By Natural Philosopher Mike Prestwood
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Timeline

Hist 1: Prehistory

World history before 4004 BCE.

Prehistory: From the earliest hominin artifact to 4004 BCE. The end of prehistory mostly maps to the invention of writing, but does overlap depending on region. For reference, I also included a few creation myth dates: Chistian, Judaic, Zoroastrian, and Mayan with a hard end at 4004 BCE (the Christian creation date).

History, sliced into time periods, is yet another lens into humanity’s knowledge. These insights are the backbone to Mike‘s articles and his longer effort books. They are part of his lifelong commitment to study and represent his areas of focus. While they are not complete, they are useful.

The World History Timeline
Switch To: Prehistory | Ancient History | Medieval | Post-Medieval 

Early Stone Tools
Early Stone Tools
2.7 Million BCE
Hominins

The earliest known stone tools date back to at least 2.6 million years ago. These basic stone tools were made and used by early humans–hominids. Did they also use wood tools? Sure, or at least very likely, but we have yet to find any preserved back as far as stone tools which hold up to the test of time much better than wood. 

The stone tools include hammerstones, stone cores, and sharp stone flakes. By about 1.76 million years ago, early humans began to make Acheulean handaxes and other large cutting tools.

Hand Axe
Hand Axe
1.76 Million BCE
70,400 Generations Ago (from 2020 CE)

By about 1.76 million BCE, early humans began to create hand axes. They would strike really large flakes, then continue to shape them around the edges. The hand axe pictured dates to circa 1.1 million BCE. It was found at Isampur, India.

 

Oldest Modern Human-like Footprints
Oldest Modern Human-like Footprints
1.52 Million BCE
1.53 to 1.51 Million BCE
60,800 Generations Ago

Species: Likely Homo erectus, our direct ancestor. The footprints found in Ileret, Kenya represent the oldest undisputed evidence of hominins walking upright in an efficient manner characteristic of modern humans. Our style of upright walking, which Homo erectus appears to have shared, is energy-efficient and adapted for long distances. It involves a long stride with a spring-like mechanism in the arch of the foot. These particular footprints demonstrate a well-developed arch and a long stride, culminating in a propulsive toe-off similar to us.

By this period, Homo erectus set a precedent for the locomotion seen in future hominin species, including Homo heidelbergensis, Neanderthals, Denisovans, and even the shorter Homo floresiensis.

Fire-Altered Stone Tools
Fire-Altered Stone Tools
790,000 BCE
Genus Homo
31,600 Generations Ago

Burned flint tools dated to circa 790,000 BCE were discovered at Gesher Benot Ya’aquov, Israel. Control of fire is one of the key traits of the genus Homo.

 

Seasonal Settlements at Zhoukoudian site
Seasonal Settlements at Zhoukoudian site
770,000 BCE
from circa 770,000 BCE to circa 5700 BCE

Earliest known seasonal settlement in the Asian zone: Nestled in what is now the outskirts of Beijing, China, the Zhoukoudian site stands as a testament to some of the earliest forms of semi-permanent human settlement in Asia. The presence of a long-standing fire pit at the center of the site is a significant indicator of repeated use, perhaps up to tens of thousands of years. Around this fire pit, early humans crafted stone tools, an essential skill for their survival and an activity that likely drew groups together.

Oldest Surviving Spear
Oldest Surviving Spear
350,000 BCE
400,000 to 300,000 BCE
14,000 Generations Ago

Homo heidelbergensis: Long spears made hunting large animals more safe. The oldest wooden spears found so far were found in Germany and dates to circa 400,000 BCE. In fact, they are currently the oldest known wooden artifacts. The find included 3 wooden spears, stone tools, and the butchered remains of more than 10 horses.

These spears have the same qualities as modern tournament javelins and can be thrown over 200 feet. The workmanlike qualities of the heavily worked wood were similar to modern javelins where the heaviest thickest part of the spear, the center of gravity, is in the front third.

