We take Prehistory to mean the study of the Human Species, that is of people like us, over time, from the general point of view of population growth, geographical spread, conflict, and development of settlement and civilisation. Much of the evidence for this, even for recent times comes, from the methods of Archaeology. The length of time covered by 'prehistory' of course depends on where you choose to start. If we take the earliest Primates as existing 6 million years ago then the whole of their existence covers a period of 15,000 Ages of 400 years. If we take Modern Humans as dating from 150,000 years ago, this is a period of 375 Ages, in contrast to the mere 6000 years, making 15 Ages, from the invention of writing to the start of the present Age. @

Archaeology is the study of physical remains of human activities, such as buildings, pottery, and waste and the study of human remains such as burials and bones. This is a matter of piecing together, often literally, very small traces by careful detective work. Methods of doing this forensic work have greatly advanced in recent years thanks in part to improved knowledge in chemistry, physics and biology, leading for example to accurate methods of chemical analysis, methods of radioactive dating, and detailed information extracted from samples of DNA.

"For most of the human past, archaeology is the only source of information, as written records are a comparatively recent innovation." "Our knowledge of the vast period stretching back from the present day to the emergence of the first tool-making hominids some 2.5 million years ago is based predominantly on the remains of settlements, burials and artefacts. It is the study of these traces that is the domain of archaeology.""Archaeology's unique perspective ensures its importance in the study of events even of recent periods, alongside history, covering major aspects of life on which historical records may be silent." [TAA]

"It is only within the last fifty years that scientific methods have become available which allow the true antiquity of prehistoric sites and artefacts to be determined with confidence." [TAA] Dating by Materials: "In about −100 the Chinese scholar Yuan Kang wrote of successive ages of stone, jade, bronze and iron and in the century that followed the Roman writer Lucretius described the use first of stone then of bronze and finally of iron for weapons. With modifications - notably the subdivision of the Stone Age into the Palaeolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic periods - this sequence has remained an important featuure of archaeological chronology over the centuries." [TAA] Dating by Stylistic analysis: Where sufficient examples of artefacts, such as hand axes and pottery, have been produced over a long time period, classification according to their style of manufacture can provide clues to the time they were made. Dating by Stratigraphy: "The use of stratigraphy (a chronological sequence formed by accumulated deposits) was also important from the 19th century on." [TAA] Dating by Dendrochronology: Study of the variations in the relative thickness of the rings of annual growth in trees, begun in 1901, has made it possible to develop a chronology of tree-ring changes, known as dendrochronology, stretching back over 7000 years. Dating by Physics: Thermoluminescence and Radiocarbon dating are also used. A recent report (2020) has indicated a need to revise radiocarbon dating in the Middle East as compared to Northern Europe.

Sections on this page: — Evolution of the Human SpeciesThe Migration and Settlement of Modern HumansFrom Settlement to Civilisation


Evolution of the Human Species

−65,000,000 Humans are among more than 200 species of primates living on Earth today. When most dinosaurs went extinct about 65 million years ago, mammals moved into newly vacated territories and rapidly evolved into many new species, including the ancestors of today's primates. Over the past 65 million years, many now-extinct primate species flourished around the world. Extinct primates include: Plesiadapis (56 million years old), Notharctus (48 million years old), Aegyptopithecus (30 million years old), Proconsul (18 million years old), Sivapithecus (8 million years old). [source: AMNH]

−23,000,000 Humans and apes are the only living members of a once diverse superfamily of primates, called Hominoidea, that thrived in East African forests beginning about 23 million years ago. Today only a few groups survive: gibbons, orangutans, gorillas, chimpanzees and humans. What do most living primates have in common? Large brains (in relation to body size). Vision more important than sense of smell. Hands adapted for grasping. Long life spans and slow growth. Few offspring, usually one at a time. Complex social groups. [source: AMNH]

−6,000,000 Humans are the only remaining descendants of a once-varied family of primates called Hominidae. By studying the DNA from humans, and from closely related species such as chimpanzees and Neanderthals, we are piecing together the complex history of human evolution. Human DNA is, on average, 96% identical to the DNA of our most distant primate relatives, and nearly 99% identical to our closest relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos. By comparing DNA sequences from humans and chimpanzees, experts calculated that the last human-chimp ancestor lived roughly six million years ago. Later, the discovery of a hominid fossil dating back six to seven million years supported this claim. [source: AMNH] According to Wikipedia, the upright-walking common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees Sahelanthropus tchadensis appeared around 6 to 7 million years ago.

