Scientists Say: Prehistoric

Researchers must look beyond the written word to study this part of human history

the reddish-brown wall of a cave is imprinted with human hand shapes and decorated with cave paintings of stick figures

This rock art in a cave in Egypt depicts the hands of prehistoric humans.

Aldo Pavan/Getty Images

Prehistoric (adjective, “Pree-hiss-TOR-ick”)

The word “prehistoric” is an adjective. It describes the time before humans invented writing. So there are no written records of this period.

Civilizations around the world invented writing at different times. The earliest evidence comes from about 5,000 years ago. This earliest known writing system was developed in Mesopotamia. That’s a region with modern-day Iraq at its center.

Some people refer to any time before writing was invented as prehistoric. For instance, dinosaurs lived millions of years before humans. So, some would say dinosaurs lived in prehistoric times. But many researchers use the word “prehistoric” only for parts of human history.

Prehistoric people achieved many things, even without writing them down. One such achievement is ocean navigation. Thousands of years ago, people from the islands of the southern Pacific Ocean sailed great distances in small boats. They were guided only by the stars, migrating birds and patterns in ocean waves. For centuries, they passed on these seafaring skills through stories and songs.  

Learning about prehistoric humans requires evidence other than written records. Tools, jewelry and storytelling traditions teach us how such early humans lived and worked.

In a sentence

Ancient remains of burnt animal poop suggest that prehistoric humans began keeping and caring for animals nearly 13,000 years ago.

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Katie Grace Carpenter is a science writer and curriculum developer, with degrees in biology and biogeochemistry. She also writes science fiction and creates science videos. Katie lives in the U.S. but also spends time in Sweden with her husband, who’s a chef.

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