Difference Between History And Prehistory

The distinction between history and prehistory is pivotal for understanding the broad arc of human existence. These terms frame our knowledge of the past, guiding us through the evolution of human societies and the development of cultures across different epochs. Each term encapsulates unique aspects of human endeavors, marked by the presence or absence of written records.

History is defined as the period of human past that has been recorded and documented through written means. It begins with the invention of writing systems, which have allowed societies to preserve their records and experiences. Conversely, prehistory refers to the vast stretches of time before the development of writing, known only through archaeological findings and environmental studies.

The importance of distinguishing these two phases lies not only in their chronological placement but also in their implications for understanding cultural and societal development. Knowledge of prehistory and history enables a comprehensive view of human progression, highlighting the innovations and transitions that define different civilizations.

Defining History

Brief Explanation of History

History is the record of human past activities that are described in written documents left by human beings. The past, with all of its decisions completed, its participants dead and its history told, is what the general public perceives as the immutable bedrock on which historians and archaeologists stand. However, historians rely on written records and archaeological evidence to piece together narratives about past societies, civilizations, and events.

Key Characteristics

Recorded Events: History is characterized by the existence of records. Events like wars, treaties, and reigns of kings are documented meticulously.

Chronological Accuracy: Historical accounts focus on presenting events in a chronological sequence that offers the cause and effect relationships among events.

Interpretive: History is not just what happened in the past but also an interpretation of those events. Historians often debate over the interpretations of historical data.

ALSO READ:  What Is The Difference Between Energy Efficiency And Energy Conservation

Defining Prehistory

Brief Explanation of Prehistory

Prehistory refers to the long period of time before human activities were recorded and written down. This era accounts for the bulk of human existence where humans relied mostly on tools made from stone and later, metals. Prehistory covers the period from the origin of human beings to the invention of writing systems that marked the beginning of recorded history.

Key Characteristics

Absence of Written Records: Unlike history, prehistory is defined by the lack of written documentation. All knowledge of the period is derived from archaeological discoveries and anthropological studies.

Tools and Artifacts: The primary sources of knowledge about prehistoric times are the tools, cave paintings, and other artifacts left behind by early humans.

Cultural Development: Significant developments, including the domestication of animals, cultivation of crops, and the establishment of permanent settlements occurred during this time.

Time Periods Explained

Timeline of History vs. Prehistory


  • Paleolithic Era: From around 2.5 million years ago to about 10,000 BCE. It is marked by the use of stone tools and the first evolutionary steps toward modern humans.
  • Neolithic Era: From around 10,000 BCE to about 3000 BCE. This era witnessed the beginnings of agriculture and the rise of the first settled communities.


  • Ancient History: Begins with the invention of writing, from about 3000 BCE to the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 CE.
  • Middle Ages: From 476 to about 1500 CE, marked by the rise of Christianity, the feudal system, and the early stirrings of the modern nation-state.
  • Modern History: From 1500 CE to the present, characterized by global exploration, the Enlightenment, industrialization, and digital revolution.

Transition Points

The transition from prehistory to history is traditionally marked by the invention of writing. However, this transition did not happen at the same time across all societies. For instance, in Mesopotamia, the transition occurred around 3200 BCE with the development of cuneiform writing, while in the Americas it occurred later with the Mayans and other civilizations developing their forms of writing.

Evidence and Sources

Types of Historical Evidence

Documents: Written documents such as letters, government records, and personal diaries provide historians with first-hand accounts of historical events.

Oral Histories: Oral traditions and recollections can be significant, especially in cultures with no written language.

ALSO READ:  Difference Between Oocyte And Follicle

Visual Sources: Paintings, photographs, and films serve as visual documentation of times past and can be crucial in historical narratives.

Types of Prehistorical Evidence

Archaeological Remains: Tools, pottery, ruins of ancient structures, and other artifacts that have been left behind.

Fossil Records: Bones and other remains that have been preserved in the earth provide crucial information about human ancestors and animal species that coexisted with them.

Genetic Studies: Analysis of DNA from various prehistoric remains helps in understanding the genetic features and migration patterns of early humans.

