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The Prehistory ( synonyms history and prehistory ) is a branch of Prehistory and Early History . It describes the oldest period in human history from which no written records exist. Research into prehistoric epochs is one of the tasks of archeology and its auxiliary sciences such as paleoanthropology .

Prehistory stretches from the appearance of the first stone tools around 2.6 million years ago (see tribal history of man ) to the appearance of written documents, which are dated very differently from region to region.

The following early history is the period in which mostly indirect written sources and archaeological sources are used equally for the reconstruction of the historical picture. This is followed by history in the narrower sense, in which knowledge is obtained primarily through the evaluation of written sources and the material culture is also archaeologically developed ( medieval archeology and historical archeology ).

Outline of the prehistory

Overview prehistory
Holocene (➚ early history )
Iron age
  late bronze age  
  middle bronze age
  early bronze age
Bronze age
    Copper Age  
Pleistocene     Upper Paleolithic  
    Middle Paleolithic
    Early Paleolithic
  Old Stone Age
Stone age

The prehistory or prehistory is divided for the first time in 1836 by the Danish archaeologist Christian Jürgensen Thomsen in a published three-period system in the Stone Age , Bronze Age and Iron Age . His font Ledetraad til nordisk Oldkyndighed , written in Danish, was published in German in 1837. This periodization , which is still valid today, relates to the Old World . In North America, for example, historical time does not begin before the discovery by the Spaniards.

The oldest section, the Stone Age, the Paleolithic and with the emergence of agriculture incipient Neolithic divided. Only in Central and Northern Europe lies the Mesolithic epoch , which corresponds to the later epipalaeolithic of the Mediterranean region. Geographically , the Paleolithic coincides with the Pleistocene (Ice Age), the following epochs with the Holocene . The end of the Pleistocene or the last Ice Age ( Würm III) took place about ten millennia ago. Another deep turning point was the discovery of metallurgy ( Copper Age ). In most regions gold and copper were first processed and only later bronze alloyed (Bronze Age) and then iron smelting (Iron Age). Ultimately, the ability to process metals with higher melting points enabled more powerful tools and weapons to be produced, which gave the producing regions significant advantages. With the development of urban high cultures and writing , for the first time in the Middle East ( Sumer ), the transition from prehistory to early history takes place regionally .

Stone age

The Stone Age is the earliest epoch in human history and is characterized by the dominant tradition of stone tools. As far as we know today, it began with the oldest tools found in Africa around 2.6 million years ago.

Old Stone Age

The Paleolithic Age - in technical terms, Paleolithic , from Greek παλαιός palaios 'old' and λίθος lithos 'stone' - was the first and longest period in prehistory and denotes the oldest section of the Stone Age in Africa, Europe and Asia .

Rubble devices: Homo rudolfensis and Homo habilis

The history of mankind begins in Africa about 6 million years ago when Pongide as Ardipithecus ramidus developed to walk upright. The subsequent australopithecines refined this mode of locomotion and are considered hominoids; from them the first representatives of the genus Homo emerged: Homo rudolfensis and Homo habilis . As a criterion, it of the genus Homo attributable applies in addition to anatomical differences to the australopithecines, especially that they probably before 2.6 million years simple stone tools ( scree device , so-called. Chopper and chopping tools) used. These first stone tools belong to the Oldowan culture level . The period is mostly referred to as the early Paleolithic.

Hand axes: Homo erectus

Homo erectus lived in the culture known as the Old Paleolithic (existence of hand axes). The use of stone implements has been proven for its earliest representatives ; later individuals also used the fire, as evidenced by the 790,000 year old Gesher Benot Ya'aqov site - the oldest certainly dated - in present-day Israel . About 1.5 million years ago, the Acheulean level was reached in Africa . This technology also came to Europe around 500,000 years ago. It is characterized by artifacts that are slammed shut on both sides and that have been carefully crafted.

