Recently, a reader thanked us for providing them with an explanation of what exactly “prehistory” means. It’s one of those words which were often hear and think we understand but actually, it turns out we don’t always know what historical terms mean! Below is an extract from our new book, A Quick History of The World, and it was this passage that our reader thanked us for:

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Prehistory is the period before written history. It is that period of human history from which no documents or written clues survive. What we know of prehistory comes almost entirely from the fields of archaeology and of palaeontology, the study of the fossil record.

During the Bronze and Iron Age, writing began to emerge in a number of societies. Before 3000 BCE, a system of writing called cuneiform spread in the Middle East. This was possibly the first-ever writing system but soon writing emerged in Egypt, China, Mexico and Peru.

Writing is one of the greatest inventions of the entirety of human history, as crucial to the human mastery of their environment as any other. (Yet some civilisations, notably in southern Africa, never developed writing.)

Why does writing matter? For the societies themselves, it was an efficient, learnable method of communicating information and ideas, about how a society should be governed, about what the society believed, and to convey news about the world.

For the historian, it is also crucial as for the first time, people began to record specific events of their own times and so the political, religious and social details of ancient societies become much, much clearer than prehistoric ones.

Prehistory therefore, is the time before history – or perhaps history before writing.

You can get a copy of A Quick History of The World now – yes, an entire history of the world you can read in less than two hours! Or sign up for other freebies and review copies: