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Prehistoric dating methods

General information on dating methods

It’s important to note that not all materials can be dated. Here is a non-exhaustive list of the types of materials that can be dated:

  • Carbonates
  • Fossils and paleontological remains
  • Sediments
  • Volcanic minerals
  • Wood charcoal
  • Minerals and rocks that have been heated

There are various dating methods, grouped into 4 main families. These methods are applicable to certain types of material only.

Figure 1: Different dating techniques divided into major methodological families.

Not all these methods can be applied to every object or site. This is because, in addition to the need to find datable material on site, the different methods don’t allow us to date the same time scale. For example, carbon-14 dating cannot be used to date artifacts older than 50,000 years.

The aim here is not to be exhaustive, but to present a few dating methods in greater detail.


This is probably the best-known dating method. It was developed in the 1940s-1950s.

How is carbon 14 formed?

Carbon 14 (or 14C) is a radioactive isotope of carbon naturally present in the upper atmosphere, where it rapidly converts to 14CO2. This 14CO2, in gaseous form, partially dissolves in seawater, where it is incorporated by certain marine organisms. For example, foraminifera use carbonates to build their shells. 14CO2 will also be incorporated by plants during photosynthesis, as well as by herbivores feeding on these plants. Finally, carnivores also incorporate 14Cvia the herbivores they hunt. So all living organisms made partly of carbon have a certain amount of 14C, including our species. The constant exchanges between an organism and its environment maintain a certain concentration of 14Cin each individual. When the organism dies, exchanges between it and its environment cease, as does the supply of 14C.

Figure 2: Carbon-14 cycle.

After the organism’s death, 14Cconcentration therefore decreases over time, over a period of 5730 years. This means that every 5,730 years, half the atoms of 14Cnaturally disintegrate.

However, beyond 50,000 years, the 14Cconcentration becomes too low for analysis.

So, if you discover a fossil dating back less than 50,000 years, it’s possible to estimate the remaining 14Cconcentration in the fossil and, consequently, determine the age of death of the individual using mathematical formulas.

These calculations depend on the 14Cconcentration in the atmosphere. However, this has not remained constant over time, and has varied over the last 50,000 years. As a result, calibration curves are now used to obtain as accurate an age range as possible. You will then see the notation cal BP, which stands for Before Present. At the time this dating method was being developed, nuclear tests were taking place, which altered the concentration of 14Cin the atmosphere. Consequently, it has been arbitrarily agreed that the present begins in…1950!

The different dating units


Dendrochronology involves analyzing the growth of trees by examining their rings. Indeed, in temperate regions characterized by seasonality, the tree produces an annual ring corresponding to its growth period. The size of this ring depends on environmental conditions. So, for example, the ring produced during a dry summer will be thinner than that produced during a rainy summer, since the drought will have hindered the tree’s growth. Throughout its life, a tree records environmental and climatic variations.

Figure 3: Diagram of a tree trunk cut across its width.

Based on this principle, by analyzing large numbers of wood rings, it is possible to create so-called “dendrochronological” time scales. This makes it possible to reconstruct the various climatic fluctuations recorded by the trees and to date them in time for each region. This work is carried out on a regional scale, as each region has specific tree species and climates.

When a piece of wood is found in an archaeological context where the tree rings are still visible, it is possible to match its climatic variation curve to the regional curve and thus date a piece of wood. In this way, we can assign a year to each ring in our archaeological tree.

Dendrochronological curves for dating wood found in archaeological contexts
Figure 4: Examples of dendrochronological curves.

Dendrochronology makes it possible to estimate ages ranging from the present to just over 10,000 years.

Paleomagnetism or sediment dating

There’s a magnetic field around the Earth that acts like a magnet. Over the course of our planet’s history, the orientation of this magnet has been reversed several times. At present, the magnetic field is oriented so that magnetic north corresponds approximately to the geographic north pole. The magnetic polarity is then said to be normal. On the other hand, when the magnetic field reverses and is oriented towards the south pole, we speak of reverse polarity. A chronology of these polarity changes has been established.