Recent discoveries of 'little people' in Flores and Palau.
'Hobbit' wrist bones suggest a distinct species, New Scientist 2007 @
Small-bodied humans from Palau, 2008 @
Discovery challenges finding of a separate human species, New York Times 2008 @

−2,500,000 The Natural History Museum @ claims that: The oldest known artefacts in the world were found in Ethiopia and were made by our very distant ancestors over 2.5 million years ago.

−200,000 According to Wikipedia anatomically modern humans appeared under 200,000 years ago. Other sources give −133,000 or −125,000 as the date of earliest fossils of anatomically modern humans.


The Migration and Settlement of Modern Humans

−113,000 Beginning of the last ice age

−100,000 Myths of human origins often imagine everyone descending from a single couple, as in the Adam and Eve stories in the Hebrew myths. The biological evidence traces us back to a population of a few thousand.
Does Genetics point to a single primal couple? @.
Who were mitochondrial eve and y-chromosome adam? @.

The subject of 'Anthropology' that is the study of the Human species, has long been controversial. A lot of the material in these sections on Prehistory and Paleohistory might be considered part of Anthropology. What may be called Social Anthropology, or Ethnology, is the study of nations and peoples in various parts of the world and their differences and relatedness. In particular the history of the ideas of racism and eugenics. At the present genetics shows there is one human species Homo sapiens or subspecies Homo sapiens sapiens world-wide. In the past going back to the earliest records, there was a widespread belief that humankind could be divided into "races" or subspecies W. This can no longer be scientifically maintained, any genetic differences being very minor, affecting say dark skin colour as in people raised in equatorial regions, or height as in Masai or lack of it as in Pygmies, although the tallest people in the world are now said to be the Dutch @! Other differences, described as ethnic, can be put down to climate, diet, history and culture.

−83,000 Human migration out of Africa, made possible by lower sea levels. Genetic evidence suggests human population fell to about 10,000 at some stage.

−70,000 The disastrous Toba event in Indonesia, on the migration route of humans from Asia to Australia, that may have nearly wiped out humans and caused a bottleneck in human evolution: @ W @

−60,000 By comparing DNA sequences from humans living all over the world today, researchers learned that modern humans first migrated from Africa into Asia and Australia about 60,000 years ago. [source: AMNH]

−48,000 Humans reach Japan via a land-bridge from Korea.

−43,000 Earlest known musical instrument, a bone flute from N Africa.(?)

−41,000 In 1995, Ivan Turk found an approximately 43,100 year-old juvenile cave bear femur, pierced by two holes, at the Divje Babe cave site, near Cerkno, Slovenia. It has been claimed to be part of a Neanderthal flute, but this is subject to debate. W

−40,000 Cro-Magnon humans enter Europe from the Near East. Modern humans reach Australia.

−38,000 Cro-Magnon humans compete with Neanderthal humans in Europe. Migrations by sea from SE asia to the land-mass that became Australia and New Guinea. A vulture-bone flute found in 2008 with fragments of mammoth-ivory flutes in Hohle Fels cave, Germany. Other fragments found at Geissenklösterle nearby were dated to −33000. @ @

−35,000 Modern humans in America, from Asia.

−35,000 According to a New Scientist article "Human geography is mapped in the genes." "Both teams found that southern Europeans boast more overall genetic diversity than Scandinavians, British and Irish. That makes perfect sense with the major migration waves that went into Europe," says Kayser, noting Homo sapien's European debut 35,000 years ago, post-ice age expansions 20,000 years ago, and movements propelled by the advent of farming 10,000 years ago. In each case, members of established southern populations struck north." @

−33,000; Beginnings of cave art in Europe The oldest known is that at Chauvet in France, according to radiocarbon dating. Other principal sites are at Lascaux, Niaux and Cosquer. These caves also show natural acoustic resonance. In at least ten locations, drawings of horses, bison, and mammoths seem to match locations that focus, amplify, and transform the sounds of human voices and musical instruments. "In the cave of Niaux in Aričge, most of the remarkable paintings are situated in the resonant Salon Noir, which sounds like a Romanesque chapel" according to Iegor Reznikoff, an acoustics expert at the University of Paris who conducted the research. (See also −15,000 and −12,000). W @.

−29,000 Humans reach Tasmania.

−26,000 Neanderthals become extinct in spain, their last stronghold.

−29/25000; Oldest known ceramic: the Venus of Dolni Vestonici figurine, Moravia, Czech Republic W.

−25,000 Cave dwellers in Brazil (predating the Clovis culture in North America). The Pedra Furada sites. W

−18,000 Some cave paintings feature musicians. (?) First rock reliefs carved in Asia.

