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Prehistory before written records

How can we know about the history of events that happened before the invention of writing?

Overview

  • Scholars define prehistory as events that occurred before the existence of written records in a given culture or society.
  • History refers to the time period after the invention of written records in a given culture or society.
  • Archaeologists have discovered written records in Egypt from as early as 3200 BCE, which is the accepted date at which history "begins" there.
  • Written records give historians resources to deal with that are more detailed in some ways than other records, such as archaeological or biological remains.

The scope of history

Historians currently think that anatomically modern humans have been around for between 200,000 and 300,000 of the planet’s 4.5 billion years. And even though 200,000 years is less than one 20,000th of the history of the planet, it is still a very long time!
For context, 200,000 years would represent at least 6,000 generations of your ancestors (your grandparents are only 2 generations from you). 200,000 years is also nearly 1,000 times as long as the United States has been a country. It is 100 times as distant in the past as the time of Jesus and the Roman Empire. It's also 40 times as distant in the past as the earliest written records we have found.
Think about the scope of what must have happened during that time: adventures, sorrows, environmental change, and the rise and fall of civilizations. As historians, we have the privilege of exploring this vast expanse of human experience.

Written records

Our main tool as historians is what has been written by those who came before us. In fact, this is what formally defines history and sometimes sets it apart from archaeology and anthropology. For example, the oldest written records archaeologists have discovered in Egypt are from over 5,000 years ago; the date when they were created is the currently accepted date at which formal history (as opposed to "prehistory") begins in that part of the world. Of course, we might one day find older records!
Even with written records, though, we have to be careful and thoughtful. The writing may be in a dead language that we know little about. If one tribe conquers another, we might only get the biased, one-sided story of those who won and wrote about it.
Many times, narratives are only written down after generations of being transmitted orally, through speech, with every transmitter of the story consciously or unconsciously changing the specifics. Even for events that happened yesterday, two direct observers could have two completely different perceptions of what happened, how, and why.
You can imagine that things get even tougher for prehistory, or the events that occurred before the existence of written records. But we still have many tools. Archaeologists can excavate ancient structures and burial sites and begin to infer how the people lived from fossils (like human remains) and artifacts (human-made items). Archaeologists can estimate the age of fossils and artifacts through several techniques.
Carbon dating measures the amount of radioactive carbon in fossils to place them in time. Age can also be determined by identifying the age of the layer of rock that the artifacts are buried in. This is called stratigraphic dating, from the Latin word stratum, meaning "layer."
Linguists can often piece together possible human migrations and connections based on similarities in modern, living languages.
Similarly, geneticists can piece together how humanity may have spread and intermingled based on genetic similarities and differences in populations today. start superscript, 1, end superscript

Uncertainty remains

By putting all of these pieces together, we can construct surprisingly rich narratives of the distant past. But we should never let the tools and knowledge we have make us overconfident. After all, every piece of historical evidence needs to be closely read, sourced, interpreted, contextualized, and compared with other available sources. These kinds of thinking and questioning are the historians' toolkit.
Even today, we can only piece together a tiny fragment of all that has occurred. And a lot of that understanding could very well be wrong because it is inevitably partial and incomplete. Many things that historians take as a given today will be questioned by future historians armed with new tools and new evidence.
Photograph of skeletons at an archaeological dig in Whithorn Priory, Scotland. The skeletal remains of about five humans are visible in a wide expanse of hilly dirt.
Photograph of skeletons at an archaeological dig in Whithorn Priory, Scotland. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

What do you think?

  • Should prehistory and history be divided as they currently are—prehistory meaning before writing, and history meaning after writing?
  • What are some other ways archaeologists and historians might consider dividing the study of the past?
  • How much information—artifacts, fossils, or other evidence—do you think needs to be present in order for something to be “knowable”?

Want to join the conversation?

  • duskpin sapling style avatar for user Tan Zhou
    Can someone help me explain the paradox of "the oldest written records archaeologists have discovered in Egypt are from over 5,000 years ago", and "Archaeologists have discovered written records in Egypt from 3200 BCE, which is the accepted date at which history begins there"? Which one is real? ?
    (32 votes)
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  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Tatjana Blumfeld
    The text says: "the oldest written records archaeologists have discovered in Egypt are from over 5,000 years ago". Hieroglyphics are a form of writing with pictures. Maybe earlier societies used pictures to 'write' things too? How about Göbekli Tepe and all its depictions of animals? Perhaps they are actual words that we don't know how to read. It would make the oldest records 11500 years old.
    (24 votes)
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    • orange juice squid orange style avatar for user ddagnachew
      The difference is that pictures and paintings are merely illustration s, though they can communicate things. Where as hieroglyphics can be translated into meaning. Each individual hieroglyphic or set of hieroglyphic has a set meaning and value. It's like established communication, not really comparable to a picture of a bison, which doesn't mean more than someone painting an image of an animal they saw.
      (16 votes)
  • leafers ultimate style avatar for user 2004Cai.R
    How is writing defined? Can a group of symbols scratched on a rock representing something be considered writing? Or does it have to be a logical system with an alphabet and such?
    (19 votes)
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  • starky seed style avatar for user 2134745
    how is a language considered dead if some historians and researchers still understand it
    (6 votes)
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    • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Christian Laube
      Languages do change and evolve as long as they are used daily by lot's of people as their first language. Some words get popular and others fall out of fashion, pronounciations change and even the meaning of words changes. A language is considered dead if that does not happen anymore because it is not used for everyday conversation anymore, that does not mean no one can understand it or that it does not get used at all, just that there are not enough people left to use it so regularily that it still changes and has fashions.
      (29 votes)
  • spunky sam blue style avatar for user tai rahul
    what is the difference between archeology and palentology
    (8 votes)
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    • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Elizabeth Pruiksma
      archeology, the study of human history and prehistory through the excavation of sites and the analysis of artifacts and other physical remains.

      Paleontology or palaeontology is the scientific study of life existent prior to, and sometimes including, the start of the Holocene Epoch roughly 11,700 years before present. It includes the study of fossils to determine organisms' evolution and interactions with each other and their environments.
      (8 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Nicole Cottman
    the third bullet point at the top says that hieroglyphs in Egypt were the oldest writing found, from 3200 BCE, but wasn't Sumerian text created in 3000 BCE? so wouldn't that be the start of history or are my facts wrong?
    (4 votes)
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  • piceratops seed style avatar for user AContreras792
    Is it safe to say that the hieroglyphics on the Rosetta stone that was translated into Greek could have been translated totally incorrect?
    (4 votes)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      All translation is treason, so you can safely say that it was translated incorrectly, BUT, if the same "translation standard" as used on the Rosetta stone was applied to other texts in hieroglyphics and the translations came out making sense, then you'd have a hard case saying that what was done with the Rosetta stone was incorrect.
      (5 votes)
  • mr pants green style avatar for user Elita Moon
    In the fifth paragraph, I would like to know how they discovered Carbon dating.
    (3 votes)
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  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Xalexgevorgyan
    So, I have a question. Can a prehistory for one culture be different from another culture? For example, can the prehistory of Egypt be different from the prehistory the Inca?
    (4 votes)
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  • starky sapling style avatar for user Nourah AlSulaiteen
    My understanding is that the Mesopotamian culture with its cuneiform writing preceded the Egyptian.
    Would you kindly confirm?
    (3 votes)
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