onset of the earliest
recorded incidents of warfare. The
Neolithic era commenced with
the beginning of farming, which produced the "
It ended when metal tools became widespread (in the
Copper Age or
Bronze Age; or, in some geographical regions, in the
Neolithic is commonly used in the Old World, as its application
to cultures in the
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. 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,
Neolithic societies on the whole were relatively simple and
egalitarian. 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, as suggested by
finds of perforated stones that (depending on size) may have served as
spindle whorls or loom weights.
Main article: Chalcolithic
Artist's impression of a
Copper Age walled city, Los Millares, Iberia
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
Neolithic in character. It is a phase of the
before it was discovered that adding tin to copper formed the harder
Copper Age was originally defined as a transition between
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. 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
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
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
development. However the
Iron Age and
Bronze Age occurred
simultaneously in much of Africa.
Ox-drawn plow, Egypt, ca. 1200 BCE.
Bronze Age is the earliest period in which some civilizations 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 civilizations who adopted or
developed a system of keeping written records during later periods.
The invention of writing coincides in some areas with the early
beginnings of the
Bronze Age. Soon after the appearance of writing,
people started creating texts including written accounts of events and
records of administrative matters.
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.
Bronze Age forms part of the three-age system for prehistoric
societies. In this system, it follows the
Neolithic in some areas of
While copper is a common ore, deposits of tin are rare in the Old
World, and often had to be traded or carried considerable distances
from the few mines, stimulating the creation of extensive trading
routes. In many areas as far apart as China and England, the valuable
new material was used for weapons but for a long time apparently not
available for agricultural tools. Much of it seems to have been
hoarded by social elites, and sometimes deposited in extravagant
quantities, from Chinese ritual bronzes and Indian copper hoards to
European hoards of unused axe-heads.
By the end of the
Bronze Age large states, which are often called
empires, had arisen in Egypt, China,
Anatolia (the Hittites) and
Mesopotamia, all of them literate.
Iron Age and Classical antiquity
Iron Age is not part of prehistory for all civilizations who had
introduced written records during the
Bronze Age. Most remaining
civilizations did so during the
Iron Age, often through conquest by
the empires, which continued to expand during this period. For
example, in most of Europe conquest by the
Roman Empire means that the
Iron Age is replaced by "Roman", "Gallo-Roman" and similar terms
after the conquest.
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
Iron Age coincide with the "Axial Age" in the history
of philosophy. Although iron ore is common, the metalworking
techniques necessary to use iron are very different from those needed
for the metal used earlier, and iron was slow-spreading and for long
mainly used for weapons, while bronze remained typical for tools, as
well as art.
view • discuss • edit
Earliest stone tools
Earliest exit from Africa
Earliest fire use
Earliest in Europe
Axis scale: million years
Life timeline and Nature timeline
Further information: Timeline of human evolution, Timeline of the
Stone Age, and 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 (1950)." BCE
stands for Before Common Era".
c. 2.8 million BP – Genus
c. 2.5 million BP – Evidence of early human tools
c. 600,000 BP – Hunting-gathering
c. 400,000 BP –
Control of fire
Control of fire by early humans
c. 300,000–30,000 BP –
Mousterian (Neanderthal) culture in
c. 200,000 BP –
Anatomically modern humans
Anatomically modern humans (
Homo sapiens sapiens)
appear in Africa, one of whose characteristics is a lack of
significant body hair compared to other primates. See e.g. Omo
c. 170,000?–83,000 BP – Invention of clothing
c. 75,000 BP – Toba Volcano supereruption.
c. 80,000–50,000 BP –
Homo sapiens exit Africa as a single
population. In the next millennia, descendants from this
population migrate to southern India, the Malay islands, Australia,
Japan, China, Siberia, Alaska, and the northwestern coast of North
c. 80,000-50,000? BP – Behavioral modernity, by this point including
language and sophisticated cognition
c. 45,000 BP / 43,000 BCE – Beginnings of
c. 40,000 BP / 38,000 BCE – First human settlement in the southern
half of the Australian mainland, by indigenous Australians (including
the future sites of Sydney, Perth, and Melbourne.)
c. 32,000 BP / 30,000 BCE – Beginnings of
exemplified by the cave paintings ("parietal art") of
Chauvet Cave in
c. 30,500 BP / 28,500 BCE –
New Guinea is populated by colonists
from Asia or Australia.
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.
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
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
Moravia in the Czech Republic. This is the oldest human permanent
settlement that has been found by archaeologists.
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.
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.
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.
c. 12,500 to 9,500 BCE – Natufian culture: a culture of sedentary
hunter-gatherers who may have cultivated
Rye in the
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.
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. In early agriculture
at this time the planting stick is used, but it is replaced by a
primitive plow in subsequent centuries. 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.
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
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
c. 3,000 BCE –
Stonehenge construction begins. In its first version,
it consisted of a circular ditch and bank, with 56 wooden posts.
Prehistoric Central North Africa
Prehistory of India
South Asian Stone Age
Prehistory of Sri Lanka
Prehistory of Central Asia
Southwest Asia (Near East)
Prehistory of Iran
Ancient Near East
Bronze Age Europe
Iron Age Europe
Prehistoric Southwestern cultural divisions
2nd millennium BCE in North American history
1st millennium BCE in North American history
1st millennium in North American history
History of the family
Stone Age art
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Neanderthal site at Veldwezelt-Hezerwater, Belgium.
Prehistory is an academic journal specialising in
Northeast Asian and North American archaeology.
Prehistory in Algeria and in Morocco
Early Humans a collection of resources for students from the Courtenay
Middle School Library.
New Stone Age
New World crops
Ard / plough
Mortar and pestle
Bow and arrow
Game drive system
Langdale axe industry
British megalith architecture
Nordic megalith architecture
Neolithic long house
Abri de la Madeleine
Alp pile dwellings
Wattle and daub
Megalithic architectural elements
Arts and culture
Art of the Upper Paleolithic
Art of the Middle Paleolithic
Stone Age art
Bradshaw rock paintings
Carved Stone Balls
Cup and ring mark
British Isles and Brittany
Mound Builders culture
Stone box grave
Unchambered long cairn
Origin of language
Divje Babe flute
Origin of religion
Spiritual drug use