−16,000 ice age reaches its peak, sea 130 m = 425 ft below modern levels.

−15,000; Cave paintings at Lascaux, France, found in 1940, depict bison, stag, reindeer, bulls and horses @.
Last rainy period in North Africa.

−13,500 (or earlier ?) humans reach N America via a land bridge between Siberia and Alaska. Developing the Clovis culture. W

−12,700 Younger Dryas or Clovis comet disaster in Great Lakes area of N. America W @ @ @ @.

−12,700; Earliest surviving pottery: Jomon "rope-patterned" pottery, found in numerous sites in Japan. W @ @ @ @ @

−12,000 End of cave-painting period in Europe

−11,000; End of the last Ice Age, beginning of the geological Holocene Epoch. Many animals such as the Columbian Mammoth, Woolly Mammoth, Mastodon, Woolly Rhinoceros, Saber Tooth Tiger, Dire Wolf, Irish Elk, Cave Bear, Cave Lion and Giant Hyena, became extinct during and at the close of the ice age. The Holocene also encompasses the growth and impact of the human species world-wide, including all its written history to the present.

−10,000 In most areas small composite flint tools — microliths and microburins are found. 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. Throughout this period humans were in the main nomadic hunter-gatherers forming small tribes. W

−10,000 Harvesting of wild cereals in Levant and Syria by Natufian hunter-gatherers.
Ceramic Dogu clay figurines made in Japan. @

−9,000; Beginnings of cultivation of wild cereals in Syria; and management of wild sheep and goats, Zagros Mts (Iraq-Iran border).
Human migrants reach the southern tip of S America.


From Settlement to Civilisation

This period is marked by monuments and other survivals and oral history written down in later ages. Recorded history begins when the participants begin writing down their thoughts.

−8,000Cultivation of barley, einkorn and emmer wheat in the Fertile Crescent (Nile, Tigris and Euphrates river valleys) resulting in permanent farming settlements.
"Agricultural Revolution", so described by prehistorian Vere Gordon Childe, begins in Middle East. Humans began the husbandry of animals such as sheep and goats and the cultivation of plants such as wheat and rice. This resulted in the setting up of fixed farms and settlements in fertile, well-irrigated areas, such as between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates, known as Mesopotamia, and in the Nile, Indus and Yellow River valleys. 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. 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. W

−8,000 Between 10,000 and 5,000 years ago humans in Europe and northern Africa domesticated cattle and began drinking cow's milk. According to genetic studies, people with a DNA sequence that helped them to digest milk had an advantage during times of famine, so more and more people in those regions inherited this trait. [source: AMNH]

−7,500 Flax used to make textiles in Middle East.
Nabta Playa circle Egypt. @.
−7,100 - −5,700: Settlement of Catalhoyuk in Anatolia inhabited W.

−7,000; Beginning of domestication of goats, sheep and pigs, Middle East.
Playable crane-bone flutes of this date found at Jiahu in China in 1999. @

−6,500 First major city develops around a spring at Jericho in the Jordan valley, it is walled for protection and has population of around 2,500.
Rice cultivation begins in the Yangtse valley in China.

−6,200; Earliest evidence of copper smelting, Catal Huyuk, Turkey.

−6,000; Cattle domesticated in Middle East. Beginings of irrigation in foothills of the Zagros Mountains. Beginnings of farming in Egypt, India and SE Europe.

−5,500; Cotton cultivated in India.

Development of organised irrigation, and the use of a specialised workforce, by the Sumerians.

−5,200; Chickens domesticated, Yellow River valley, China.

−5,000 Maize harvested in Mexico.
Civilisations develop in Fayoum and Nubia, Africa.

−5,000 - −4000 clay tablets used in Sumeria, Babylon, relief carving.

−4900: Goseck circle. The oldest of numerous neolithic period circular enclosures, originally with wooden pallisades, discovered by aerial survey in 1991, and archaeological excavation in 2002. Over 120 such circles are now known in central Europe, along the Elbe and Danube, and believed used for seasonal gatherings. W W

−4,500; Water buffalo domesticated, SE China.
Sail, Plough and Potter's wheel invented, Mesopotamia.

−4,300; Earliest megalithic structures, formed of large boulders set upright, built in W Europe.
Towns and cities, centred on temple complexes, begin to develop in Mesopotamia.

−4,000 We continue this chronology in the section on Palaeohistory.

Some sources of information

AMNH: Hall of Human Origins @.
TAA: Past Worlds: The Times Atlas of Archaeology