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Prehistory before written records

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


  • 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”?

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