From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Prehistory (Latin, præ = before Greek, ιστορία = history) is a term often used to describe the period before written history. Paul Tournal originally coined the term Pré-historique in describing the finds he had made in the caves of southern France. It came into use in French in the 1830s to describe the time before writing, and was 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. Usually the context implies what geologic or prehistoric time period is discussed, f.e. "prehistoric miocene apes", about 23 - 5,5 My ago, or "Middle Palaeolithic sapiens", 200000 - 30000 years ago.
Because, by definition, there are no written records from prehistoric times, (or at least there are none known to still exist down to this day) the information we know about the time period is informed by the fields of paleontology, biology, palynology, geology, archaeoastronomy, anthropology, archaeology and other natural and social sciences. In societies where the introduction of writing is relatively recent, oral histories, knowledge of the past handed down from generation to generation, contain records of "prehistoric" times.
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 Earth, history of the universe). Nevertheless, the distinction remains important to many scholars, particularly in the social sciences. The primary researchers into 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 reference terms used by prehistorians such as Neanderthal or Iron Age are modern, arbitrary labels, the precise definition of which is 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 3200 BC whereas in New Guinea the end of the prehistoric era is set much more recently, 1900.
- Archaic Homo sapiens
- Prehistoric art
- Prehistoric erotica
- Prehistoric life
- Prehistoric music
- Prehistoric warfare
- Prehistoric Medicine
- Synoptic table of the principal old world prehistoric cultures
- Three-age system
- Younger Dryas