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Pre-history is the time before people began to write, from 12,000BC - 3000BC. The word comes from the Ancient Greek words προ (pre = "before") and ιστορία (historia = "history"). A man named Paul Tournal first used the French word Préhistorique. He found things made by humans more than ten thousand years ago in some caves in France. The word was first used in France around 1830 to talk about the time before writing. Daniel Wilson used it in English in 1851.

Things from pre-history are called pre-historic. Pre-history can start at the start of the universe but the word more often means a time when there was life on Earth; dinosaurs are examples of prehistoric animals.

One of the biggest topics in prehistory is people. Very little is known about prehistoric people because there are no written records (or "history") for us to study. The ways we learn about pre-history is called archaeology. This means studying things like tools, bones, and cave drawings. Pre-history ends at different times in different places when people began to write.

In pre-history, people lived in groups called tribes and lived in caves or tents (houses made from animal skin). They had simple tools made from wood and bones and cutting tools from stone such as flint, which they used to hunt and to make simple things. They made fire in many different ways and they used fire to cook food and to stay warm. They made clothing out of animal skins. Society started when people began doing specialized jobs. This is called the division of labor. The division of labor made people depend on one another and led to more complex civilizations.

Some important sciences that are used to find out more about pre-history are palaeontology, astronomy, biology, geology, anthropology, and archaeology. Archaeologists study things left over from prehistory to try to understand what was happening. Anthropologists study the traces of human behavior to learn what people where doing and why.

After people started to record events, first by drawing symbols (called pictographs) and then by writing, it became much easier to tell what happened, and history started. These records can tell us the names of leaders (such as Kings and Queens), important events like floods and wars, and the things people did in their daily lives. The time when prehistory ended and history started is different in different places, depending on when people began to write and if their records were kept safe or lost so they could be found later on. In places like Mesopotamia, China, and Ancient Egypt, things were recorded from very early times (around 3200 BCE in Ancient Egypt) and these records can be looked at and studied. In New Guinea the end of prehistory came much later, around 1900.

Timeline of Earth

  • 4,500 million years ago – Earth formed out of smaller rocks flying around the sun
  • 3,500 million years ago – first very simple and tiny forms of life in the seas
  • 600 million years ago - first animals, also in the seas
  • 500 million years ago - first plants and animals on land
  • 230 million years ago – first dinosaurs appear
  • 65 million years ago – dinosaurs disappear; mammals take their place as dominant animals
  • 30 million years ago - first apes
  • 2.5 million years ago - first humans

Timeline of people

  • 2.5 million years ago – Start of Lower Paleolithic age, during which a type of early pre-human called Australopithecus lived. These people made tools out of bones and stones and made shelters out of branches.
  • 1 million years ago – A type of early human called Homo erectus lived. People made hand axes and wooden spears.
  • 250,000 years ago – First Homo sapiens (modern people). People make fire. People use bolas. People hunt elephants.
  • 100,000 years ago – Middle Paleolithic age. Neanderthal people lived. People live in caves and make cave drawings. People begin to bury dead people.
  • 40,000 years ago – Upper Paleolithic age. Cro-Magnon people lived. People make spears from antlers. People make houses from hides (animal skins). People paint cave drawings and make things out of clay. People make needles out of antlers. People make jewellery.
  • 10,000 years ago – The last Ice age ends.
  • 10,000 BC – 4000 BC – Mesolithic age. In North-west Europe people make bows and arrows. People use dogs to hunt and to carry things.
  • 9,000 BC – Neolithic age. People in the Near East start to change from hunting and gathering food to growing crops and using farm animals.
  • 7,000 BC – People in South-west Europe begin using copper to make tools.
  • 6,000 BC – British Isles move away from Europe.
  • 2,580 BC – The Egyptians build the Great Pyramids in Giza. People in the Middle East use iron and make plows.
  • 2,400 BC – People make Stonehenge in England.
  • 3,300 BC – 1,200 BC – Bronze Age (in Britain). People make tools out of bronze.
  • 1,200 BC – 400 AD – Iron Age (in Britain). People make tools out of iron. Roman Empire rises and falls.