Prehistory and Eliot’s Prufrock




 I don’t know why this part-stanza from Eliot’s Prufrock makes me think of prehistory?



                    Let us go, then you and I,

                    When the evening is spread out against the sky

                    Like a patient etherized upon a table;


                    Is it due to what follows:


                    In the room women come and go

                    Talking of Michelangelo

But Michelangelo is a late-contemporary of pre-Columbian, if not a post-Columbian.


Associative processes of mind are indeed strange!

The word Prehistory is derived by combining the words pre- (meaning, before) and history, and is a term often used to describe the period before written history. Paul Tournal originally coined the term Pré-historique in describing the finds he had discovered in the caves of southern France.The French people started using it in the 1830s to describe the time before history writing had begun, while Daniel Wilson was the first Englishman to use the word in this sense in 1851.

Prehistory can be said to date back to the beginning of the universe itself, although the term is most often used to describe periods when there was life on Earth. Dinosaurs can be described as prehistoric animals and cavemen are described as prehistoric people.

It is so, because there are no written records from prehistoric times, and the things we know about those times are obtained from palaeontology and other natural and social sciences.

The term became somewhat loose in the 20th century when the boundary between history (interpretation of written and oral records) and other disciplines became less rigid. Actually,  historians at present rely more on evidence from multiple areas and do not generally restrict themselves to the historical period and written, oral or other symbolically encoded sources of communication. Moreover, the term ‘history’ is increasingly used in place of ‘prehistory’ to describe certain passages of time, such as History of the Earth, History of the Universe, and so on. Anyway, the distinction remains important to many scholars, particularly in the social sciences. Researchers mainly peering into Human prehistory are prehistoric archaeologists and physical anthropologists who use excavation, geographic survey, and scientific analysis to reveal and interpret the nature and behavior of pre-literate and non-literate peoples.

The chronogical terms used in human prehistory are different from those used in history. There is also difference in the way it deals with the activities of archaeological cultures instead of named nations or individuals. Restricted to material remains rather than written records (and indeed only those remains that have survived), prehistory is nameless, anonymous. Due to this reason, prehistoric refereces like Cro-Magnon or Stone Age are fuzzy, modern and to some extent arbitrary labels, the precise definition of which are often subject to discussion and argument.

It is, however, interesting that the beginning of history, that is, the date when written historical records became a useful academic resource, is the date marking the end of prehistory. And it varies from region to region! For example, in Egypt it is generally accepted that prehistory ended around 3800 BCE, whereas in New Guinea the prehistoric era culminated in the early years of the twentieth century.

Age systems 

After the evolution of humans on earth, a geological time scale defines periods in prehistory. Archaeology supplemented this record providing more precise divisions. Generally, prehistory in the Old World is designated by a three age system. This system classifies human prehistory under three consecutive time periods, named for their respective predominant tool-making technologies. In the New World, however, other naming schemes are used, for example, those listed in Archaeology of the Americas. But, such loosely defined systems of dividing up prehistory are not quite accurate because recent archaeological discoveries suggest a much more complex view of prehistory.


The three-age system consists of Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age. The Stone Age is further subdivided into Paleolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic Periods. As stated earlier, these three consecutive age systems are named for their respective predominant tool-making technologies. The system is quite correct in describing the progression of European  society, and has also been used to describe other prehistories. However, it has been criticized for being too technologically determinist.

Stone Age and its People


The Stone Age is a broad prehistoric time period when humans widely used stone for tool making from a variety of different kinds of stone. Flint and chert were shaped (or chipped) for use as cutting tools and weapons.Basalt and sandstone were used for grinding and sharpening purposes, such as quern-stones. In addition, wood, bone, shell, antler and other materials were widely used. Sediments (like clay) were used to make pottery during the later part of the period. The subsequent Copper, Bronze and Iron Ages were characterized by a series of metal technology innovations.

The period witnessed the first widespread use of technology in human evolution, and humanity  spread from the savannas of East Africa to the rest of the world. Development of agriculture, domestication of certain animals and the smelting of copper ore to produce metal. It is named prehistoric because humanity had not learned to write yet. Written records are considered as the traditional starting point of history.

