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Historical Period: Prehistory

Updated on April 18, 2018
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Written by: Jason Wheeler, Film Frenzy Senior Writer & Editor.

Overview

Regarded by historians as the era between the first use of stone tools and the first writing systems, the Prehistoric Era is considered to have lasted between 3 million years ago to about 5,300 years ago.

Since no written records exist from the Prehistoric Era, information from this time period comes from paleontology and archeology. Primary sources from this period include fossils, material left behind by prehistoric people and various constructions. Though scholarship is limited to what has survived from the era, much of what the modern world sees as commonplace comes from prehistoric discoveries.

A majority of this period was in the Stone Age with some civilizations developing writing in the Bronze Age and others in the Iron Age. The first civilizations believed to have done so are Sumer in the Middle East, the Indus Valley Civilization in South Asia and ancient Egypt around 3,000 BCE (Before Common Era).


Culture

Despite having no writing systems, culture thrived in the Prehistoric Era through art and music. Some archaeologists believe early man as far back as 500,000 years ago exhibited artistic expression, citing symmetry of artifacts and attention to detail of tool shapes. Researchers believe the earliest proposed evidence of artistic activity is a zig-zag etching on a freshwater clam shell made with a shark tooth. Throughout the Stone Age, man created cave paintings, figurines and beads, decorated objects with figures, sculpted pottery and constructed megaliths. The Bronze Age paved the way for metal art, providing for more stylistically diverse works. Moreover, it granted for the creation of objects with no function other than as artwork, people specializing in the production of art and writing systems to develop.

As for music, the most likely first musical instrument was the human voice and it’s ability to perform a plethora of sounds. Additionally, clapping hands, hitting stones or other objects together were probably the first methods of creating rhythm and archaeologist have discovered bone flutes or pipes. The Divje Babe Flute, believed to be the oldest known musical instrument at 40,000 years old, was carved from the femur of a cave bear. Further, references to Indian prehistoric musical traditions, one of the oldest music traditions in the world, are found in the ancient scriptures of the Hindu tradition and the earliest and largest collection of prehistoric musical instruments, found in China, dates back to between 7,000 and 6,600 BCE.

Science & Technology

For much of the prehistoric era, technology revolved around the use of stone tools. Archaeologists have found such instruments all over the world including daggers and spear points used for hunting, hand axes and choppers used for cutting meat and scrapers for cleaning animal hides. Bones and animal antlers were also used for creating bows and arrows, fishhooks, needles, spears and harpoons. These tools allowed for the hollowing of logs, bestowing upon people the ability to cross rivers and fish in deep water.

One other important technological achievement for early humans was control of fire. While it is unknown when or how they were able to control it, it is believed fires were started through hitting pieces of flint together or rubbing two sticks together. Nevertheless, man was able to use this technological advancement to cook and preserve their food and gather together for comfort and safety.

Eventually, the Stone Age became the Bronze Age, leading to radical changes in toolmaking. Man was able to smelt copper and bronze to create sturdier tools and weapons. Later, humans were able to smelt iron or steel, which replaced bronze. This Iron Age led to stronger and lighter weapons, creating a number of societal changes.

Advancements in tool making brought about advancements in agricultural technology, too. Inventions such as the plow permitted for planting seeds. Man now had the ability to farm and could rely on a more certain food supply without depending on luck in hunting. Permanent settlements followed as did domestication of animals for food and work.


