History is often considered to cover the time since people started writing, around six thousand years ago. Pre-history is the considerably longer time from the start of the universe until humans first recorded something about themselves. Clearly we don’t know a whole lot for certain about prehistoric times. Even in the 21st century, scientists are unsure when humans first walked the earth. They are even less certain when the earth was formed, although the current estimate is, very approximately, 4,600 million years.
We know very little about the earth millions of years ago. Guesses and theories can be made based on fossil records, but on the whole we have little idea. There’s a useful site called Earth Floor which is well worth exploring. It gives a clear explanation of what many geologists and scientists currently believe. It also shows the different eras that geologists have defined.
In a nutshell, the theory is that in the first 90% of time since the earth was formed, it cooled, and the continents and seas gradually formed. This is known as the Precambrian Aeon. Then there are three eras in the most recent 10% of time. These are:
The Paleozoic era, starting about 540 million years ago, when reptiles began to appear on the earth.
The Cenozoic era, starting about 65 million years ago, when mammals started appearing.
Young earth theory
Study of these ancient times is highly specialised, and school education only touches upon it lightly. It is important to know that that there are alternative theories, suggesting that the earth may well be rather younger. Some Christians believe that the earth was not created until about six to then thousand years ago. This is the ‘young earth’ theory. They claim that the descriptions in the Biblical book of Genesis are literal rather than metaphorical. Some arguments in favour of a younger earth can be found on the Christian answers site.
Other Christians believe that the idea of a ‘day’ in the book of Genesis refers to a period of thousands or even millions of years rather than a 24-hour period. Others believe that this early section of the Bible is a metaphorical attempt to explain how the world came into being. This is because the language used is poetical rather than the prose of historical documents.
The origins of mankind
Whatever you think about ancient prehistoric times, the human race as we know it is relatively recent on the earth. Some people believe that men and women evolved from ape-like creatures over hundreds of thousands of years. Others believe that we are a separate race, different from other animals in being created, in some way, in God’s image. Still, all agree that early man was fairly primitive. Our ancestors lived in caves and hunted for food. Moreover, by about ten thousand years ago, human beings looked very much as they do today. You can find several interesting features on prehistoric life at this stage, on the BBC education site.
For those who find facts generally uninteresting, but would like to understand more of what life would have been like for very early mankind, I recommend the book The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean Auel, first of the ‘Earth’s Children’ series. It’s a fictional account of an early ‘homo sapiens’ girl. She lost her parents in a landslide and was adopted for a while by a Neanderthal clan. It’s extremely well-researched and seems realistic, although I would not recommend it for younger children. There are some rather explicit references to ‘mating’ and parts of the body.
The Stone Age
By around six to ten thousand years ago, mankind was reasonably well established. Our ancestors were living in what we call the Stone Age. They used flint to make knives and arrows, and stones for cooking pots. They also used animal skins for clothes, and even made some jewellery. Many museums have artefacts from the Stone Age. Some of these are still in quite good condition. So this is the first period when we can have a reasonable idea of how people actually lived.
By the end of the Stone Age period, around 6000 BC, people had organised themselves into villages, and had learned the basic theories of farming, so that they could eat grain regularly rather than relying on wild plants and animals only for their diet. They also started domesticating animals such as sheep and goats, to provide meat and skins without having to go on dangerous hunting expeditions.
In addition, people had started building mud-brick houses, mostly in what we now know as the Middle East region. Thus they could live wherever they wanted to, instead of having to find places with suitable caves.