Homo erectus was so adaptable that it could spread from Africa via the Middle East to India, today's China ( Peking man ) and Southeast Asia ( Java man ) on the one hand, and to South and Central Europe on the other ( Out-of-Africa theory) ). The late representatives of Homo erectus - they are often assigned to Homo heidelbergensis - can already be described as hunters and gatherers , as eight wooden javelins, at least 270,000 years old (the " Schöninger spears ") were discovered in the Schöningen open- cast lignite mine in Lower Saxony .

Tee-off devices: Homo neanderthalensis

In Europe, Homo erectus developed via the intermediate stages of Neanderthals called Homo heidelbergensis and Homo steinheimensis , a species of the genus Homo that was excellently adapted to the specific environmental conditions of the Ice Age . The Neanderthals present themselves today (contrary to earlier assumptions) as culturally developed: For the first time in Central Europe, cultic practices can be proven, for example burials with grave goods are documented (e.g. La Ferrassie ). The Neanderthals developed a stone processing technique in which not only cores made of flint , quartzite or other rocks were modified into tools, but also the sharp-edged chips were further processed (broad-blade cultures). A special case of processing so-called “preformed” cores is the Levallois technique . What caused the disappearance of the Neanderthals is unclear. It is likely to have slowly been displaced from Central Europe to Western Europe. The most recent or last Neanderthal discovery sites are on the Iberian Peninsula .

Cave painting: Homo sapiens

Not emigrated from Europe and Asia, but of the remaining African populations of Homo erectus evolved in Africa - the development at the same time when in Europe by Homo erectus took the Neanderthals - a new human form, called Homo sapiens . Beginning around 100,000 years ago, it spread to Asia and Europe in a second wave of emigration of the genus Homo and developed into contemporary people. There is no evidence of an aggressive displacement of the Neanderthals by Homo sapiens . In Europe, the two species could have met 40,000 to 35,000 years ago.

Homo sapiens refined the methods of stone processing (narrow-blade cultures). The first evidence of abstract (symbolic) thinking is remarkable, which is most succinctly expressed in cave paintings , the oldest of which was dated around 35,000 years ago. The oldest known artistic products are engraved bone objects from the Blombos Cave in South Africa, the oldest of which was dated to around 77,000 years.


With the end of the last ice age, the earth's climate belts shifted to the north; so that the living conditions in some areas improved significantly and, especially in the area of ​​the fertile crescent in the Middle East, a largely sedentary lifestyle was made possible. A final drop in temperatures in the recent Dryas period worsened the food supply and forced people who could no longer or did not want to return to the nomadic way of life to look for alternatives. This fact was the cause of the development of agriculture . The first beginnings go back to the so-called Proto-Neolithic 14,000 years ago. From 9500 BC The organized domestication of animals and plants began. The development of the manufacturing economy brought profound socio-economic changes with it, which is why the “ Neolithic Revolution ” has been spoken of since the archaeologist Vere Gordon Childe . There were a few other independent centers of origin of agriculture (for example South China, South America). From these centers the innovations spread more or less quickly (they reached Central Europe about 7000 years ago). Other features of the Neolithic Age are sedentariness and the manufacture of ceramics . There were also innovations in stone technology; the cut of stone was discovered. The most important social effects of agriculture can be seen in the fact that the higher productivity not only fed the people who work in agriculture. There was a specialization of the most diverse professional groups (horizontal differentiation ) and the emergence of rule , first in chief empires, then in states (vertical differentiation).

Copper Age

The period between the Neolithic and the Early Bronze Age when people began mining copper and invented basic metallurgy techniques is called the Chalcolithic , Chalcolithic, or Eneolithic . However, copper remains scarce and stone tools continue to prevail. Ötzi , the corpse of the man from Tisenjoch, comes from the Central European Stone Age and had a hatchet with him, the blade of which is made of 99% copper from the Salzburg region .