Venus of Tan-Tan
Venus of Tan-Tan
300,000 BCE
Africa; 300,000 to 500,000 years ago

Found in Morocco, this natural pebble with human-like features is possibly the oldest known example of a figurine or representation of the human form.

Hominin World Population: 2 Million (maybe)
Hominin World Population: 2 Million (maybe)
300,000 BCE
Very speculative.

At the time when Homo sapiens were just beginning to emerge, the population of Homo sapiens and their close ancestors in Africa was likely a few hundred thousand or less. However, the overall hominin success was thriving. Though speculative, estimates could reasonably range from 1.1 to 2.1 million for all hominin species. This range is a wild guess based on the fact that the combined population today for chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans in the wild ranges from approximately 400,000 to 700,000.

This period was characterized by significant evolutionary developments, with Homo sapiens in nascent stages primarily in Africa, while other hominins like Neanderthals, Homo heidelbergensis, and possibly remnants of Homo erectus occupied broader ranges across Eurasia. In Africa, emerging Homo sapiens accounted for a small fraction of the population, while other established hominins like Homo heidelbergensis dominated, indicative of their adaptive successes in various ecological niches. In Europe and Asia, Neanderthals and Denisovans were adapting to their environments, with sophisticated tool-use and social structures that likely supported their survival in challenging climates. While Africa, the Middle East, Europe, the Medditeranean, and Asia including China had significant populations, hominins had not made it to the Americas yet not to the Oceana-Australasia zone.

The speculative nature of this narrative underscores the dynamic yet unclear picture of early hominin distribution and interaction, highlighting the need for caution in interpreting these ancient population dynamics.

This narrative, while speculative, helps us imagine the ancient world.

Bhimbetka Petroglyphs, Cupules
Bhimbetka Petroglyphs, Cupules
Before 290,000 BCE
Hominins; 290,000 to 700,000 years ago

Found in central India, these cupules (circular hollows on rock surfaces) are among the earliest known forms of rock art.

Seasonal Settlements at Klasies River Caves
Seasonal Settlements at Klasies River Caves
125,000 BCE
125,000 to 60,000 BCE

Earliest known seasonal settlement in the Africa/Middle East zone: In the diverse and rich landscapes of what is now South Africa, the Klasies River Caves served as a vital seasonal haven for early modern humans.

Positioned strategically along the coast, these caves were revisited across generations, suggesting a shared understanding among different groups about the benefits of this location. The community constructed simple yet effective shelters from branches and animal hides just outside the cave entrances, creating a setup that supported daily activities such as tool crafting, hide preparation, and communal cooking over open fires.

This pattern of seasonal settlement allowed for the efficient exploitation of local resources, minimizing the need for constant movement and enabling a more sustainable living arrangement. It fostered not only survival but a thriving community life where knowledge, skills, and social bonds were developed and strengthened.

The archaeological remains and artifacts from the Klasies River Caves—ranging from sophisticated stone tools to evidence of hearths and human remains—illustrate a complex social structure that predates agricultural societies. These findings highlight the ability of early humans to adapt to their environment through cooperative behaviors and strategic planning, showcasing a level of communal life and environmental management that speaks to the enduring human spirit and intellectual vigor comparable to that of contemporary societies. This site provides a profound glimpse into one of humanity’s earliest known attempts at semi-permanent living, underscoring the sophisticated social dynamics that underpinned pre-agrarian human settlements.

Imagined Image: The image of the semi-nomadic people of South Africa depicts a group of up to 50 individuals congregating here around 100,000 years ago, establishing a semi-permanent settlement that utilized the natural shelter provided by the caves and the abundant resources of the surrounding area.

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Earliest Known Prepared Burial, “Mtoto”
Earliest Known Prepared Burial, “Mtoto”
76,000 BCE

Circa 76,000 BCE someone in Africa, perhaps the child’s parents, carefully prepared a human child aged about three years old for burial. They dug a circular pit at the entrance to a cave (likely their cave), placed the child in the hole on his or her right side with knees drawn toward the chest.

After proper analysis of the surrounding soil and the decomposition that has taken place in the pit over the years, the archaeologists believe the child, now nicknamed Mtoto, was intentionally buried shortly after death.