Archaeologists called it the “Stone Age” because stone tools made during this pre-metallurgic time survived far more widely than tools made from other, softer materials. It is the first age in the three-age system, and John Lubbock subdivided it into thePaleolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic periods in his now classic 1865 book, Pre-historic Times. These three periods are again subdivided because the succession of phases differs enormously from one region (and culture). In fact, humanity continued to step into new areas even during the metal ages. Homo habilis or the precursor of humanity evolved during the first phase or Paleolithic period of the Stone Age. Then, 1.75 million years ago, a new species – the Homo Erectus (upright man) appeared on the scene, and spread from Africa to Europe and Asia. The Upright Man not only stood erect, but also had a bigger brain than Homo habilis. He was capable of making better tools, and was probably the first human being to use fire. Then, about 400,000 years ago, the Homo sapiens or the thinking man made his debut, and humanity took its first. shaky step forward. Their descendants, the Neanderthal people (named after a valley in Germany), lived in Europe and the Middle East until about 35,000 years ago. They dealt with the severe cold of the Pleistocene or Ice Age by living in caves.

Prehistoric Culture


Apparently, two types of Homo sapiens lived side by side – the Neanderthals or early Homo sapiens and a subspecies, Homo sapiens sapiens, who looked more or less like a modern human being. The Neanderthals were heavily built, but did not possess a chin. They used simple tools and had probably spoke to one another by developing a language. It is not known why they died out,  leaving us as the only humans on Earth. The survivors — such as the Cro- Magnons — lived all over Europe during the Stone Age period. These prehistoric people built simple wooden huts, fished and hunted deer and wild cattle. They wandered around in search of food. They began to express themselves through art, drawing pictures on cave walls and carving stones into human shapes. There are famous example of detailed cave paintings in Lascaux in France and Altamira Spain. The Lascaux painting, known as The Magician, shows a man with a pointy face and the body of a goat. The Altamira painting depicts a bull realistically  with enormously developed shoulder muscles.

Prehistoric life is a compendium of different types of organisms which inhabited the Earth from the origin of life nearly 3.8 billion years ago to the time when humans began to keep written records, known as the beginning of the Historic Period(circa 3500 BCE).

During the course of evlution new forms of life developed and many other forms, such as the dinosaurs, became extinct Prehistoric life evolved over this vast timespan from simple bacteria-like cells in the oceans to algae and protozoa, and ultimately to complex multicellular forms such as fungi, land plants, worms, molluscs, crustaceans, insects, and vertebrates.

In geologic terms, humans evolved very recently, only about 4 million years ago.

Very few species of prehistoric life (such as the coelacanth) still exist today unchanged, tens of millions of years later, thereby making them living fossils. Yet other creatures, like sharks, have changed but a little over millions of years.

However, most life forms — over 99 percent — have become extinct, and so the only record of them ever existing that remains today are rock imprints, casts or other fossils.

Prehistory of India

The prehistory of India may be regarded as beginning with the old Stone age or the Palaeolithic period. India defines the eastern limit of the area where hand axes are found, and there are numerous other areas of different findspots. For instance, hominid remains of middle Pleistocene date have been found in Hathnora in the Narmada valley. A middle palaeolithic quarry has been found recently in the Kaladgi Basin, southern India.

Indus Valley Civilization and the emergence of Aryans

It is generally accepted that the Indus Vlley Civilization, which is also called the Harappan Civilization evolved and reached its peak between 3000 BC and 1800 BCE. It covered a wide area consisting of Afghanistan in the west to the Ganges plains in the east; as also the Pamir cluster in the north to the Rann of Kutch in the south. Traces of its traditional beginning, known as the Indus tradition have been detected at Mehrgarh going back to 7000 BCE. Believed to be     the largest among the so called Bronze age civilizations of the period, little is known about this lost civilization because attempts made by historians in deciphering the Harappan script have been in vain. Towards the end of the second millennium BCE, the civilization started to decline, and there is no clue as to where did the Harappans come from and what happened after 1700 BCE. However, apparently that was when the Aryans believed to have entered India through the Khyber Pass. Disagreements abound among contemporary Indologists over the exact events because the Harappans left a huge amount of archeology but no decipherable literature. The Aryans, in their turn, created and left for posterity a vast corpus of  literature in the form of vedas and other religious and literary works, but no archeological edifice. The elusive lost civilization of Harappa generates a lot of mystifying questions and problems, which would probably remain unanswered and unsolved for all time to come.

Anyway, it is an established fact that the people of India have had a continuous recorded civilization since the 7000 BC with its roots in the Mehrgarh complex of the Indus Tradition in northwest India. It was an urban culture based on commerce and sustained by agricultural trade, reaching its most prosperous phase in the 2600 BCE in the valleys of the Indus river. Perhaps, ecological changes are behind the decline and eventual disappearance of this civilization between the 19th century BCE and 17th century BCE – no one knows.

However, satellite imagery and oceanographic studies supplement recent data indicating that the civilisation flourished even as far back as the 9000 BC. It has also been known (and found) that a tradition of Indian rock art dates back to 40 – 50,000 years.