Bronze age

Bronze , a metallurgical alloy of 90% copper with 10% tin , was discovered in the end of the 4th millennium BC. Invented. It is much harder and more sharp than copper and gives the epoch its name. In Israel bronze is from 3300 BC. Occupied. The Bronze Age ends in Asia Minor from 1700 BC. And in the Mediterranean area at the latest by 1200 BC. With the use of smelted iron. In Central Europe, the Bronze Age does not begin until 2200 BC. And extends until 800 BC. The Hebrews had primarily bronze weapons and conquered Canaan and the Pelishti of Greek origin on the coast of historical Palestine , later named after them , who mainly had iron weapons.

Iron age

Since the late 4th millennium BC Iron is known as a material. The first written mention of iron can be found on cuneiform tablets from the late 3rd millennium BC. At that time it was meteoritic iron. Four finds from Iran, Mesopotamia and Egypt date even earlier. In the second half of the third millennium, solid (so-called telluric) iron was found in Troy and the “princely necropolis” of Alaca Hüyük (between 2550 and 2350 BC). This iron, which occurs on earth, is very rare in contrast to metoric iron and therefore hardly served as a basis for ancient iron production. In the following 2nd millennium BC BC iron is mainly passed down from Anatolia . Most of the early finds were made in Kaman-Kalehöyük for settlement phase IVa (approx. 2100–1950 BC). Some objects could have been made of steel (values ​​up to 0.2 / 0.3% C). In Assyrian written sources dating from 1950–1700 BC It can be read that iron was much more valuable than gold and silver. Magnificent objects such as an ax made from Ugarit (approx. 1450–1350 BC) indicate that iron was still very valuable at the time of the Hittite Empire . Although it could be extracted and processed, it remains unclear whether the step towards steel through coal enrichment was already known at the time. Individual unsafe ovens have been found in Southwest Asia for the Early Iron Age. Although there is no archaeological evidence, a text from the Middle Assyrian period testifies to an iron smith at the court of Ninurta-tukulti-Aššur (1168–1133 BC). From the 9th century BC In BC iron was processed to a large extent in the New Assyrian Empire and gradually spread over the known world.

Technical development history

Inventions before Homo sapiens

Tool use has been observed in many primates. At the beginning of the development of technology among the ancestors of man , there was the - initially not very sophisticated - tool processing; Of particular interest is the processing at a time interval from the use of the tool (a prefabrication), which could not be observed in primates (apart from the replacement of already positively used materials). While stones as tools even gave their name to the technological epoch and have been detectable for 2.5 million years (see Stone Age ), there is no reason to assume that people at that time did not use other materials in their environment, even if it was archaeologically from the Is not detectable at an early stage (wood, bones, hides, plant shells). Initially, the use extended to throwing stones, stones as anvil or hammer, as well as batons and support sticks. The Neanderthals and Homo sapiens made highly specialized spears and wedge knives from selected stones .

Another impulse came from the control of fire (see prehistoric fire use ). The purposeful use of fire by humans is proven for Homo erectus 790,000 years ago. The warming by the fire helped to colonize colder areas of Europe and Asia during the Ice Age. Cooking food could have had far-reaching consequences, also at the level of evolution: The food density per meal increased, but the required chewing pressure decreased, so teeth and masticatory muscles only needed less training. In contrast, other (also more solid) nutrients could be developed, which other species ( ruminants ) have to invest considerable time and energy ( ruminants ) to cope with in the uncooked state . One of the results is that humans are one of the few species (besides wasps ) who find the smell of burnt meat (crickets) appetizing. Humans are also the only species that find the smell of roasted seeds (baking scent, popcorn, sesame oil) particularly attractive. In this context, assumptions were even formulated that the growth in volume of the very energy-hungry brain could be explained by the cooking of the food, but the development of the brain began at a time when the use of fire can hardly be assumed. The assumption of intense cooking before Homo erectus lacks any evidence. Neanderthals produced birch pitch from birch sap at a reasonably controlled temperature of around 350 ° C as an adhesive, for example to reliably connect workpieces (spearhead to spear shaft).

