Prehistory is the time before people began to write. The word comes from the Ancient Greek words προ (pre = "before") and ιστορία (historia = "history"). Paul Tournal first used the French word Préhistorique. He found things made by humans more than ten thousand years ago in some caves in France. The word was first used in France around 1830 to talk about the time before writing. Daniel Wilson used it in English in 1851.

The term is mostly used for the period from 12,000 BC – 3000 BC, roughly speaking, the Neolithic. Sometimes the term "prehistoric" is used for much older periods, but scientists have more accurate terms for those more ancient times.

Less is known about prehistoric people because there are no written records (history) for us to study. Finding out about pre-history is done by archaeology. This means studying things like tools, bones, buildings and cave drawings. Pre-history ends at different times in different places when people began to write.

In the more ancient stone age pre-history, people lived in tribes and lived in caves or tents made from animal skin. They had simple tools made from wood and bones, and cutting tools from stone such as flint, which they used to hunt and to make simple things. They made fire and used it for cooking and to stay warm. They made clothing out of animal skins, and later by weaving. Society started when people began doing specialized jobs. This is called the division of labour. The division of labor made people depend on one another and led to more complex civilizations.

Some important sciences that are used to find out more about pre-history are palaeontology, astronomy, biology, geology, anthropology, and archaeology. Archaeologists study things left over from prehistory to try to understand what was happening. Anthropologists study the traces of human behavior to learn what people were doing and why.

After people started to record events, first by drawing symbols (called pictographs) and then by writing, it became much easier to tell what happened, and history started. These records can tell us the names of leaders (such as Kings and Queens), important events like floods and wars, and the things people did in their daily lives. The time when prehistory ended and history started is different in different places, depending on when people began to write and if their records were kept safe or lost so they could be found later on. In places like Mesopotamia, China, and Ancient Egypt, things were recorded from very early times (around 3200 BC in Ancient Egypt) and these records can be looked at and studied. In New Guinea, the end of prehistory came much later, around 1900.

Timeline of Earth

  • 4.5 billion years ago – Earth formed out of smaller rocks flying around the sun
  • 3,500 million years ago – first very simple and tiny forms of life in the seas
  • 600 million years ago - first animals, also in the seas
  • 500 million years ago - first plants and animals on land
  • 230 million years ago – first dinosaurs appear
  • 65 million years ago – dinosaurs disappear; mammals take their place as dominant animals
  • 30 million years ago - first apes
  • 2.5 million years ago - first humans
Other Languages
Afrikaans: Voorgeskiedenis
Alemannisch: Urgeschichte
አማርኛ: ቅድመ-ታሪክ
aragonés: Prehistoria
অসমীয়া: প্ৰাক-ইতিহাস
asturianu: Prehistoria
Bân-lâm-gú: Sú-chêng
Basa Banyumasan: Prasejarah
беларуская (тарашкевіца)‎: Першабытнае грамадзтва
български: Праистория
bosanski: Prahistorija
brezhoneg: Ragistor
català: Prehistòria
čeština: Pravěk
Cymraeg: Cynhanes
Deutsch: Urgeschichte
eesti: Esiaeg
Ελληνικά: Προϊστορία
English: Prehistory
español: Prehistoria
Esperanto: Prahistorio
euskara: Historiaurre
فارسی: پیشاتاریخ
Fiji Hindi: Purana itihaas
français: Préhistoire
galego: Prehistoria
贛語: 史前時代
한국어: 선사 시대
հայերեն: Նախնադար
hrvatski: Prapovijest
Bahasa Indonesia: Prasejarah
interlingua: Prehistoria
italiano: Preistoria
Basa Jawa: Prasejarah
ქართული: პრეისტორია
kernowek: Kynsistori
Kreyòl ayisyen: Preyistwa
kurdî: Pêşdîrok
Кыргызча: Алгачкы коом
latgaļu: Pyrmaviesture
latviešu: Aizvēsture
Lëtzebuergesch: Virgeschicht
lietuvių: Priešistorė
Limburgs: Prehistorie
Lingua Franca Nova: Preistoria
la .lojban.: prucitri
lumbaart: Preistòria
magyar: Őskor
македонски: Праисторија
Malti: Preistorja
Bahasa Melayu: Zaman prasejarah
Mirandés: Pré-stória
Nederlands: Prehistorie
नेपाल भाषा: प्रागितिहास
日本語: 先史時代
Nordfriisk: Föörhistoore
norsk nynorsk: Førhistorisk tid
Nouormand: Préhistouaithe
occitan: Preïstòria
oʻzbekcha/ўзбекча: Ibtidoiy jamiyat
Pälzisch: Vorgeschichte
Patois: Bifuo-Ischri
Piemontèis: Preistòria
polski: Prehistoria
português: Pré-história
română: Preistorie
русиньскый: Правік
саха тыла: Преистория
Scots: Prehistory
sicilianu: Preistoria
slovenčina: Pravek
slovenščina: Prazgodovina
کوردی: پێش مێژوو
српски / srpski: Преисторија
srpskohrvatski / српскохрватски: Prahistorija
Basa Sunda: Prasajarah
Türkçe: Tarihöncesi
vèneto: Preistoria
Tiếng Việt: Thời tiền sử
Volapük: Rujenav
文言: 史前
West-Vlams: Prehistorie
Winaray: Prehistorya
吴语: 史前时代
粵語: 史前史
Zazaki: Vertarix
žemaitėška: Prīšistuorė
中文: 史前時代