Methodologies Used

Archaeological Methods

Archaeology plays a crucial role in unraveling the mysteries of prehistory, where no written records exist to narrate the story. The methods used in archaeological research help us piece together the lives of past societies through their material remains.

  • Excavation: The most well-known archaeological method involves digging through layers of earth to uncover artifacts and structures.
  • Surveying: Archaeologists often conduct surveys to find new sites. This can involve walking through potential areas, using satellite imagery, and aerial photography to locate signs of past human activity.
  • Dating Techniques: Radiocarbon dating and dendrochronology (tree-ring dating) are critical for determining the age of archaeological finds.
  • Laboratory Analysis: Once artifacts are excavated, further analysis in labs helps determine their composition, origin, and usage.

These methods provide a direct connection to past human activities and are vital for constructing the narrative of human history before the advent of writing.

Historical Research Methods

Historical research involves different techniques that allow historians to reconstruct past events that are documented in some form.

  • Primary Sources Analysis: This includes examining original documents or objects from the period being studied, such as letters, legal documents, and other records.
  • Secondary Sources: These are interpretations and analyses based on primary sources. Historians read books, articles, and other narratives to understand the context and viewpoints of past scholars.
  • Qualitative Analysis: This might involve interpreting the content of documents to understand cultural and social practices.
  • Quantitative Methods: Historians use statistical methods to analyze trends over time, such as economic data or population changes.

These methodologies ensure that historical narratives are not just collections of dates and events but are insightful analyses of societal changes.

Cultural Impact

Influence on Modern Cultures

The study of history and prehistory significantly influences modern cultures in various ways.

  • Legal and Political Systems: Many current legal frameworks are based on historical precedents and documents.
  • Cultural Identity: Understanding the historical context of nations and communities helps define contemporary cultural identity and pride.
  • Education: Historical knowledge is crucial for education systems, shaping curricula across the globe.
ALSO READ:  What Is The Difference Between Tuberculosis And Pneumonia

Prehistorical Legacies

The legacies of prehistory also continue to impact modern societies, though in more subtle ways.

  • Technological Foundations: Early human innovations, such as tool-making and fire usage, are the bedrock upon which modern technology is built.
  • Social Structures: The basic forms of social organization and kinship patterns have their roots in prehistoric times.

Key Differences

Major Contrasts Between History and Prehistory

The key differences between history and prehistory lie in the type of evidence and the methodologies used to study them.

  • Evidence Type: History uses written records while prehistory relies on physical artifacts.
  • Chronology: Historical records allow for precise dating; prehistorical timelines are more approximate.

Impact on the Study of the Past

The way we study history versus prehistory significantly impacts our understanding of human development.

  • Historical Study: Allows for detailed understanding of societal changes, ideologies, and governance.
  • Prehistorical Study: Provides a broader view of human evolution, adaptations, and migrations.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Is Prehistory?

Prehistory encompasses the time before the invention of writing and recorded documents. This era is studied through the lens of archaeology and anthropology, using physical evidence like tools, artifacts, and cave paintings to piece together human activities.

When Does History Begin?

History begins with the advent of writing systems, which vary by region. For example, history starts around 3200 BCE in Mesopotamia with the creation of cuneiform script, marking the documented record of human events.

How Is Historical Data Gathered?

Historical data is primarily collected from written records such as books, letters, and administrative documents. Historians analyze these texts to construct narratives about the past and understand the context of recorded events.

What Techniques Are Used in Prehistorical Studies?

In prehistorical studies, techniques such as carbon dating, stratigraphy, and analysis of material remains are used. These methods help archaeologists date artifacts and understand the environmental context of historical sites.

Why Is the Study of Prehistory Important?

Studying prehistory is crucial as it covers the majority of human existence. It provides insights into the evolution of human societies before the advent of written records, revealing how early humans adapted, evolved, and interacted with their environments.


Understanding the difference between history and prehistory is essential for a full appreciation of humanity’s journey. This distinction helps scholars and enthusiasts alike to map out the evolution of societies, cultures, and civilizations over millennia. It offers a lens through which we can view the development of human capabilities and innovations.

Moreover, this knowledge encourages a deeper appreciation of the methods and challenges associated with studying the past, underscoring the significance of both historical documents and archaeological discoveries in piecing together the vast puzzle of human history.

Leave a Comment