Members of the homo genus could already build huts. Use of materials, prefabrication of tools and fire control were already developed by the ancestors of Homo sapiens . The common hunt favored techniques of communication and strategy finding. The Neanderthals were probably the first to manufacture clothing, a necessity of life in Ice Age Europe. Homo sapiens also learned this skill at least 75,000 years ago, possibly in parallel with this or when they first came into contact with the Neanderthals . Since then, the clothes louse has also been proven.

The ability of Homo sapiens to trade can be recognized by the fact that he used flint (also of distant origin) as standard and adorned himself with clam necklaces far away from the coast. The stone tools of the Neanderthal man may outwardly resemble those of modern humans, but the material of the Neanderthal man is always of regional origin.

Inventions during the Ice Age

The invention of the needle came soon after the suspected departure from Africa during the Ice Age. The domestication of the dog could not yet be clearly categorized archaeologically. However, it took place very early, long before any other domestication. This first domestication probably came about from Central Asian wolves, with which humans had been in contact there for about 40,000 years and is now dated to the early days of colonization on the Asian continent, i.e. to the time 30,000 to 40,000 years ago.

About 35,000 years ago (cave) painting was developed in the south of France ( Cro-Magnon man ). The earliest finds of ivory carvings of figurines in Europe date from this period . The oldest evidence of a bone flute is also dated around 35,000 years ago (see also Geißenklösterle ). During the Ice Age, ceramics (made of baked clay or loam) were invented and developed, according to popular belief as a chance product after a campfire on loam or clay soil. The first ceramic figures ( Venus of Dolní Věstonice ) can be dated to at least 24,000 years. The oldest known ceramic vessels are around 18,000 years old and were initially mostly made using the spiral bead technique (see also pottery ). Probably 16,000-18,000 years ago the javelin thrower ( atlatl , thrown by arm movement) was developed (the spear existed much earlier), from which or in parallel the bow and arrow were developed.

Inventions after the Ice Age

After the end of the Ice Age, around 10,000 years ago, grass seeds were probably grown independently in different places (in Syria and China ). Developments in South and Mesoamerica followed much later. Before or in parallel with the domestication of plants, animals were domesticated as meat suppliers stored alive (for chronology, see domestication ). As a result of the sedentary lifestyle, larger settlements ( Jericho , Çatalhöyük ) were temporarily created .

In various places around the world, especially after the glaciers had retreated, flint was extracted from the chalk and Jurassic deposits , a particularly important raw material alongside obsidian . For this purpose, meter-deep shafts (first mine mines) were created (for information on Stone Age mines, see Flint). The material was spread over great distances (see Feuersteinstrasse in Europe). At the same time, obsidian was valued for its particularly sharp break edges, transported across the sea and distributed in Europe. There are not many locations for obsidian. Extraction began about 9000 years ago on Melos , Sardinia and the Aeolian Islands , but also in other parts of the world.

The invention of the potter's turntable may have occurred before or parallel to the invention of the wheel (at least 6,000 years ago). Both inventions may end up in different places (but not on the American and Australian continents). For the development of the wheel, see the history of transport in antiquity .