Paleomagnetic chronology for dating archaeologically-discovered sediments.
Figure 5: Paleomagnetic chronology.

Some rocks, such as magnetite (Fe2O3), are magnetic and act as a kind of compass, recording the polarity of the Earth’s magnetic field as they fossilize.

This chronology of variations in the polarity of the Earth’s magnetic field can be used to determine the age of sediments. For example, if sediments show reverse polarity, we know that they must be more than 780,000 years old, because the Brunhes period, which has normal polarity, began 780,000 years ago.

Paleomagnetism makes it possible to date current samples back several billion years.

We hope you enjoyed this introductory article on dating methods! Feel free to ask us questions and give us feedback on the blog. You can also contact us by e-mail. You can also follow us on Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, Twitter and YouTube!

See you soon,

The Prehistory Travel team.

Bibliography :

[1] Dominique Grimaud-Hervé et al.History of ancestors. The great adventure of prehistoryErrances,5th edition, 2015.

[2] Langouet L. and Giot P.-R., Dating the past. Measuring time in archaeology. GMPCA, Rennes, 1992.

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The natural selection theory of evolution

A little history of science

The theory of evolution, which postulates that living beings evolve over time, emerged in the second half of the 19th century.

Until the 18th century, the predominant theory was that of fixism, which held that living beings had been created by the hand of God and were therefore immutable. For example, a name often associated with fixism is that of Carl von Linné (1707-1778). For him, all existing species were created during a single divine creation. Linnaeus is best known for his Systema Naturae. The most famous edition is that of 1758, in which he created our species, Homo sapiens, and classified it among the primates. However, for him, this classification of species has only one objective: to make intelligible the divine plan of Creation, of which human beings are the culmination.

Georges Cuvier (1769-1832) developed the theory of catastrophism. According to him, there is no evolution of living beings, but rather a succession of catastrophes and mass extinctions. These “catastrophes” would be followed by new divine creations. This explains the presence of fossils of now-extinct animal species found in ancient geological layers.

The first theory of evolution, in the general sense of changes in species over time, was formulated in the 18th century by Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck (1744-1829). This theory is known as transformism. According to Lamarck, species change over time. There is thus continuity between extinct fossil species and present-day species. Physical factors are thought to be at the origin of this modification of living beings, and the acquired traits are then passed on to offspring. Although this theory is erroneous, it is nevertheless the first theory in the direction of species evolution, representing an important step towards evolutionism.

Transformism according to Lamarck – the example of the giraffe’s neck

To illustrate his theory, Lamarck used the now-famous example of the evolution of giraffe neck size. In his work, Philosophie Zoologique, published in 1809, he explains:

“In terms of habits, it is curious to observe the product in the particular shape and size of the giraffe(camelo pardalis).): we know that this animal, the largest mammal, inhabits the interior of Africa, and that it lives in places where the earth, almost always arid and without grass, obliges it to graze the foliage of the trees, and to continually strive to reach them. As a result of this habit, which has been sustained for a long time in all individuals of its race, its front legs have become longer than its hind legs, and its neck has lengthened so much that the giraffe, without standing on its hind legs, raises its head to a height of six meters.

Philosophie Zoologie, book I, chapter VII.

Here, the environment determines the evolution of the giraffe’s neck size. It’s the function that shapes the organ. Because the giraffe needs to reach high up on leaves, its neck has lengthened, which over time has led to a change in the species. This acquired trait is then passed on to descendants.

Charles Darwin, Alfred Wallace & natural selection

The theory of evolution by natural selection was developed independently by Charles Darwin (1809-1882) and Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) in the second half of the 19th century. Darwin developed this theory through his explorations aboard the Beagle, on which he spent 5 years (1831-1836). However, it wasn’t until 1859, 23 years after his round-the-world voyage, that Darwin published his famous book On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life.

For the record, Darwin was prompted to publish his manuscript when he discovered that Wallace was about to publish a theory similar to his own. Finally, Darwin and Wallace’s work was presented on the same day to the London Linnaean Society in 1858. Nevertheless, it’s Darwin’s name that has gone down in history.

What is the natural selection theory of evolution?

Following his observations in the field, Darwin developed the following reasoning. First, he notes that there is variability among individuals of the same species. What’s more, these variations are heritable and selectable. Darwin arrives at this conclusion by observing the breeding practices and selection for reproduction that are applied to some livestock. In this way, he notes that selected traits are passed on to offspring. The question then arises: does this selection also take place in the wild, or only in a breeding context where breeders play the role of selection agents? Darwin identified that this selection agent is present in nature and corresponds to the environment in which individuals live.

There may be several variants for a single trait, and each variant is carried by several individuals. If environmental conditions favor one or more of these variants, individuals carrying them tend to leave more offspring than others. This differential reproductive success is what we call natural selection. On a population scale, this natural selection leads to transformations within species. The characteristics of advantaged individuals eventually become dominant within a population, as these individuals have a higher reproductive rate. This leads to a change in the population over time.

We can summarize the theory of evolution by natural selection as follows: individuals carrying an advantageous mutation in an environment will leave more descendants than other individuals not carrying this mutation. If the environmental conditions favorable to this mutation persist over time, the frequency of the favored variant in a given population will eventually reach 100%. As a result, the population, if not the species, will have changed. Subsequently, new mutations will occur for the same trait, leading to a new modification of the species if the environment is favorable. It is important to note that these mutations are the result of chance. The survival of a species is thus directly linked to its ability to have many variations for a single trait.

Work in genetics in the first half of the 20th century led to the discovery that these variations and mutations are genetic in origin, and that evolution therefore results from a change in allele frequency within a population. In short, mutations, which occur by chance, are the fuel of evolution, while natural selection is its driving force. Natural selection is at the root of a population’s adaptation to an environment.

Darwin’s example of the giraffe’s neck

Darwin uses Lamarck’s example of the giraffe’s neck:

“The high stature and elongation of the neck, forelimbs, head and tongue are conditions in the giraffe that adapt its entire frame admirably to the habit of grazing on the high branches of trees. […] in that individuals with one or more parts more elongated than usual have generally been the only ones to survive. Their cross-breeding has produced descendants either inheriting the same bodily characteristics, or a tendency to vary in the same way, while individuals less favored in the same respects will have been more likely to perish.”

The Origin of Species, 6th edition, 1872.

The main difference between Lamarck and Darwin lies in the mechanism underlying the transformation of species. According to Lamarck, it is environmental conditions that induce the modification of a character. In the example of the giraffe, the need to stretch the neck to reach the leaves directly lengthens the neck. This acquired physical trait is then passed on to offspring.

For Darwin, on the other hand, the driving force behind the transformation of species is natural selection. Giraffes with a genetic variation resulting in a longer neck have an advantage in their environment, as they can access food more easily. This advantage increases their chances of survival and, consequently, their ability to reproduce. As giraffes carrying this mutation have more offspring, its frequency increases in the population, leading to a change in the population.

Figure 1: Diagrams showing Lamarck’s and Darwin’s theories of evolution.

The theory of evolution by natural selection at a glance

Here are a few points to remember if you want to fully understand the theory of evolution by natural selection:

  • Biological evolution applies not to an individual but to a population. Natural selection has an effect on individuals, but it’s a population that evolves and changes over time.
  • Evolution has no purpose; it is the result of the randomness of genetic mutations. There is no intention or will behind evolution.
  • Our species, Homo sapiens, is no more evolved than any other animal species. Homo sapiens is an animal, a mammal, a primate and an ape like any other (if you want to learn more about them, click here). We are not the end product of evolution, we are the result of chance.
  • The evolution isn’t over yet! All species are always evolving, including us! In reality, a species that doesn’t evolve is doomed to extinction. Consequently, the term “living fossils” is biologically meaningless.
  • Similarly, there are no evolutionary stages or steps in evolution, it’s a continuous process.

