Prehistory (Greek words προ = before and ιστορία = history) is the period before written history became available to assist our understanding of the past. The term was introduced into English by Daniel Wilson (1816–1892), President of Toronto University College, in 1851. The term Pré-historique had been used in French since the 1830s to describe the time before writing. Paul Tournal originally coined the term in describing the finds he had made in the caves of southern France. The term is most often used to describe the preliterate period of human existence in the Paleolithic to Neolithic periods, the so-called "old stone age" and "new stone age", respectively. By extension, the term is sometimes used to refer to dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals.
Religious accounts of creation, such as the biblical account in Genesis can be understood as “prehistory.” Most cultures and religions have myths and stories about how the world began, which belong to prehistory in that no human claims to have witnessed and recorded these events.
There is a fundamental difference of opinion between those who advocate an evolutionary understanding of history, for whom prehistoric humans or proto-humans emerged some five million years ago when the ancestors of Homo sapiens diverged from the lineage of chimpanzees, and advocates of creationism. According to the latter viewpoint, God created a perfectly formed first Man and first Woman, Adam and Eve, some six thousand years ago, according to the most common calculation based on the chronology of the Bible. A mediating religious viewpoint might consider the evolutionary lineage of prehistoric humans to be the "clay" that God was forming over millions of years into the physical bodies into which God, at the appointed time, could breathe his Spirit (Genesis 2:7). In this view, the biblical chronology is symbolic of a spiritual process, within which God used evolution as an instrument of creation.
Because, by definition, there are no written records from prehistoric times, much of the information we know about the time period is informed by the fields of paleontology and archeology—the study of ancient life through fossils and the study of the material left behind by ancient peoples, including the cave paintings of Lascaux, and such constructions as Stonehenge in southern England and the huge earthworks at Silbury Hill. There is much that is still unknown about the purpose of these “artifacts,” but the caves show an early ability to create art while Stonehenge demonstrates knowledge of astronomy. It is also possible that religious beliefs and practices were associated with these prehistoric monuments, perhaps involving the winter and spring equinoxes.
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 cultural terms used by prehistorians, such as Neanderthal or Iron Age are modern, arbitrary labels, the precise definition of which are often subject to discussion and argument. Prehistory thus ends when we are able to name individual actors in history, such as Snofru, founder of the Fourth Dynasty of Egypt, whose reign began circa 2620 B.C.E.
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 3500 B.C.E. whereas in New Guinea the end of the prehistoric era is set much more recently, at around 1900 C.E. The earliest historical document is said to be the Egyptian Narmer Palette,dated 3200 B.C.E.
Human prehistory in the Old World (Europe, Asia) is often subdivided by the three-age system. This system of classifying human prehistory creates three consecutive time periods, named for their respective predominant tool-making technologies. In the New World (the Americas, Australasia) other naming schemes have been devised.
These very general systems of dividing up prehistory are being found to be increasingly inapplicable as archaeological discoveries suggest a much more complex view of prehistory.
While we are unable to credit named individuals with various critical inventions or developments, we do know that by the end of the prehistoric period and the start of the historical period, many essential steps towards organizing human life socially had been taken. Basic tools for hunting, gathering, planting, cooking, and even art and cultural artifacts had been produced. Religious practices, often associated with the attempt to control the environment or to attract good fortune and to ward off bad fortune, had developed, together with religious art. Throughout much of the world, a basic developmental pattern emerged; the hunting-gathering nomadic lifestyle gave way to a settled, agrarian lifestyle often found alongside rivers. Many scholars believe that human life originated in Africa. Some contend that the human race had a single African forebear, who is symbolically called “Eve” but this theory is rejected by those who contend that there were multiple sites at which humans emerged, such as Africa, Eurasia, and Australasia. Smaller towns evolved into larger settlements. Technology and industry developed, enabling trade between different communities. The development of societies in which all of life was not devoted to survival created opportunities for artistic expression, and also for reflection on meaning and purpose. Thus, leisure may be a prerequisite for art and culture. Entertainment in the form of dance, play acting, singing, and music, would have emerged at this time. Much of this would have had a religious element and would also serve to bind people together with a common story of origins. Many ancient myths are stories of origins, whether of particular peoples or of humanity. Historical accounts and religious accounts of the origins of human life and culture differ. The “Out of Africa” theory is supported by the fact that the oldest hominine fossils have been found in Ethiopia where the “earliest known stone tools” were also discovered.