See also

Portal: History  - Overview of Wikipedia content on history


  • Hermann Parzinger : Pre and Early History . In: Hans-Joachim Gehrke (ed.): The world before 600. Early civilizations (History of the world, Volume 1). CH Beck, Munich 2017, ISBN 978-3406641015 , pp. 42-262
  • Hermann Parzinger: The children of Prometheus. A history of mankind before the invention of writing . 5th revised edition. CH Beck, Munich 2016, ISBN 978-3-406-66657-5
  • Hans Jürgen Eggers : Introduction to the prehistory. Newly published by Christof Krauskopf. With an afterword by Claudia Theune . 6th edition, scrîpvaz, Schöneiche bei Berlin 2010, ISBN 978-3-942836-17-3 . With a list of the writings of Hans Jürgen Eggers.
  • Siegmar von Schnurbein (ed.): Atlas of the prehistory. Europe from the first humans to the birth of Christ . Theiss Verlag, Stuttgart 2009, ISBN 978-3-8062-2105-3 .
  • Martin Kuckenburg: From Stone Age Camp to Celtic City - Settlements of Prehistory in Germany . Konrad Theiss Verlag, Stuttgart 2005, ISBN 3-8062-1446-8
  • Christiane Althoff: "The results of prehistoric research are the old testament of the German people." Prehistory and early history in the schools of the Third Reich . In: Christiane Althoff / Jochen Löher / Rüdiger Wulf (eds.): You too belong to the Führer. "National political education" in the schools of the Nazi dictatorship. A book for the exhibition in the Westphalian School Museum in Dortmund . Dortmund 2003, ISBN 3-00-005838-9

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. Christian Jürgensen Thomsen: Guide to Nordic antiquity. The Society, Copenhagen 1837, p. 108 .
  2. CW Ceram : The First American . the discovery of Native American cultures in North America. Hannelore Marek and Artemis & Winkler Verlag, Munich and Zurich 1991, ISBN 3-7608-1928-1 , p. 124 u. a .
  3. Naama Goren-Inbar et al .: Evidence of Hominin Control of Fire at Gesher Benot Ya'aqov, Israel . In: Science . Volume 304, 2004, pp. 725-727; doi: 10.1126 / science.1095443
  4. Christopher S. Henshilwood et al .: Emergence of Modern Human Behavior: Middle Stone Age Engravings from South Africa . In Science . Volume 295, 2002, pp. 1278-1280, doi: 10.1126 / science.1067575 . See also the illustration in The Japan Times of January 13, 2002
  5. ^ Ernst Pernicka : Extraction and distribution of metals in prehistoric times . Yearbook of the Roman-Germanic Central Museum Mainz . 1990, p. 62 available online (PDF)
  6. Christopher Pare : Early iron in Southern Europe: The spread of a technological innovation at the transition from the 2nd to the 1st millennium BC Chr . In: Elena Miroššayová, Christopher Pare, Susanne Stegmann-Rajtár (eds.): The northern Carpathian basin in the Hallstatt period. Economy, trade and communication in Early Iron Age societies between the Eastern Alps and Pannonia (Budapest Archaeolingua Alapítvány 2017) ISBN 978-6155766008 pp. 14–20 available online (PDF)
  7. ^ N. Goren-Inbar: Evidence of Hominin Control of Fire at Gesher Benot Ya`aqov, Israel . In: Science . 304, 2004, pp. 725-727, doi: 10.1126 / science.1095443
  8. Hot food and brain growth: From the pot to the head . In: Süddeutsche Zeitung , June 16, 2007
  9. The Architekturmuseum Frankfurt is showing a model of a prehistoric hut on the beach in Nice, Terra Amato
  10. Dr. Alexander Pashos (anthropologist), topic "Clothing", Galileo (broadcast), ProSieben TV, August 1, 2006
  11. New theory: Trade brought the Neanderthals out of business . On: from April 5, 2005
  12. ↑ The secret of success: matching clothes . On: from December 31, 2007
  13. Josef H. Reichholf: Why people settled down . S. Fischer, Frankfurt am Main 2008, p. 197
  14. Ceramics: everyday object and high-tech material . ( Memento from June 29, 2007 in the Internet Archive ) (PDF; 1.4 MB)
  15. The first potters lived in China. On: from June 2, 2009
  16. Der Feuerstein ( Memento from April 7, 2013 in the Internet Archive )
  17. Obsidian - history, education, localities
  18. see Peter Trebsche: Review of: Schnurbein, Siegmar von (Hrsg.): Atlas of Prehistory. Europe from the first humans to the birth of Christ. Stuttgart 2009 ( Memento from September 10, 2011 in the Internet Archive ). In: H-Soz-u-Kult , February 11, 2010