Sociological Timeline

Dates are approximate and based upon scholarly consensus

  • 3.3 million years ago – Earliest evidence of stone tools; prehistoric era begins

  • 2.8 million years ago – Earliest evidence of Homo habilis, first species of the genus Homo, appearing in Africa

  • 1.5 million years ago – Earliest evidence of the control of fire

  • 200,000 years ago – Earliest evidence of Homo sapiens first appearing in Africa

  • 195,000 years ago – Date of oldest Homo sapiens fossil

  • 170,000 years ago – Earliest evidence of humans wearing clothing

  • 82,000 years ago – Earliest evidence of personal adornment, small perforated seashell beads, found in Oujda, Morocco

  • 70,000 years ago – Earliest evidence of abstract or symbolic art, stones engraved with grid or cross-hatch patterns, found in South Africa

  • 64,000 years ago – Earliest evidence of bow and arrow use in South Africa

  • 50,000 years ago – Earliest evidence of sewing needles found in Asia

  • 45,000-43,000 years ago – Earliest evidence of humans colonizing Europe

  • 42,000 years ago – Earliest evidence of advanced deep sea fishing in East Timor

  • 40,000 years ago – Earliest evidence of figurative art, Löwenmesch figurine, found in Germany

  • 40,000-30,000 years ago – Earliest evidence of Aboriginal Australians forming the first human settlement in Sydney, Perth, and Melbourne.

  • 40,000-20,000 years ago – Earliest evidence of ritual cremation in Lake Mungo, Australia

  • 35,000 years ago – Earliest evidence of figurative art of a human figure, Venus of Hohle Fels, found in Germany

  • 33,000 years ago –Earliest evidence of the domestication of dogs

  • 30,000 years ago – Earliest evidence of rock painting tradition in India

  • 29,000 years ago – Earliest evidence of ovens found in Central Europe

  • 28,500 years ago – Earliest evidence of humans colonizing New Guinea

  • 28,000 years ago – Earliest evidence of twisted rope

  • 28,000-24,000 years ago – Earliest evidence of pottery, Venus of Dolní Věstonice, found in Czech Republic

  • 28,000-20,000 years ago – Earliest evidence of saws and harpoons

  • 26,000 years ago – Earliest evidence of fiber used for baby carriers, clothes, bags, baskets and nets

  • 25,000 years ago – Earliest evidence of permanent settlement in the Czech Republic

  • 21,000 years ago - Earliest evidence of human activity in Canberra, Australia

  • 20,000 years ago – Earliest evidence of pottery used for storage and cooking in China

  • 16,500-13,000 years ago – Earliest evidence of humans colonizing North America

  • 16,000 years ago – Date of Wisent sculpture creation, one of the largest and finest surviving prehistoric sculptures, in the French Pyrenees.

  • 15,000-14,709 years ago – Earliest evidence of the domestication of pigs

  • 13,000-11,000 years ago – Earliest evidence of the domestication of sheep

  • 12,000 years ago – Earliest evidence of the settling of Jericho; Earliest evidence of the domestication of goats

  • 11,000 years ago – Earliest evidence of emenoi ceremonial structures, the oldest surviving proto-religious site, in southern Turkey

  • 10,500 years ago – Earliest evidence of the domestication of cattle

  • 11,000-9,000 years ago – Earliest evidence of the settling of Byblos

  • 10,000-9,000 years ago – Earliest evidence of the cultivation of barley and wheat with a planting stick in northern Iraq.

  • 9,500-5,800 years ago – Earliest evidence of African culture developing between the Savannah and Sahara desert

  • 9,500 years ago – Earliest evidence of the establishment of Çatalhöyük in Anatolia; Earliest evidence of the domestication of cats

  • 9,200 years ago – Earliest evidence of the settling of Amman, Jordan

  • 8,000 years ago – Earliest evidence of the settling of Aleppo, Syria

  • 7,500 years ago – Earliest evidence of copper smelting in Serbia

  • 7,000 years ago – Earliest evidence of the invention of the wheel in Syria; Earliest evidence of proto-writing; Earliest evidence of golden treasure in Bulgaria

  • 6,000 years ago – Civilization develops in Mesopotamia; Earliest evidence of the domestication of horses; Earliest evidence of the domestication of chickens

  • 5,500 years ago – Earliest evidence of mummification in Egypt

  • 5,300 – Bronze Age begins; Indus Valley Civilization begins; Earliest evidence of Newgrange monument in Ireland

  • 5,200 years ago – Earliest evidence of writing in Sumer; Ancient history begins

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