Prehistory is, in the simplest sense, that part of history that occurred before written records. A culture that has not yet developed a system of writing cannot leave a written record of its history, leaving us only what we can discover and infer through archaeology or other indirect means.
The names, places, and events of our written history are a dizzying tapestry of ideas, civilizations, and key figures all winding through an interconnected web of tales that tell us who we are and where we came from. But while this written history is vast and colorful, it’s only a sliver of our actual story. Most of what brought us to where we are today began in that era before we could write down our own history – in the foggy prehistory of mankind.
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What is Prehistory?
To define prehistory simply as the time before written history would technically include everything from the beginning of the universe up to the development of writing in Sumer and Egypt around 3400 B.C.E. – a span of several billion years. In practice, however, the term prehistory is limited to what we might call the history of humanity – modern humans and our immediate ancestors, and how they developed to the point where written history begins.
Even thus restricted, this vast first story of humanity covers a sizable span – the Stone Age covers over two million years – with little left behind to tell the tale. But decades of excavation, analysis, and debate have managed to reconstruct most of the many small but vital steps that led our ancestors from their primitive beginnings to the first written words, starting with the most important first step of human evolution – tool use.
The oldest recognized era of prehistory – and by far the longest – is the Paleolithic Period (or, literally, the Old Stone Age). Classically considered to begin about two and a half million years ago – just about at the beginning of the geological epoch known as the Pleistocene, or the Ice Age – it is considered to have lasted until that epoch ended just under 12,000 years and is roughly divided into Lower, Middle, and Upper Periods.
That extends, obviously, much farther back than Homo sapiens – who first appeared only about 300,000 years ago – or even our close cousins Homo neanderthalensis. Even Homo erectus, the grandfather species of modern humans and the first hominid to display roughly modern human proportions, only goes back about one and a half million years.
Rather, the species thought to have rung in the Paleolithic era was Homo habilis – one of the earliest species in the genus Homo. Its name means “handy man,” and it was believed to be the hominid who started our official prehistory by being the first to use tools.
It’s from these simple stone tools that the Stone Age as a whole takes its name. The first significant discoveries of Lower (early) Paleolithic tools were made by paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey in the early 1960s in the Olduvai Gorge of Tanzania.
Dating from about one and a half to two million years ago, they consisted mostly of crude, sharp-edged choppers, and scrapers, as well as spherical hammerstones, all created from the abundant river rocks, generally from quartz, obsidian, and similar stones, chipped by percussion to create edges and shapes.
Because of the vast period covered by the Stone Age, Leakey’s daughter Mary categorized tool production into groups known as industries, beginning with the tools of Olduvai Gorge – known as Oldowan (also known as Mode I) tools. Similar tools were found at the Gona River in Ethiopia in the early 1990s – though these were dated to the very beginning of the Pleistocene, making them more than half a million years older than those found at Olduvai Gorge.
Similar finds have been made in other parts of Africa, from the Vaal River in South Africa to Sétif in Algeria. But tools matching the Oldowan classification have also been found in Bulgaria, Russia, Spain, and France, all dating about as far back as those of Olduvai Gorge.
But a find in 2015 in Kenya revealed Oldowan tools from over three million years ago, well before the emergence of Homo erectus. These tools from a site designated as Lomekwi 3 lend credence to earlier speculation that a representative of the genus Australopithecus – from which the Homo genus derived – may have been the true beginning of the Paleolithic – and by extension, our prehistory.
READ MORE: How Long Have Humans Existed?
Newer and Improved
Oldowan tools would give way to the more refined Acheulean industry (Mode II tools), which would appear around 1.7 million years ago and dominate the remainder of the Lower Paleolithic. Still based on chipping a core stone into a desired shape, this industry was defined by the appearance of so-called hand axes – oval or teardrop-shaped stones worked on both sides into a symmetrical, pointed shape.
The specific uses of these tools are largely conjecture, with the possibilities ranging from thrown weapons to ritual artifacts to practical chopping or stone-chipping tools. Indeed, these hand axes may have had multiple uses, which may also account for their widespread and fairly common distribution.