Blombos Cave Engravings
Blombos Cave Engravings
75,000 BCE

Earliest known symbol use in the Africa/Middle East zone. 

Located in South Africa, the cave contains engraved ochre pieces, which are among the earliest known forms of abstract art.

Oldest Known Bracelet
Oldest Known Bracelet
70,000 BCE
2,880 Generations Ago

Denisovan: This bracelet dates from 70,000 to 40,000 BCE. It was discovered inside the Denisova Cave beside ancient human remains. The Denisova Cave is a cave located in Siberia, Russia. Other cave finds include woolly mammoth and woolly rhino bones. Scientists say there is evidence that the bracelet’s maker used a drill. This is the earliest known example of advanced drilling in the world.

Head of the museum Irina Salnikova said: ‘The skills of its creator were perfect. Initially we thought that it was made by Neanderthals or modern humans, but it turned out that the master was Denisovan.” This has led to speculation that these earliest humans, Denisovans, were more technologically advanced than previously thought. If true, it might be that the Denisovans were more skilled than Homo sapiens and Neanderthals of the time.

Like Neanderthal DNA, Denisovan DNA exists in modern humans. Non-African East Asians and Europeans have about 2% Neanderthal DNA. Modern Melanesians derived about 5% of their DNA from Denisovans.

Imagine image: A group of Denisovans, clad in animal skins and adorned with fur trimmings, gathers in the rugged valley of the Altai Mountains, dating back to around 40,000 to 70,000 years ago. A prominent individual showcases a bright green, polished jade bracelet, signaling sophisticated craftsmanship. Their robust features, including wide skulls and strong brows, are highlighted as they engage in what appears to be an important communal discussion.
The Settlement of Australia
The Settlement of Australia
65,000 BCE
Homo sapiens or an earlier Homo species
2,600 Generations Ago (from 2020 CE)

Long before the sails of European explorers dotted the horizon, the Australian continent witnessed the arrival of its first human inhabitants. Archaeological evidence, such as ancient tools and cave art, suggests that people arrived in Australia at least 65,000 years ago, marking one of the earliest known human migrations out of Africa. These first Australians, ancestors of today’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, developed rich cultural traditions and adapted to the diverse environments of the continent, from its arid deserts to its lush coastlines. Their legacy is a testament to human resilience and ingenuity, shaping the land that would later be known as Australia for tens of thousands of years before European contact.

Neanderthal Art: Symbolic Thought
Neanderthal Art: Symbolic Thought
Before 64000 BCE
Upper Paleolithic

It’s clear: neanderthals created art. The discovery of cave paintings in Spain, dated to over 64,000 years ago, marked a profound shift in our understanding of Neanderthals. Found in sites such as La Pasiega, Maltravieso, and Ardales, these artworks — comprising abstract symbols, geometric patterns, and hand stencils — are attributed to Neanderthals, predating the arrival of Homo sapiens in Europe. This corrected the longstanding perception that Neanderthals lacked symbolic thought and artistic expression.

The presence of these ancient artworks, along with evidence of personal ornaments like decorated shells, suggests that Neanderthals engaged in behaviors once thought exclusive to modern humans. This includes the creation of art and the use of symbolic communication, indicating a level of cognitive sophistication and cultural complexity previously unrecognized. These findings not only expand our understanding of Neanderthal capabilities but also blur the lines between them and our own ancestors, highlighting a shared capacity for creativity and symbolic thinking in the human lineage.

World Population: 1.5 Million
World Population: 1.5 Million
50,000 BCE
Estimates range from 500,000 to 2.5 million

Cognitive Revolution

50,000 BCE – 70,000 BCE. Population range: 500,000 to 2.5 million.
Given the uncertainties and lack of direct data, the following are speculative estimates.

