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Human prehistory is the period between the use of the first stone tools c. 3.3 million years ago by hominins and the invention of writing systems. The earliest writing systems appeared c. 5,300 years ago, but it took thousands of years for writing to be widely adopted, and it was not used in some human cultures until the 19th century or even until the present. 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.
A writing system is a method of visually representing verbal communication. While both writing and speech are useful in conveying messages, writing differs in also being a reliable form of information storage and transfer. Writing systems require shared understanding between writers and readers of the meaning behind the sets of characters that make up a script. Writing is usually recorded onto a durable medium, such as paper or electronic storage, although non-durable methods may also be used, such as writing on a computer display, on a blackboard, in sand, or by skywriting. Reading a text can be accomplished purely in the mind as an internal process, or expressed orally.
Sumer in Mesopotamia, the Indus valley civilization, and ancient Egypt were the first civilizations to develop their own scripts and to keep historical records; this took place already during the early Bronze Age. Neighboring 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 Australia.
Sumer is the earliest known civilization in the historical region of southern Mesopotamia, modern-day southern Iraq, during the Chalcolithic and Early Bronze ages, and one of the first civilizations in the world along with Ancient Egypt and the Indus Valley. Living along the valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates, Sumerian farmers were able to grow an abundance of grain and other crops, the surplus of which enabled them to settle in one place. Prehistoric proto-writing dates back before 3000 BC. The earliest texts come from the cities of Uruk and Jemdet Nasr and date to between roughly c. 3500 and c. 3000 BC.
Mesopotamia is a historical region of Western Asia situated within the Tigris–Euphrates river system, in the northern part of the Fertile Crescent, in modern days roughly corresponding to most of Iraq, Kuwait, the eastern parts of Syria, Southeastern Turkey, and regions along the Turkish–Syrian and Iran–Iraq borders.
Ancient Egypt was a civilization of ancient North Africa, concentrated along the lower reaches of the Nile River in the place that is now the country Egypt. Ancient Egyptian civilization followed prehistoric Egypt and coalesced around 3100 BC with the political unification of Upper and Lower Egypt under Menes. The history of ancient Egypt occurred as a series of stable kingdoms, separated by periods of relative instability known as Intermediate Periods: the Old Kingdom of the Early Bronze Age, the Middle Kingdom of the Middle Bronze Age and the New Kingdom of the Late Bronze Age.
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 century.
Protohistory is a period between prehistory and history, during which a culture or civilization has not yet developed writing but other cultures have already noted its existence in their own writings. For example, in Europe, the Celts and the Germanic tribes are considered to have been protohistoric when they began appearing in Greek and Roman sources.
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.
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 Quarterly Review was a literary and political periodical founded in March 1809 by the well known London publishing house John Murray. It ceased publication in 1967.
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.
Archaeology, or archeology, is the study of human activity through the recovery and analysis of material culture. The archaeological record consists of artifacts, architecture, biofacts or ecofacts and cultural landscapes. Archaeology can be considered both a social science and a branch of the humanities. In North America archaeology is a sub-field of anthropology, while in Europe it is often viewed as either a discipline in its own right or a sub-field of other disciplines.
An antiquarian or antiquary is an aficionado or student of antiquities or things of the past. More specifically, the term is used for those who study history with particular attention to ancient artifacts, archaeological and historic sites, or historic archives and manuscripts. The essence of antiquarianism is a focus on the empirical evidence of the past, and is perhaps best encapsulated in the motto adopted by the 18th-century antiquary Sir Richard Colt Hoare, "We speak from facts, not theory."
Anthropology is the scientific study of humans and human behavior and societies in the past and present. Social anthropology studies patterns of behaviour and cultural anthropology studies cultural meaning, including norms and values. Linguistic anthropology studies how language influences social life. Biological or physical anthropology studies the biological development of humans.
The main source of information 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 deep history.
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 Neanderthal or 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.
"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, 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. 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.Evidence of control of fire by early humans during the 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
Early 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 BP. 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-gatherers. 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.
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 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 "Epipalaeolithic" 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 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 Northern Africa and the Kebaran culture of the Levant. However, independent discovery is not ruled out.
"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 BCE in some parts of the Middle East, and later in other parts of the world and ended between 4,500 and 2,000 BCE. 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 BCE, 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.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.
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, and most 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.
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.
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 BCE (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.
The 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.
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 BCE. 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.
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.
The 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 term 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 archaeological 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.
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".
The Paleolithic or Palaeolithic, also called the Old Stone Age, is a period in human prehistory distinguished by the original development of stone tools that covers c. 99% of human technological prehistory. It extends from the earliest known use of stone tools by hominins c. 3.3 million years ago, to the end of the Pleistocene c. 11,650 cal BP.
The Stone Age was a broad prehistoric period during which stone was widely used to make implements with an edge, a point, or a percussion surface. The period lasted roughly 3.4 million years and ended between 8700 BCE and 2000 BCE with the advent of metalworking.
Africa has the longest record of human habitation in the world. The first hominins emerged 6-7 million years ago, and among the earliest anatomically modern human skulls found so far were discovered at Omo Kibish.
The Middle Paleolithic is the second subdivision of the Paleolithic or Old Stone Age as it is understood in Europe, Africa and Asia. The term Middle Stone Age is used as an equivalent or a synonym for the Middle Paleolithic in African archeology. The Middle Paleolithic broadly spanned from 300,000 to 30,000 years ago. There are considerable dating differences between regions. The Middle Paleolithic was succeeded by the Upper Paleolithic subdivision which first began between 50,000 and 40,000 years ago. Pettit and White date the Early Middle Paleolithic in Great Britain to about 325,000 to 180,000 years ago, and the Late Middle Paleolithic as about 60,000 to 35,000 years ago.