By the beginning of the Middle Paleolithic (corresponding to the appearance of H. sapiens, about 300,000 years ago), these tools were replaced by a new technology – the prepared-core technique, in which multiple tools were produced as large flakes from a single core stone. Known as the Levallois technique, it allowed a faster and more controlled process of tool production and is found predominantly in the Mousterian industry (Mode III) used by Neanderthals as well as in later industries.
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Further improvements came in the Upper Paleolithic – beginning about 50,000 B.C.E. – with the introduction of microliths. These smaller tools – a centimeter or less in size – allowed for stone tips on spears and arrows as well as other weapons, greatly improving the efficiency of hunting (and, it must be tragically noted, war).
At Nature’s Mercy
But while our earliest Paleolithic ancestors had begun to make simple tools, they were still largely at the mercy of the world around them. Anything resembling agriculture or animal husbandry still lay far in the future.
These hominids of the Paleolithic survived initially by foraging for food such as fruits, nuts, fungi, insects, and other edibles like honey. It’s believed that they initially scavenged meat from the kills of other predators or animals who had died by other means, then moved up to being ambush hunters relying on some sort of stone tools to kill their prey – more refined hunting tools like wooden spears would appear only near the Middle Paleolithic.
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But Paleolithic humans did come to wrestle some measure of control over their environment with a few critical developments. And one of the most critical of these was the taming of fire.
The oldest solid evidence of the controlled use of fire goes back between 300,000 and 400,000 years ago, in the Qesem Cave in Israel. However, there is at least some evidence in Kenya that naturally-sourced fires were used opportunistically – and kept and maintained – by earlier hominids, potentially as far back as 1.4 million years ago.
And the Upper Paleolithic saw early humans cultivate what was perhaps an even more important relationship. Approximately 30,000 years ago, humans began to domestic wolves, systematically breeding them for both function and temperament into dogs which remain bonded to humans to this day.
Specimens believed to be dogs have been discovered in the Hohle Fels cave in Germany and Goyet Caves in Belgium – both dated to well over 30,000 years old, though this identification is still in debate. But in Predmosti, in the modern-day Czech Republic, we find more solid evidence in the form of a 32,000-year-old burial in which a bone – possibly from a mammoth – had been placed in the dog’s mouth after death, confirming that the animal was buried by humans and clearly held in some regard by them.
And burial brings up another advancement humans made in the Paleolithic – the beginnings of religious thought. The earliest confirmed burial dates from about 115,000 years ago, in Northern Israel – though it was done by our cousins the Neanderthals, rather than Homo sapiens (though another burial site in Israel, at Qafzeh Cave, was created by H. sapiens a relatively scant 15,000 years later).
And cave paintings that date into the Upper Paleolithic, such as those at Lascaux Cave in France, bear elements that suggest some sort of ritual use. In particular, many of the cave paintings are well away from the entrance and any natural light, requiring an arduous and sometimes claustrophobic ordeal to reach. Others, on cliff faces or naturally lit areas of caves, involved multiple persons – perhaps an entire tribe – leaving communal handprints in what could be interpreted as some form of the ceremonial act (though interpreting such intent on the slim evidence left to us is a gamble at best).
The Paleolithic saw other forms of art as well. One of the oldest known human depictions, a small stone figure called the Venus of Tan-Tan (a naturally shaped stone later augmented with manmade grooves and possibly a pigment) was found in Morocco and believed to date to as much as half a million years ago.
Pieces of hematite and shells dated from 75000 years ago and etched with simple patterns have been found in South Africa. And there are shell beads from Israel that may be more than a hundred thousand years old.
A Nomadic Existence
At the beginning of the Paleolithic, our ancestors sheltered in caves or trees, and moved regularly as animals migrated, seasons changed, and local food sources ebbed and flowed. Based on extrapolation from similar modern primates, it’s estimated that H. erectus may have lived in groups of a few dozen, though these in turn may have worked in some degree of cooperation with similar groups to make a larger collective.
Given the low food density of the landscape when practicing a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, supporting a larger population in a given area would have been impossible. And the inconsistency of such food sources would have necessitated a nomadic lifestyle.
It is possible that H. erectus moved in a cyclical nomadic pattern, similar to later nomadic peoples – that is, they would regularly visit the same areas in a large migratory loop. There is no way to verify this, however, and the broad dispersal of Homo erectus from Africa into Eurasia just under two million years ago suggests their movements were at least initially much more random.