  • Africa-Middle East: 50-60% or 600,000 to 1 million people
    Africa, being the origin of modern humans, likely had the highest population density at this time, particularly in Sub-Saharan regions which were more conducive to human habitation due to their climate and available resources.
  • Asia: 40% or 200,000 to 400,000 people
  • Europe-Mediterranean: 10% or 50,000 to 100,000 people
  • The Americas: 0.
  • Oceana-Australasia: 1% or 10,000 to 15,000 people
    The initial colonization of Australia around 50,000 BCE by modern humans involved small, isolated groups who managed to navigate sea crossings, leading to a very low initial population density. The rest of the remote islands of Oceania were among the last to be reached by humans.

A Shared Earth! Neanderthals-Hobbits-Flourensis

Around this time, Homo sapiens shared the Earth with other hominin species. Neanderthals were still widespread in Europe and parts of western Asia. In Asia, particularly on the islands of Indonesia, Homo floresiensis, often referred to as the “Hobbit” due to their diminutive stature, survived until about 50,000 years ago. Additionally, Denisovans, a less visually documented but genetically distinct group, also roamed Eurasia, leaving behind a genetic legacy that persists in modern humans, particularly among populations in Melanesia.

Lebombo bone: First Lunar Phase Counter
Lebombo bone: First Lunar Phase Counter
42,200 BCE
44,200 to 43,000 years old according to 24 radiocarbon tests

The Lebombo Bone is one of the oldest known mathematical artifacts in human history. This ancient tool is a baboon fibula with 29 distinct notches carved into it. It was discovered in the Lebombo Mountains between South Africa and Swaziland. It was initially dated to approximately 35,000 years, but 24 radiocarbon tests since date it back about 44,000 years.

The Lebombo Bone was potentially used as a lunar phase counter or a simple tally stick. The series of notches may represent a lunar calendar, which would imply that early humans were tracking lunar phases for either ritualistic purposes or as a practical method for keeping time, possibly related to menstrual cycles or seasonal changes.

This artifact belongs to the Middle Stone Age, a period characterized by the development of more advanced stone tool technologies and the emergence of modern human behavior, including symbolic thought and perhaps early forms of arithmetic. The Lebombo Bone suggests that early humans engaged in complex thinking and had the capacity for abstract thought and planning.

The discovery of the Lebombo Bone and similar artifacts underscores the cognitive capabilities of early humans and their ability to use numerical concepts long before the development of written language or formal systems of numeration. This artifact, along with others like the Ishango Bone from Central Africa, indicates that the concept of counting and numerical recording was a part of human culture across different regions of Africa tens of thousands of years ago.

Sulawesi Cave Art
Sulawesi Cave Art
circa 41,900 BCE

Discovered in Indonesia, these hand stencils and depictions of animals are among the oldest known figurative artworks.

Upper Paleolithic Cave Art with Symbols
Upper Paleolithic Cave Art with Symbols
circa 40,000 BCE
Spain & France

Earliest known symbol use in the Europe/Mediterranean zone. 

Dating back to around 40,000 BCE, the Upper Paleolithic cave art found across Europe presents a compelling narrative of early human communication and symbolic expression. Sites like Lascaux in France and Altamira in Spain feature elaborate depictions of animals, human figures, and abstract symbols that recur with remarkable consistency across diverse regions. These symbols, including dots, lines, and geometric shapes, suggest a standardized usage that transcends mere artistic decoration. Researchers speculate that these symbols may have served proto-writing functions, possibly representing early attempts to record important information such as seasonal changes, ritual practices, or social codes.

Venus of Hohle Fels
Ramessos, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
38,000 BCE
38,000 to 33,000 BCE

The Venus of Hohle Fels is a 2.4″ figurine made of wooly mammoth ivory that was unearthed in 2008 in Hohle Fels, a cave near Schelklingen, Germany. It was pieced together from six pieces found in a cluster, about 10 feet below ground, and about 60 feet from the cave entrance. The left arm and shoulder are still missing. In place of a head, a carved ring protrudes indicating the sculpture was likely worn as a pendant. Using radiocarbon dating, the figurine is dated to between 38,000 and 33,000 BCE.

Switch To: Prehistory | Ancient History | Medieval | Post-Medieval 

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