We hope you enjoyed this article! Feel free to ask us questions and give us feedback on the blog. You can also contact us by e-mail. You can also follow us on Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube!

See you soon,

The Prehistory Travel team.

Bibliography :

[1] Boyer Charles, “Le cou de la girafe : Lamarck, et puis Darwin”, L’Enseignement philosophique, 2011/2 (61e Année), pp. 48-54. DOI : 10.3917/eph.612.0048. URL:

[2] Darwin Charles, On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life, ed. orginale 1859, 2022, éditions Flammarion.

[3] Lamarck Jean-Baptiste, Philosophie zoologique ou Exposition des considérations sur l’histoire naturelle des animaux, tome I, ed. original 1809, 2017, Hachette Livre BNF.

[4] Lecointre Guillaume (dir.), Guide critique de l’évolution, 2009, BELIN EDUCATION.

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The Cenozoic

Le Cénozoïque

Once again, this article goes beyond the realm of prehistory. Although… the Cenozoic is the most recent geological era in which we are currently living, and it also includes prehistory! The Cenozoic is the era during which the Earth evolved into the one we know today.

Early Cenozoic

The Cenozoic era began with an extremely famous event: the extinction of the dinosaurs. Also known as the “K/T extinction” or “Cretaceous/Tertiary extinction”, this mass extinction took place 66 million years ago (later abbreviated to Ma). In fact, dinosaurs are not the only living creatures to disappear. Over 60% of the world’s flora and fauna are becoming extinct. Mammals appeared shortly before 200 Ma, during the era preceding the Cenozoic, and were small animals at the time. The massive disappearance of large aquatic and terrestrial animals such as dinosaurs has enabled mammals to flourish, freeing up new ecological niches. Why is this important? Keep in mind that without mammals, there are no primates, and without primates … noHomo sapiens, our species!

Geological breakdown of the Cenozoic era
Figure 1: Geological division of the Cenozoic.

What happens during this period?

In general, the Cenozoic was marked by intense tectonic activity and intensified orogenesis, particularly in the Alps and Pyrenees. These gave rise to today’s mountain ranges. Continental drift has also led to their current position. Climatic instability sets in throughout the Cenozoic, resulting in the alternation of glacial and interglacial periods.

Around 65 million years ago

The continents are still relatively well centered on the equator and divided between the northern and southern hemispheres. This creates a large equatorial ocean current, homogenizing ocean temperatures towards the warm side. As a result, tropical and subtropical regions account for the majority of our planet’s population. Many land bridges exist at this time, helping mammals to disperse around the globe. One example is the area linking North America and the Eurasian continent, known as “Beringia”.

Distribution of continents and ocean currents at 65Ma - Cenozoic
Figure 2: Distribution of continents, ocean currents and environments on Earth 65 Ma ago.

Between 56 and 34 million years ago

The continents move slightly. India moves closer to Asia and Australia takes off from Antarctica. This changes the way ocean currents are distributed around the globe. It was at this time that the so-called “Lower Eocene climatic optimum” occurred, corresponding to the warmest period of this age. Tropical zones then rise to much higher latitudes. It was at this time, around 56 Ma, that the first primates appeared.

Distribution of continents and ocean currents at 50Ma - Cenozoic
Figure 3: Distribution of continents, ocean currents and environments on Earth 50 Ma ago.

Around 40 million years ago

Drake Strait, the arm of the sea between South America and Antarctica, is beginning to open up. This opening brings 2 oceans into contact, increasing the formation of diatoms and resulting in atmospheric change. Diatoms are photosynthetic microorganisms. This means they capture carbon dioxide (CO2) and release oxygen (O2) into the atmosphere, thereby reducing the amount ofCO2 in the atmosphere. The greenhouse effect is then less powerful and temperatures fall. This marked the beginning of a period of climatic destabilization and cooling. This major climate change resulted in a mass extinction of the first primates, dubbed the “Great Divide”. Nevertheless, one group of primates survived, the simiiformes, better known as “monkeys”, to which we Homo sapiens belong. Tropical forests are now confined to the equator, while temperate forests are spreading. This leads to new distributions of flora and fauna.

