Introduction to Prehistory

The past of humankind has been divided into two broad categories viz. Prehistoric and historic. Prehistoric period belongs to the time before the emergence of writing and the historic period to the time following it. It has been so fare believed that Modern Humans originated in Africa and have lived on our planet for around 150,000 years. In recent times, there have been some challenges to this theory.

The anthropologists have long theorized that humans emerged from Africa and into East and Southeast Asia around 60,000 years ago; there has been a significant lack of fossil evidence to support these claims. The earliest skull fossil evidence in the region had dated back 16,000 years and was found in the early 20th century. In August 2012, a new skull was found that dates back to 46,000 to 63,000 years. This discovery has bolstered the genetic studies that point to modern humans inhabiting Laos and the surrounding environs at that time, according to a report of the anthropological discovery published in the latest edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). The skull has been found in Tam Pa Ling, “the Cave of the Monkeys” in northern Laos. It helps fill in this mysterious gap in the fossil record.

Advent of writing

But, man learnt writing only about 5000-8000 years ago. Writing most likely began as a consequence of political expansion in ancient cultures, which needed reliable means for transmitting information, maintaining financial accounts, keeping historical records, and similar activities. It has been concluded that around the 4th millennium BC, the complexity of trade and administration outgrew the power of human memory, and writing became a more dependable method of recording and presenting transactions in a permanent form. The earliest record of human writing may be the Dispilio Tablet, dated to the 6th
millennium BC.

So, we humans have not learnt writing for a long time, even today 10-12 % of the Human Population is illiterate. So, written history gives us account of only 0.1% of human history. Then, before the invention of printing technology in the medieval period, written documents were few and far between, and many of them have been lost due to being written on perishable materials like tree bark, palm leaf, papyrus and cloth. This means that the story of humankind has to be reconstructed largely with the help of non-literary or archaeological sources. These sources comprise objects – tools, weapons, ornaments, structures and artistic creations which were produced and used by humans and which have survived the ravages of time.

Archaeology & Ethnoarcheology

Like other creatures, we humans also had to adapt ourselves to the environment, but unlike other beings, we have done so with the aid of technology and material culture (material objects like tools, weapons, utensils, houses, clothes, ornaments, etc). Since, the components of environment such as landscape, climate, flora and fauna also tends to change over time, archaeologists have to reconstruct past environments as well. Moreover, the biological remains of men have contributed to the understanding of not only his biological evolution but also cultural evolution. Archaeology, thus, is a multi-disciplinary study involving disciplines like geology, palaeontology, palaeobotany, biological anthropology and archaeological chemistry.

Then, the cultural changes take place at an uneven pace in different regions. In many parts of the world, for example in India, prehistoric ways of life have survived more or less unchanged into modern times. The discipline, under which we study the non-industrialized societies, especially those practising hunting-gathering, fishing, primitive cultivation and pastoralism, is known as ethnoarchaeology. This study contributes to interpreting the archaeological record.

Origin of Man

The origin of man begins in the Miocene period, around twenty million years ago, when the great apes, from whom the humans evolved, flourished in large areas of the Old World. Proto humans appeared in the Pliocene period, around five million years ago, and their cultural evolution largely took place during the Pleistocene period, which began about two million years ago. While biologically humans differ from the other apes in their upright posture, ability to walk on two feet or hind limbs, extremely versatile hand, and an unusually powerful brain, culturally they differ in their ability to manufacture and use tools.

Prehistoric Period: Classification

The prehistoric period is divided into three ages, namely the stone, bronze and iron ages. These ages, besides being technological stages, also have economic and social implications. The Stone Age is divided into three periods, viz. Palaeolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic. The suffix lithic indicates that technology in these periods was primarily based on stone. Economically the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic periods represent the hunting-gathering stage while the Neolithic represents the stage of food production, i.e. plant cultivation and animal husbandry.

Concept: Absolute and Relative Chronology

Chronology of the past can be either relative or absolute. Relative chronology dates prehistoric events in relation to other events and geological deposits. The relative chronology tells us if a particular event is earlier or later than another event. On the other hand, the Absolute chronology dates events and phenomena in solar calendar years. The techniques such as Radiocarbon, K/Ar, fission tracks, thermoluminescence, TH230/U234 and dendrochronology are the techniques of absolute chronology. Out of then, the dendrochronology is applicable only to a period of a few thousand years and only in the few areas where old wood samples have been preserved. Then, the radiocarbon dating can date events up to sixty thousand years old. The other methods can, however, date events belonging to the entire prehistoric period. However, their application is dependent on the availability of suitable materials such as volcanic ash and rock at archaeological sites.

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