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.
Humans spread from East Africa to the Near East some 80 millennia ago, and further to southern Asia and Australasia some 60 millennia ago, northwestwards into Europe and eastwards into Central Asia some 40 millennia ago, and further east to the Americas from ca. 15 millennia ago. The Upper Paleolithic is taken to begin some 40 millennia ago, with the appearance of "high" culture. Expansion to North America and Oceania took place at the climax of the most recent Ice Age, when today's temperate regions were extremely inhospitable. By the end of the Ice Age some 12,000 BP, humans had colonised nearly all the ice-free parts of the globe.
Throughout the Paleolithic, humans generally lived as nomadic hunter-gatherers. Hunter-gatherer societies have tended to be very small and egalitarian, though hunter-gatherer societies with abundant resources or advanced food-storage techniques have sometimes developed a sedentary lifestyle, complex social structures such as chiefdoms, and social stratification; and long-distance contacts may be possible, as in the case of Indigenous Australian "highways."
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, tools and the onset of the earliest recorded incidents of warfare. The Neolithic term 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.
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.
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.
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.