Bone fragments confirm the existence of a hominid known as Meganthropus (widely considered today as a variation or subspecies of H. erectus) in Java (Central Indonesia) about 1.7 million years ago. Likewise, fossil evidence shows H. erectus reaching Western Europe approximately 1.2 million years ago, bringing early humans to every part of Africa and Eurasia.
The transition from the Paleolithic Age to the Mesolithic, or Middle Stone Age, is flexible. In Europe, it occurred around 15000 years ago, while around the Eastern Mediterranean and the Fertile Crescent, it came some 5000 years earlier.
In Africa, the recognized start of the Mesolithic varies from 24000 years ago (for the area of modern-day Morocco) to about 8200 years ago in East Africa. The starting point runs between 12000 and 8000 years ago in India, and between 10000 and 16000 years ago in the Far East.
Considered a transitional phase between the Paleolithic and Neolithic ages, the Mesolithic is marked by a suite of improvements and local adaptations among the various hunter-gatherer societies. The term is not applied universally – in some areas, notably in the Near East, such cultural periods are referred to as the Epipalaeolitic Era – though this term can also be applied, confusingly, to the end of the Upper Paleolithic prior to the Mesolithic. In other areas, human development is seen as moving from the Upper Paleolithic directly into the early Neolithic, without any such notable transitional period.
The cruder laminar microliths of the Paleolithic gave way to geometric microliths, which were carefully flaked-off lithic blades braced against support. These refined microliths were smaller and more efficiently produced, resulting in less waste material.
These geometric microliths do not follow a sharp delineation between the Paleolithic and Mesolithic however – some scattered examples from the Late Paleolithic have been found. But these exceptions serve only to highlight the blurriness of the line between these eras, and in any case, their extreme rarity leaves the geometric microlith as an essentially Mesolithic innovation.
The earliest ceramics also appear during this period, showing up from North Africa and Europe to Siberia as early as 9000 years ago. While some archaeologists see this as the transition to the Neolithic Era, this pottery preceded the invention of agriculture (a much more definitive Neolithic hallmark) by such a sufficient margin that it can still be categorized as Mesolithic.
Like the geometric microliths, however, the appearance of pottery is not restricted to even Mesolithic culture. Exceptions, though rare, exist – a ceramic bowl found in the Xianrendong Cave in China could be anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 years old – with the high end of that range placing it well before the recognized start of the Mesolithic in the region.
While still hunter-gatherers, humans become less nomadic in this period due to a combination of advancements in hunting and fishing and the more bountiful food sources of the warming world after the end of the Ice Age. Evidence shows that these shelters and sites were still used on only a part-time basis – but it’s more likely that humans were now able to simply migrate between multiple familiar sites.
The archaeological site Star Carr, in North Yorkshire, England, dates from the beginning of the Mesolithic in Britain, and holds the remnants of what had once been a large settlement that showed centuries of intermittent use on a varying cycle. The site also contains, nearby, a wooden platform at what was once the shore of a lake – the earliest example of carpentry known on the island – though its exact purpose is still unknown.
And religious, artistic, and technological thought continued to expand in this era. Some 9000 years ago on the future site of Stonehenge – millennia before the great stone blocks were placed – Mesolithic humans had arranged rows of posts in what seems to be an astronomical alignment, and an apparent lunar calendar at Warren Field in Scotland dates from about the same time.
The start of the Neolithic, or New Stone Age, is denoted by a significant change in how humanity lived. Finally leaving behind the nomadic hunter-gatherer existence of earlier eras, humans began to raise their own food with the introduction of agriculture.
Somewhere around 10000 B.C.E., the so-called founder crops – including flax, peas, barley, lentils, and the einkorn and emmer wheat varieties – were cultivated in the Levant, kicking off the Neolithic in the Fertile Crescent. Goats would be domesticated roughly a thousand years later, followed by sheep, cattle, and pigs.
There is evidence that humans had been starting to manage wild plants for centuries prior to the start of true agriculture, using such activities as tilling and diverting water to promote the growth of the desired plants. But the Neolithic saw mankind taking the important step of true, beginning-to-end direct oversight and production of crops and livestock – setting off a host of secondary changes in how humans lived.
Incentive for Civilization
Agriculture obviously requires a group to settle in one place for an extended period, if not the entire year, in order to tend and protect crops. It also brings a host of challenges that simple foraging and hunting do not, leading to an explosion of technological advancements.
Since harvests only come at certain times, food has to be stored – and spoilage and the clever determination of hungry animals require continual innovation to keep that food safe and edible. Tending crops requires new tools such as shovels and hoes, as well as the need for irrigation and fertilization that must be first recognized and then solved for.
Likewise, livestock has to be tended to – groomed, fed, and kept healthy – to maintain them as a usable food source, requiring still more discovery and innovation. They have to likewise be contained to keep them from wandering away and to protect them from predators.
And agriculture leads to another pressing need – defense. A stationary community with a store of available food makes a tempting target for those tribes and cultures that hadn’t yet made the transition from hunter-gatherers to farmers.
While there is at least circumstantial evidence of conflicts in earlier eras, mobile societies can readily evade most unwanted fights. Settled communities, whose whole survival is invested in crop yields or livestock, have no choice but to develop ways to face such threats head-on.
The Spread of the Neolithic
By 7000 B.C.E. agriculture had spread to Southeastern Europe, and Paleolithic sites from this time have been found at Knossos in Crete and Porodin in North Macedonia. In this same time frame, it spread to modern-day India (where rice began to be cultivated), Pakistan, and Azerbaijan.
Over the following two thousand years, the Neolithic revolution spread through the Balkans and up into Eastern Europe, and also appeared in China and Southeast Asia around 6000 B.C.E. By 4000 B.C.E., it had spread up into Northern Europe and the British Isles.
In the Western Hemisphere, the same advancements were happening in near-parallel, with the introduction of agriculture in modern-day Colombia and Ecuador around 9000 B.C.E. with the cultivation of squash, arrowroot, and gourds. Potatoes, peanuts, tomatoes, and more would later be cultivated in the Andes between 8000 and 5000 B.C.E., and the various tribes of North America began their own Neolithic revolution beginning around 5300 B.C.E.
The flaked stone tools of the Late Paleolithic and Mesolithic now gave way to a wholly new method – ground and polished stone made from sturdier materials, such as jadeite, diorite, or basalt, which didn’t lend themselves to flaking. This allowed stone tools – and weapons – that were stronger, better balanced, and kept a sharper edge – exactly what was needed for felling trees to use for a construction or to clear land for crops.
The latter use was of particular importance because the early agriculture practiced in Neolithic societies used a slash-and-burn method. Farmland would be cleared, and the vegetation burned to produce a bare plot of nutrient-rich soil.
This plot could be used for as long as five years before the depletion of nutrients required the farmers to clear a new plot of land and begin again, with the original plot left to recover for a few decades before being cleared anew. A sharp, durable ax that made felling trees much more efficient than it would have been with earlier tools was an essential advance for Neolithic agriculture.
The woodwork was made easier by another tool – the adze. Similar to an ax with a perpendicular blade – mounted horizontally, rather than vertically as an ax’s blade is – the adze was used to easily shape and trim wooden surfaces.
Versions of the adze actually date from the Middle Paleolithic – and there is some evidence for even earlier versions – but the sturdier polished versions, as with axes, allowed greater functionality. In this era, we see dugout canoes, notched timber framing for wells, and sturdier wood homes which replaced the round, more teepee-like structures common in the Mesolithic.
Early in the Paleolithic period, evidence suggests that simple clothing – predominantly animal skins – had come and gone depending on the prevailing temperature. In warm regions or during interglacial periods, humans wore little or nothing, reverting to clothing when the cold necessitated it.
But by the later Paleolithic, clothing had become both more complex and more consistently worn. Eyed needles appeared around 30,000 years ago in Europe and even earlier in Siberia and Southern Russia (though awls – which could likewise be used to make sewn clothing – appeared 40,000 years ago in Western Europe).
Like other tools and technologies, clothing was refined in the Neolithic. Evidence shows that flax was cultivated in Neolithic Scotland and wool would have been easily available after the domestication of sheep (though there is, surprisingly, no evidence of tanned leather from this period). Finds of both bone fasteners in Orkney and belt sliders made of jet found in the UK confirm that Neolithic clothing had become much more sophisticated than that of previous eras.