The early settlements were probably family or small tribal units. The Neolithic Revolution (10,000 B.C.E.) saw the domestication of animals, such as cattle in Algeria, pigs in China, cattle and pigs in eastern Asia, and sheep in the Middle East. Early evidence of this is found at Shanidar in northern Iraq. Metal tools now replaced the stone implements of the Paleolithic Age. From 4000 B.C.E., oxen were put to work. The earliest cultivation of crops is associated with Jericho, which may also have been the first human city (possibly from 8000 B.C.E.). Other great river civilizations flourished in China (the Yellow River), in India (the Indus Valley Civilization), and in Mesopotamia along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Trade, which led to pioneer caravans across the Sahara, developed circa 4000 B.C.E. with salt as the main commodity. Later, Roman soldiers would be paid a salt (sala) allowance. We still draw salaries today. Burial emerges as a major concern, later leading to such huge monumental constructs as the Egyptian Pyramids. Often, the dead were buried underneath places of residence. Catal Huyuk to the south of the great salt depression in Anatolia, built between 6500 B.C.E. and 5700 B.C.E., dates from this period.
Catal Huyuk's archeological record contains many examples of the importance that religion played in prehistoric life. The city itself is very well-organized and there is extensive evidence of a developed religious cult, dedicated to the mother goddess with a focus on fertility. Artifacts found include votive statuettes made of pottery with reliefs of the mother goddess, bull’s heads and horns, women’s breasts, and leopards. A high degree of artistic skill is evidenced. Many early religious cults had a concern for fertility with goddesses playing central roles. This was also true in the Indus Valley . Women, in both Catal Huyuk and the Indus Valley, may also have been highly respected and powerful and there is speculation that these societies were actually matriarchal. Domestic homes at Catal Huyuk were decorated with what appears to have been ritual paintings of spiritual significance . Concern with the rhythm of life, the cycle of seasons, the fertility of land and of people, characterized prehistoric religion. Humans appear to have buried their dead, often with artifacts for use in a future life, from a very early period. This is evidenced by burial mounds found at multiple locations, although corpses were also exposed to the elements, probably as an offering back to nature. This was practiced in Britain circa 3500–3000 B.C.E. and also in Catal Huyuk, where vultures picked at the flesh of the dead ]. The vulture was regarded as a goddess, who “transmuted” flesh into a spiritual being. Humankind appears from a very early period to have speculated about the meaning and purpose of life, and to have developed a belief that there is a spiritual reality or dimension alongside the physical dimension. Rituals associated with lifecycle events (birth, marriage, death) appear early in human culture. Early ethical codes, although belonging to written history, may have evolved orally during this period. For example, the Code of Hammurabi from Babylon, calls on the prince to establish “the rule of righteousness in the land” by prohibiting evil and encouraging “good” shows that basic rules of conduct were regarded as essential for communal harmony . Although the code is usually dated from 1900 B.C.E., it is based on existing local codes of great antiquity. Laws, as well as myths and legends, existed for millennia in the form of oral traditions before they were written down. For example, the tales of Homer (written about 850 B.C.E.) may date back from the twelfth century B.C.E., or even earlier.
The growth of the city saw major changes in human governance—no longer was the head of the settlement the senior male from one family but governance tended to be conciliar with representatives of leading families possibly selecting an overall head. Given speculation about the role of women at such ancient centers as Catal Huyuk and the Indus Valley, another trend may have been that as society became more complex, women played a less significant role in governance. This could have resulted from the rising importance of military prowess, used to extend territory and also to defend territory. Male-dominated priesthoods and scribes were also needed to administer complex agricultural societies; even as the sacred feminine continued to hold sway in traditional religion, which still set great store on the fertility of the land.
With the emergence of the Egyptian civilization circa 3000 B.C.E. the prehistoric period began to give way to “history,” since written records and named actors now emerge. Hereditary kings, often claiming to be representatives of or related to the gods, assumed authority. This development saw on the one hand more unity among disparate peoples, who came together to form recognizable cultural units characterized by a common language and religion, but on the other hand governance tended to be authoritarian. Written history would see men dominate but extraordinary women, such as Queen Puduhepa, wife of the King Hattuşili III of the Hittite Empire (1275–1250 B.C.E.) and Queen Nefertiti of Egypt (circa 1300 B.C.E.), would exercise considerable power.
A widespread Romantic and Marxist view, common through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, held that the earliest human communities were communitarian, with many objects shared rather than being privately owned. As city life developed, the concept of private ownership would have replaced that of common property. This myth of the "noble savage" untrammeled by the corrupting influence of civilization has largely been dispelled. Modern anthropology demonstrates that many existing hunter-gatherer societies are hierarchical and structured around complex notions of ownership. Prehistoric societies were likewise structured by power relations, even as they are found among social animals like chimpanzees.
So much of what we take for granted in modern life actually developed during the prehistoric period. For example, the basic shape of the dishes and bowls from which we eat and of the knives we use to cut our food, date from this period. Fundamental beliefs about what is right and wrong, about individual ownership of property, developed during this period. There are huge gaps in our knowledge but many daily activities today resemble what our ancestors did in this pre-literate epoch of history, when drawing substituted for alphabets; and song and dance preceeded the television and video.
Overy, Richard. The Times Complete History of the World. New York: Barnes and Noble, 2004. ISBN 076077840X
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