The Lower Paleolithic is the earliest subdivision of the Paleolithic or Old Stone Age. It spans the time from around 3.3 million years ago when the first evidence for stone tool production and use by hominins appears in the current archaeological record, until around 300,000 years ago, spanning the Oldowan and Acheulean lithics industries.
Prehistoric Europe is the designation for the period of human presence in Europe before the start of recorded history, beginning in the Lower Paleolithic. As history progresses, considerable regional irregularities of cultural development emerge and increase. The region of the eastern Mediterranean is, due to its geographic proximity, greatly influenced and inspired by the classical Middle Eastern civilizations, and adopts and develops the earliest systems of communal organization and writing. The Histories of Herodotus is the oldest known European text that seeks to systematically record traditions, public affairs and notable events. In contrast, the European regions furthest away from the ancient centers of civilization tended to be the slowest, regarding acculturation. In Northern and Eastern Europe in particular, writing and systematic recording was only introduced in the context of Christianization, after 1000 CE.
The prehistory and protohistory of Poland can be traced from the first appearance of Homo species on the territory of modern-day Poland, to the establishment of the Polish state in the 10th century AD, a span of roughly 500,000 years.
The South Asian Stone Age covers the Palaeolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic periods in South Asia. Evidence for the most ancient anatomically modern Homo sapiens in South Asia has been found in the cave sites of Cudappah of India, Batadombalena and Belilena in Sri Lanka. In Mehrgarh, in what is today western Pakistan, the Neolithic began c. 7000 BCE and lasted until 3300 BCE and the first beginnings of the Bronze Age. In South India, the Mesolithic lasted until 3000 BCE, and the Neolithic until 1400 BCE, followed by a Megalithic transitional period mostly skipping the Bronze Age. The Iron Age began roughly simultaneously in North and South India, around c. 1200 to 1000 BCE.
Prehistoric France is the period in the human occupation of the geographical area covered by present-day France which extended through prehistory and ended in the Iron Age with the Celtic "La Tène culture".
Prehistoric Korea is the era of human existence in the Korean Peninsula for which written records do not exist. It nonetheless constitutes the greatest segment of the Korean past and is the major object of study in the disciplines of archaeology, geology, and palaeontology.
The prehistory of Georgia is the period between the first human habitation of the territory of modern-day nation of Georgia and the time when Assyrian and Urartian, and more firmly, the Classical accounts, brought the proto-Georgian tribes into the scope of recorded history.
Prehistoric Thailand may be traced back as far as 1,000,000 years ago from the fossils and stone tools found in northern and western Thailand. At an archaeological site in Lampang, northern Thailand Homo erectus fossils, Lampang Man, dating back 1,000,000 – 500,000 years, have been discovered. Stone tools have been widely found in Kanchanaburi, Ubon Ratchathani, Nakhon Si Thammarat, and Lopburi. Prehistoric cave paintings have also been found in these regions, dating back 10,000 years.
Prehistoric Asia refers to events in Asia during the period of human existence prior to the invention of writing systems or the documentation of recorded history. This includes portions of the Eurasian land mass currently or traditionally considered as the continent of Asia. The continent is commonly described as the region east of the Ural Mountains, the Caucasus Mountains, the Caspian Sea and Black Sea, bounded by the Pacific, Indian, and Arctic Oceans. This article gives an overview of the many regions of Asia during prehistoric times.
The greater Basque Country comprises the Autonomous Communities of the Basque Country and Navarre in Spain and the Northern Basque Country in France. The Prehistory of the region begins with the arrival of the first hominin settlers during the Paleolithic and lasts until the conquest and colonisation of Hispania by the Romans after the Second Punic War, who introduced comprehensive administration, writing and regular recordings.
The prehistory of Southeastern Europe, defined roughly as the territory of the wider Balkan peninsula covers the period from the Upper Paleolithic, beginning with the presence of Homo sapiens in the area some 44,000 years ago, until the appearance of the first written records in Classical Antiquity, in Greece as early as the 8th century BC.
The prehistory of Corsica is analogous to the prehistories of the other islands in the Mediterranean Sea, such as Sicily, Sardinia, Malta and Cyprus, which could only be accessed by boat and featured cultures that were to some degree insular; that is, modified from the traditional Paleolithic, Mesolithic, Neolithic and Chalcolithic of European prehistoric cultures. The islands of the Aegean Sea and Crete early developed Bronze Age civilizations and are accordingly usually treated under those categories. Stone Age Crete however shares some of the features of the prehistoric Mediterranean islands.
The prehistory of Burma (Myanmar) spanned hundreds of millennia to about 200 BCE. Archaeological evidence shows that the Homo erectus had lived in the region now known as Burma as early as 750,000 years ago, and the Homo sapiens about 11,000 BCE, in a Stone Age culture called the Anyathian. Named after the central dry zone sites where most of the early settlement finds are located, the Anyathian period was when plants and animals were first domesticated and polished stone tools appeared in Burma. Though these sites are situated in fertile areas, evidence shows these early people were not yet familiar with agricultural methods.
Prehistoric technology is technology that predates recorded history. History is the study of the past using written records. Anything prior to the first written accounts of history is prehistoric, including earlier technologies. About 2.5 million years before writing was developed, technology began with the earliest hominids who used stone tools, which they may have used to start fires, hunt, and bury their dead.
The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to prehistoric technology.
The Ahmarian culture was a Paleolithic archeological industry in Levant dated at 46,000-42,000 BP and thought to be related to Levantine Emiran and younger European Aurignacian cultures.
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