Continental distribution and ocean currents at 30Ma
Figure 4: Distribution of continents, ocean currents and environments on Earth 30 Ma ago.

From 23 million years ago

The layout of the continents began to resemble what we know today. A large marine current, known as the circumpolar current, is finally being set up around Antarctica. This causes the oceans to shift from a warm to a cold regime. This change in currents led to the appearance of the first polar caps at the north and south poles. A greater fragmentation and diversification of climatic zones is taking place, similar to what exists today.

Distribution of continents and ocean currents at 20-16 Ma - Cenozoic
Figure 5: Distribution of continents, ocean currents and environments on Earth 20-16 Ma ago.

Setting up the Rift Valley

One last highlight before we wrap up! Around 10 Ma, the Rift Valley began to take shape. This corresponds to an almost 6,000 km-long fissure running from the Red Sea to the south of the African continent. The Rift Valley is thought to have played an important role in the emergence of the first Hominins, but we’ll tell you more about that another time!

We stop at the gateway to prehistory. This article is far from exhaustive on the Cenozoic, but our aim is to help you understand that the history of the Earth and life are intimately linked. Climatic, atmospheric and geological upheavals have a major influence on the distribution of plant and animal species, as well as on their extinction and appearance. So, like any other animal species, the emergence of hominins depends on the environment.

Feel free to ask us questions and give us feedback on the blog. You can also contact us by e-mail. You can also follow us on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Youtube and TikTok!

See you soon,

The Prehistory Travel team.

Bibliography :

  • [1] Costeur L., Maridet O., Merceron G. (2018) -Les mammifères cénozoïques: Diversifications, adaptations et environnements, ISTE Group, 287 p.
  • [2] Friis E.M., Crane P.R., Pedersen K.R. (2011) – Early Flowers and Angiosperm Evolution, Cambridge University Press, 597 p.
  • [3] Huyghe D. (s. d.) – Changements climatiques globaux et forçage tectonique au Paléogène. Exemples du Bassin de Paris et des Pyrénées, , p. 359.
  • [4] Lagabrielle yves, Godderis yves, Donnadieu yannick, Malavieille J., Suarez M. (2009) – The tectonic history of Drake Passage and its possible impacts on global climate, Earth and Planetary Science Letters, 279, 3-4, p. 197-211.
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The origins of life

The formation of our planet

Our solar system was born around 4.6 billion years ago (later abbreviated to Ga). It was formed within a large cloud of gas and dust. Under the effect of gravitation, the matter in this primitive cloud moved closer together, forming a ball of gas at its center. The temperature rose and a star, the Sun, began to shine. The rest of the primitive cloud remained orbitng the Sun. Bodies of matter gradually coalesced, giving rise to the planets a few million years later. The Earth was formed around 4.56 Ga ago.

How does life appear?

Nevertheless, the conditions necessary for the appearance of life on Earth were far from being met. Temperatures exceeded 100°C and our planet is covered by an ocean of magma. It took several million years before the temperature dropped and oceans and continents formed (between 4.5 and 4.4 Ga). The first life forms began to appear between 4 and 3.8 Ga. Around 4 Ga, organic matter formed from gases such as nitrogen, methane and carbon dioxide. This gives rise to proteins and nucleic acids, which are essential constituents of living organisms.

The first living organisms.

The oldest fossil traces of living organisms date back to 3.8 Ga with the stromatolites. These are sedimentary constructions resulting from the biological activity of very ancient bacteria. These bacteria photosynthesize by capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and releasing oxygen. This type of bacteria still exists today. These are the cyanobacteria. The oldest traces of stromatolites have been found in Australia and Argentina. The emergence of life as we know it today is intimately linked to oxygen, a gas that is indispensable to many of today’s living organisms. Although it began to be released around 3.8 Ga, it wasn’t until around 2.6 Ga that the concentration of oxygen in the atmosphere became significant.

