Prehistory (Latin word præ = before and Greek word στορία = history) is a term often used to describe the period before written history. Paul Tournal originally coined this term Pré-historique in describing the finds he had made in the caves of southern France, and the term was used in French since the 1830s to describe the time before writing, then 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.
Because, by definition, there are no written records from prehistoric times, the information we know about the time period is informed by the fields of palaeontology, astronomy, biology, geology, anthropology, archaeology—and other natural and social sciences.
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 the earth, history of the universe). Nevertheless, the primary scholars of 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 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.
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 BC whereas in New Guinea the end of the prehistoric era is set much more recently, 1900.
Until the arrival of humans, a geologic time scale defines periods in prehistory. Archaeology has augmented this record and provided more precise divisions during later, human, prehistory.
Human prehistory in the Old World 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 other naming schemes have been defined such as that listed in Archaeology of the Americas.
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.
- Prehistoric art
- Prehistoric life
- Prehistoric music
- Prehistoric warfare
- Three-age system
- Synoptic table of the principal old world prehistoric cultures