What is the difference between ancient history and prehistory?

Prehistory is the period before written history. It is that period of human history from which no documents or written clues to the lives of our ancestors survive. So, no hieroglyphs on pyramids, no stone tablets with the first Mesopotamian, Chinese or Greek characters carved into them, no ancient poems or plays.

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Egyptian hieroglyphics as alphabetical sounds, including sounds specific to Ancient Egyptian.

So, without writing, what we know of that period, which is by far the largest part of human existence, comes almost entirely from the field of archaeology. Therefore, if prehistory is the era before written evidence, history is the period which follows.

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, which is widely accepted as the first known writing system.

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Cuneiform writing – Sumerian – describing how beer should be allocated!

However, several societies developed writing independently, most notably in the early American societies, which had no contact to the rest of the world. It is unclear if Chinese writing also developed independently.

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.

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.

With writing, history – the written record of the past – could begin and the voices of the ancient world could reveal themselves to us.

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1 Comment

  1. Henry Horton

    Good work!

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