Conditions for the emergence of life

Three main conditions are necessary for the emergence of life as we know it: a continental crust, an oxic atmosphere and the presence of water in liquid form. Let’s not forget that one of our planet’s main characteristics is the abundant presence of liquid water. Indeed, for a long time to come, life continued to be confined to the aquatic realm. It was not until 400 million years ago (later abbreviated to Ma) that the first land animals emerged!

The mechanisms behind the appearance of the first organisms are unknown. Nevertheless, we do know that all living things today have a common origin, given that all living beings possess the molecules we mentioned earlier (proteins and nucleic acids, and also RNA and DNA). Scientists are obviously looking for the last common ancestor of all living things. This hypothetical ancestor is nicknamed LUCA, an acronym for Last Universal Common Ancestor. But be careful! LUCA is only the ancestor of today’s organisms. Other forms of life may have existed, but they simply didn’t leave any descendants.

Milestones in the history of life

Here are a few milestones in the history of life.

Figure 1: Timeline showing some of the major milestones in the history of life on Earth.

And what about human beings?

Human history began between 8 and 5 Ma, well after the appearance of our planet and the emergence of life on Earth! The time scale is dizzying, and this allows us to emphasize an important point: the notion of long and short time periods. 8 Ma may seem like a long time to us, but on the scale of our planet, it’s nothing at all! And it’s even shorter when we consider the emergence of the Homo genus 2.8 Ma ago or Homo sapiens around 300,000 years ago! Time is relative!

Don’t hesitate to ask us questions and give us your feedback on the blog. You can also contact us by e-mail. You can also follow us on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, Linkedin and YouTube!

See you soon,

The Prehistory Travel team.


  • [1] Forterre P, Gribaldo S., “The origin of modern terrestrial life”, HFSP J., 2007, 1(3):156-68. doi: 10.2976/1.2759103.
  • [2] Forterre P., Gribaldo S., Brochier C. (2005) – ” Luca : à la recherche du plus proche ancêtre commun universel “, Med Sci (Paris), vol. 21, n°10, 2005.
  • [3] Grimaud-Hervé D., et al, History of ancestors. The great adventure of prehistoryEditions Errance, 2015
  • [4]
  • [5]
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The subdivisions of Prehistory

Periodization in Africa

Prehistory in Africa, a continent sometimes called the cradle of humanity, is subdivided into three periods according to different lithic industries: the Early Stone Age (ESA), the Middle Stone Age (MSA), and the Later Stone Age (LSA).

This periodization begins about 3.3 million years ago (later abbreviated to Ma), the estimated age of the first tools discovered at Lomekwi, a complex of prehistoric sites located on the shore of Lake Turkana in Kenya.

Map of Africa with Lomekwi location
Figure 1: Map of Africa with the location of the Lomekwi 3 site.

The name Lomekwien refers to this lithic industry characterized by large tools. The biggest ones weigh 15 kg! It was not therefore the genus Homo, which emerged at the earliest around 2.8-2.5 Ma, who created these first tools.

The lithic industry called the Oldowayen succeeds the Lomekwien. It is characterized by the shaping of pebbles known as arranged pebbles. The Acheulean, which succeeded it from 1.8 Ma, is identifiable by its production, among other things, of bifaces and choppers. These three lithic industries are grouped together in an ensemble called Early Stone Age (ESA).

Lithic industry found in Africa and Europe
Figure 2: Photographs A) Landscaped pebble, Salé plateau, Morocco B) Hachereau, Sahara C) Biface from the Saint-Acheul site, France. Institut Paléonthologie Humaine

The Middle Stone Age (MSA), which lasts from 300,000 to 40,000 years ago, succeeds the Early Stone Age. The MSA is marked by several technical innovations such as the production of pressed blades and tips. The MSA also sees many innovations in the symbolic and socio-economic spheres. The MSA was followed by the Later Stone Age (LSA) which appeared between 50,000 and 20,000 years ago.

Prehistory in Africa map
Figure 3: Timeline of the division of Prehistory in Africa.