Neolithic Art and Culture
The Neolithic era is marked by the appearance of megaliths, such as the famous Stonehenge and the Göbekli Tepe site in Turkey. Their purpose ranged from tombs (such as the Dolmen found across Europe) to astronomical calendars (like Stonehenge) to religious or cultural constructions.
In a settled society, art and decoration become more common. A collection of pottery, sculpture (such as the acclaimed Thinker of Cernavoda, from 5000 B.C.E. in Romania), carvings, and murals from the Neolithic all demonstrate the increasing artistic demand (and sophistication) found in the New Stone Age.
The Metal Ages
The over two-million-year span of the Stone Age finally ended in the Fertile Crescent about 4500 B.C.E., as humanity made a new breakthrough. In its place came the so-called Metal Ages, – Copper, Bronze, and Iron – and human prehistory would continue through the first of these, the Chalcolithic, or Copper Age.
Like the Mesolithic, the Chalcolithic (also called the Eneolithic) is a transitional period, occupying the brief window between the regular use of copper tools and the development of bronze alloys. Initially, it was simply combined with the Bronze Age, until the notion of a separate pre-Bronze Copper Age became popular beginning in the 19th Century.
Unlike the Neolithic Revolution, the use of copper doesn’t seem to have spread out from an origin point. Rather, copper mining and use seem to have appeared in multiple locations across Europe and Western Asia at roughly the same time.
Humans had already been working with copper for some time before the official start of the Chalcolithic – beads and small decorative objects have been found dating from some three hundred years prior to the official end of the Neolithic. Copper mining and smelting were occurring near the Gulf of Aqaba perhaps more than a thousand years before the Chalcolithic officially began. And copper tools, likewise, were known to exist and be used well before the transition out of the local Neolithic period, such as the copper axe found in the Pločnik site in Serbia, which dates from roughly 5500 B.C.E.
But there was a precipitous decline in the quality of stone stools in the region of the Fertile Crescent around 4500 B.C.E. – evidence that the skilled production of them had collapsed, and such tools were now predominantly “home-made”. Copper – more durable and able to hold a sharper edge than stone – had by this time become the dominant medium for toolmaking.
This is not to say that stone tools disappeared completely – on the contrary, the famous Ötzi the Iceman, a mummified Chalcolithic man found in the Eastern Alps in Austria in 1991, carried both a copper ax and a stone-bladed knife. And it is known that stone tools continued to be used to some degree all the way through the Iron Age.
And Rise of States
But while copper tools were an improvement over stone, they weren’t the most important advance seen in this age. Rather, this is also the period when we see the settlements of the Neolithic begin to coalesce into large, centralized societies – the first recognized states.
This process began with Uruk in Mesopotamia (in modern-day Iraq) around 4000 B.C.E., followed by Hierakonpolis in ancient Egypt around 3500 B.C.E. At its height (around 3100 B.C.E.), Uruk boasted a population of more than 40,000 people – and engaged in trade as far away as eastern Iran and southern Turkey – while Hierakonpolis held a more modest 10000.
Moving into the Bronze Age (and History)
The Copper Age would last only about a millennium, melting into the early Bronze Age with the discovery and use of that harder, more durable alloy. And it is in this era that we see the end of prehistory with the development of writing.
These denser population centers – with the demands of commerce, civic infrastructure, and law – led to the need for at least some rudimentary form of notation and communication. This would begin with the simplest versions of cuneiform in Sumer (c. 3400 B.C.E.) and the earliest glyphs in Egypt (3200 B.C.E).
The accounting symbols of cuneiform evolved, first including phonetic elements and then genuinely representing the Sumerian language by 2600 B.C.E. The linear Elamite script of the Copper Age Elam civilization (in modern-day Iran) would follow about 2300 B.C.E., and true Egyptian hieroglyphics would emerge roughly 500 years after that. The Cretan Linear A script would appear around 1800 B.C.E. and the earliest evidence of written language in China dates from as early as 1300 B.C.E.
These earliest civilizations now had their greatest tool – writing systems allowing them to record their laws, and the deeds of their rulers and people, and to pass their knowledge in a more durable and reliable form than oral transmission. And with this advance, the long era of human prehistory came to a close, and the era of history began.