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prehistory n : the time during the development of human culture before the appearance of the written word [syn: prehistoric culture]

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history of human culture prior to written records

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Extensive Definition

For a timeline of events in the early history of the universe and prehistoric Earth, see Early prehistory.
Prehistory (Latin, præ = before Greek, ιστορία = history) is a term often used to describe the period before written history. Paul Tournal originally coined the term Pré-historique in describing the finds he had made in the caves of southern France. It came into use in French in the 1830s to describe the time before writing, and was introduced into English by Daniel Wilson in 1851.
Prehistory can be said to date back to the beginning of the universe itself, although the term is most often used to describe periods when there was life on Earth; dinosaurs can be described as prehistoric animals and cavemen are described as prehistoric people. Usually the context implies what geologic or prehistoric time period is discussed, f.e. "prehistoric miocene apes", about 23 - 5.5 Million years ago, or "Middle Palaeolithic Homo sapiens", 200000 - 30000 years ago.
Because, by definition, there are no written records from prehistoric times, (or at least there are none known to still exist down to this day) the information we know about the time period is informed by the fields of paleontology, biology, palynology, geology, archaeoastronomy, anthropology, archaeology and other natural and social sciences. In societies where the introduction of writing is relatively recent, oral histories, knowledge of the past handed down from generation to generation, contain records of "prehistoric" times.
The term became less strictly defined in the 20th century as the boundary between history (interpretation of written and oral records) and other disciplines became less rigid. Indeed today most historians rely on evidence from many areas and do not necessarily restrict themselves to the historical period and written, oral or other symbolically encoded sources of communication; in addition, the term "history" is increasingly used in place of "prehistory" (e.g. History of Earth, history of the universe). Nevertheless, the distinction remains important to many scholars, particularly in the social sciences. The primary researchers into Human prehistory are prehistoric archaeologists and physical anthropologists who use excavation, geographic survey, and scientific analysis to reveal and interpret the nature and behavior of pre-literate and non-literate peoples. Human prehistory differs from history not only in terms of chronology but in the way it deals with the activities of archaeological cultures rather than named nations or individuals. Restricted to material remains rather than written records (and indeed only those remains that have survived), prehistory is anonymous. Because of this, the reference terms used by prehistorians such as Neanderthal or Iron Age are modern, arbitrary 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. In Egypt it is generally accepted that prehistory ended around 3200 BCE whereas in New Guinea the end of the prehistoric era is set much more recently, 1900.

Stone Age


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 BCE (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 Spain and Portugal, and the Kebaran culture of Palestine. Independent discovery is not always ruled out.


"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 and tools.
A major change, described by prehistorian Vere Gordon Childe as the "Agricultural Revolution," occurred about the 10th millennium BCE with the adoption of agriculture. The Sumerians first began farming ca. 9500 BCE. By 7000 BCE, agriculture had spread to India; by 6000 BCE, to Egypt; by 5000 BCE, to China. About 2700 BCE, 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 BCE. 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 BCE. After bronze, the Eastern Mediterranean region, Middle East and China saw the introduction of iron tools and weapons. The Americas may not have had metal tools until the Chavín horizon (900 BCE). 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, 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.
Agriculture made possible complex societies — civilizations. States and markets emerged. Technologies enhanced people's ability to control nature and to develop transport and communication.

Bronze Age

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.

Iron Age

In archaeology, the Iron Age was the stage in the development ferrous metallurgy. The adoption of iron coincided with other changes in some past societies often including differing 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

see Timeline of human evolution All dates are approximate and conjectural, obtained through 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. 120,000 BP - Modern Homo sapiens appears in Africa.


External links

prehistory in Tosk Albanian: Ur- und Frühgeschichte
prehistory in Arabic: ما قبل التاريخ
prehistory in Asturian: Prehistoria
prehistory in Bengali: প্রাক-ইতিহাস
prehistory in Belarusian: Першабытнае грамадства
prehistory in Breton: Ragistor
prehistory in Catalan: Prehistòria
prehistory in Czech: Pravěk
prehistory in Danish: Menneskets urhistorie og forhistorie
prehistory in German: Urgeschichte
prehistory in Estonian: Esiaeg
prehistory in Spanish: Prehistoria
prehistory in Esperanto: Prahistorio
prehistory in French: Préhistoire
prehistory in Western Frisian: Klassike Aldheid
prehistory in Croatian: Prapovijest
prehistory in Indonesian: Prasejarah
prehistory in Icelandic: Forsögulega tímabilið
prehistory in Italian: Preistoria
prehistory in Hebrew: פרהיסטוריה
prehistory in Swahili (macrolanguage): Kabla-ya Historia
prehistory in Haitian: Preyistwa
prehistory in Kurdish: Pêşdîrok
prehistory in Latin: Praehistoricum aevum
prehistory in Latvian: Aizvēsture
prehistory in Luxembourgish: Virgeschicht
prehistory in Lithuanian: Priešistorė
prehistory in Hungarian: Őskor
prehistory in Dutch: Prehistorie
prehistory in Japanese: 先史時代
prehistory in Norwegian: Oldtiden
prehistory in Norwegian Nynorsk: Førhistorisk tid
prehistory in Narom: Préhistouaithe
prehistory in Occitan (post 1500): Preïstòria
prehistory in Piemontese: Preistòria
prehistory in Polish: Prehistoria
prehistory in Portuguese: História Antiga
prehistory in Romanian: Preistorie
prehistory in Russian: Первобытное общество
prehistory in Sicilian: Preistoria
prehistory in Simple English: Pre-history
prehistory in Slovenian: Prazgodovina
prehistory in Serbian: Праисторија
prehistory in Sundanese: Prasajarah
prehistory in Finnish: Esihistoria
prehistory in Swedish: Förhistorisk tid
prehistory in Tamil: தொல் பழங்காலம்
prehistory in Thai: ยุคก่อนประวัติศาสตร์
prehistory in Turkish: Prehistorya
prehistory in Ukrainian: Первісне суспільство
prehistory in Urdu: زمانہ قبل از تاریخ
prehistory in Chinese: 史前史
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