The transition from one chronoculture to another is often based on the differences between lithic industries, but other criteria, such as the mode of production of tools, the use or not of bone material, or markers of human activity, can be used. Indeed, these divisions are chronocultural. They therefore depend on the cultures and vary in time and space.

Periodization in Europe

Prehistory in Europe is subdivided into three major periods: the Paleolithic, the Mesolithic and the Neolithic.

This periodization begins about 1.4 Ma, the date of the oldest known sites occupied in Europe, excepting that of Dmanissi in Georgia, testifying to the presence of Hominins. The Lower Paleolithic extends to about 300,000 years ago. It is divided into two periods called respectively the Archaic industry on pebbles and the Acheulean period.

The Middle Paleolithic, which follows from 300,000 to 40,000 years ago, is marked by the Mousterian culture, a lithic industry characterized by the appearance of debitage and the production of tools on chips.

Between 40,000 and 10,000 years ago came the Upper Paleolithic, which was divided into numerous industries, each with regional specificities throughout Europe. This period was characterized by the production of tools on elongated supports called blades or flakes, but also by an unprecedented geographical extension of the population, an intensification of the production of figurative art and an evolution of subsistence techniques with the intensive use of new resources and raw materials.

Prehistory in Europe map
Figure 4: Timeline of the division of Prehistory in Europe.

Most of the names of the chronocultural periods are derived from the names of the sites where the corresponding lithic industries were found for the first time. For example, Acheulean comes from Saint-Acheul in the Somme, Mousterian from the shelter of Moustier in Dordogne and Solutrean from Solutré in Saône-et-Loire.

The Mesolithic, which succeeds the Paleolithic around 9,600 B.C., ends with the beginning of the Neolithic around 5,200 B.C. This period is marked by the development of bow hunting, the increased use of microliths and a more diversified exploitation of plant, aquatic and land resources.

The Neolithic, the last period of prehistory, is the beginning of sedentarization, agriculture and animal domestication.

Prehistory in Europe timeline
Figure 5: Timeline of Prehistory in Europe showing the beginnings and ends of the Paleolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic.

The examples of Africa and Europe show that the periodization of prehistory depends strongly on the continents and even on the regions. Moreover, several lithic industries or chronocultures can coexist in close but also distant geographical regions. The transition from one to the other is gradual.

The geological time scale

Geological subdivisions are established within the international chronostratigraphic chart. We must look at this chart as a calendar of the geological times of the Earth.

The different geological periods are determined according to climatic, geological and paleomagnetic events. Chronocultural and geological names are sometimes used synonymously. However, they do not mean exactly the same thing: one corresponds to a cultural stage and the other to a geological stage.

Overlay of cultural frieze and geological cut-outs Prehistory
Figure 6: Superposition of the cultural and geological friezes of the Prehistoric division. We note that according to the regions of the world, Prehistory does not correspond exactly to the same thing. Each region has its own specificities! Moreover, the geological division of time does not correspond to the different chronocultures either.

Feel free to ask us questions and give us feedback on the blog. You can also follow us on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, TikTok and YouTube!

See you soon,

The Prehistory Travel team.

Article Bibliography:

  • [1] Balzeau Antoine, De Beaune Sophie A., La Préhistoire, collection Chroniques de l’Homme, CNRS editions, 2009.
  • [2] Bar-Yosef, Ofer. “The Archaeological Framework of the Upper Paleolithic Revolution,” Diogenes, vol. 214, no. 2, 2006, pp. 3-23.
  • [3] De Beaune Sophie A., Qu’est-ce que la Préhistoire ?, éditions Gallimard, collection Folio Histoire, 2016.
  • [4] Groenen Marc, Introduction to Prehistory, ELLIPSES editions, 2009.
  • [5] RadioFrance broadcast of March 1, 2016, “What is Prehistory?”,
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What is prehistory?

Prehistory, as a chronological period, is often defined as the time before the appearance of writing. This definition was formulated at the beginning of the 20th century by Gabriel de Mortillet. He is considered one of the founding fathers of Prehistory and defines it as “the history of man before written documents, figurative documents, even traditions and legends” [6]. Nevertheless, the date of the break between Prehistory and History is subject to discussion.

The term “Prehistory” means “before history”. However, it seems arbitrary to decide that what happens before the appearance of writing does not belong to history. As a reminder, following the discovery of the first Sumerian tablets, it is admitted that writing appeared in Mesopotamia about -3700 years BC. J-C. Nevertheless, at that time, writing was far from being widespread. It takes several centuries, even several millennia, for it to spread throughout the world. Thus, in the West, writing has long been reserved for an elite [4].

Why is this definition problematic?

This definition also raises another issue. Indeed, out of 7,100 languages listed, only 200 are written. So, currently, 97% of the languages are only spoken. Therefore, can we consider the peoples without writing as frozen in the prehistoric stage? Would it be fair to say that they have no history? In response to this problem, some prehistorians suggest using an economic criterion instead.

Jean Guilaine [5], for example, advocates using the beginning of the Neolithic, a period marked by the transition from hunter-gatherer populations to sedentary populations practicing animal husbandry and agriculture, as a marker for the end of prehistory. However, as this transition took place over a long period of time and differently in different regions, there is no clear break between these two subsistence economies. So where do we draw the line between a society based on a predatory economy and a society based on a productive economy? Another problem is that contemporary populations are still nomadic.

It is therefore impossible to define a criterion for the end of prehistory that would work for the whole globe.

When did prehistory begin?

Is it different for the date of the beginning of Prehistory? If prehistory excludes everything that comes before human history, when does human history begin? Overall, three dates are proposed.

The first date places the beginning of Prehistory between 2.8 and 2.5 million years ago (abbreviated thereafter as Ma) with the appearance of the genus Homo in Africa. The second is placed at 3.3 Ma with the manufacture of the first known tools to date. They were discovered in Lomekwi in Africa and are the work of the first Hominins of which the genera Australopithecus, Kenyanthropus and Paranthropus are part. The last date, retained by the majority of prehistorians, is situated between 7 and 5 Ma. It is thus this period that we will retain as the beginning of Prehistory. It corresponds to the last common ancestor between chimpanzees and human beings and to the appearance of the human lineage.

The dinosaurs having disappeared about 65 Ma ago are therefore not part of Prehistory.

The scientific discipline

As for prehistory, it is the scientific discipline that studies prehistory.

The prehistorian, unlike the historian, has no written material to refer to. It can only be based on material elements collected during excavations and prospecting. In the absence of writings and testimonies, the interpretation of the materials leaves room for a large number of hypotheses and possible interpretations. Scientific constructions are therefore the result of years of research and complex studies that require the contribution of many disciplines such as paleoanthropology, archaeozoology, palynology or carpology without which prehistory could not exist.

The study of prehistory requires, as for any scientific discipline, the ability to question commonly accepted theories but also and above all to admit that perhaps certain questions will never be answered.

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The Prehistory Travel team.

Article Bibliography:

  • [1] Balzeau Antoine, De Beaune Sophie A., La Préhistoire, collection Chroniques de l’Homme, CNRS editions, 2009.
  • [2] Bar-Yosef, Ofer. “The Archaeological Framework of the Upper Paleolithic Revolution,” Diogenes, vol. 214, no. 2, 2006, pp. 3-23.
  • [3] De Beaune Sophie A., Qu’est-ce que la Préhistoire ?, éditions Gallimard, collection Folio Histoire, 2016.
  • [4] Groenen Marc, Introduction to Prehistory, ELLIPSES editions, 2009.
  • [5] Guilaine Jean, Archaeology, human science. Interviews with Anne LehoërffParis, co-publishing Actes Sud-Errance, 2011.
  • [6] Mortillet G., Mortillet A. de, Prehistory. Origin and antiquity of man. Paris, Librairie Schleicher Frère, 1900
  • [7] RadioFrance broadcast of March 1, 2016, “What is Prehistory?”,