History as defined by a timeline


Prehistory is assumed to be between 200000 BCE and 3500 BCE as also later;  the Three Age System (Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages) — upto 3500 BCE;  Ancient history — between 3500 BCE and 476 CE;  pre-Columbian — from 14,000 BP to 1492 CE and later;  Classical Antiquity — from 7th century BCE to 476 CE;  Middle Ages — 476 CE to 1517 CE;  Modern history — from the 15th century CE to present.    


The pre-Columbian era includes all the subsequent period subdivisions in the  history and prehistory of the Americas before European influences on the Continent became particularly noticeable. Notionally, the term means  the era before the first landing of Christopher Columbus in the American Continent  in 1492.  In effect, however, the era incorporates the history of American indigenous cultures as they went on flourishing even after 1492 till such time they were conquered or the European influences became significantly prominent. This could be  decades or even centuries after the first landing. 

Normally, the term pre-Columbian is used to mean the great indigenous civilizations of the Americas, especially those of the Mesoamerica :- of the Aztec and Maya;  and of the Andes, Moche and Chibcha civilizations.

Societal hierarchies of fascinating complexity, monumental architecture for civic and religious purposes, generally permanent or urban settlements and agriculture, all created without any outside influence, were the significant characteristics of the pre-Columbian civilizations. By the time the first permanent European settlers had arrived (between late fifteenth and early sixteenth century CE), many of these civilizations had ceased to function. These are now known only through archaeological investigations. Some contemporaries of them are also found in the historical accounts of the time. The Mayan Civilization had a script in which they had set their records. The invading Europeans regarded such texts as blasphemous and heretical to Christianity and burnt them in pyres. Somehow a few, presumably, hidden texts survived providing the modern historian with tantalising vistas of ancient culture and knowledge. 

Indigenous accounts as also American and European documents and records at the time of the European onslaught show that these civilizations were capable of doing fascinating things. For example, they had the most populous city of the time and they knew about the modern theories of astronomy and mathematics. Where they are extant, the culture and society of the descendants of such civilizations generally now be very different from the ancestral one. Even then, these people and their progeny display traits and follow traditions and practices originating in those earlier times and influenced by more recently acquired trends.   

Sequence of migration to the New World

Bering Land Bridge, which is the present day Bering Strait, was the passage for crossing over to the Americas by the nomads from Asia. Over time spanning millenniums (millennia?), they spread all over the continent. When exactly the first group of people did so is, as usual, a matter of controversies and debates. Anyway, the commonly held view is that people of the Clovis culture were the earliest, and were identified with sites going back to nearly14,000 years. Later on, sites as old as 20,000 years have been found, and genetic researches lead to the conclusion that the first batch of migrants reached the shores of Americas sometime between 40,000 to 13,000 years ago. Another belief is that the lands were populated by multiple waves of immigrants.

Be that as it may, archaeological finds in both North and South America are estimated to be 12,000 years old by Carbon dating, while Cape Horn, the southernmost place in South America, is belived to have been inhabited at around the same time. The common theme of agreement among all theories is that the Innuits and the related people (Eskimoes and such) arrived at Alaska separately much later (probably 6th century BCE) moving across the ice in Siberia.


The first complex civilization evolved after the migration or migrations around 5,000 BCE. Those people of the Americas were hunter gatherers, and they were inhabiting much of the continent’s area upto the 18th century BCE even though the advanced civilizations had evolved by then. The archaeological cultures of such hunter gatherer societies can be identified as belonging to the categories, such as, Early and Late Paleo-Indian Periods; Archaic Period; and Early, Middle and Late Woodland Periods.              

Agricultural development

Such early inhabitants of the Americas started agricultural practices, raising maize having ears of lengths varying from 2 – 5 cms to even 10 -15 cms. Other plants grown by them were potatoes, pumpkins, tomatoes and avocadoes. As not many suitable species were available, there were not many livestocks. For meat, however, the guinea pig was raised in the Andes. Maize had been taken from Mexico in the fifteenth century CE to the Mississippi embayment and was grown as an agricultural crop there, but further developments were not possible due to the arrival of the Europeans at that time. The Incas grew potatoes, while the Aztecs farmed cocoa used in chocolates. When the Europeans arrived in North America, many Natives there were semi-nomadic tribes of hunter gatherers. Others belonging to agricultural and sedentary societies formed new tribes or confederations in retaliation to European colonization. Among them, the well-known groups were the Apache, the Cherokee, the Sioux, the Iroqouis and the Mohegan. The Iroquois consisted of a number of sub-groups like Mohawk, Oneida, Seneca, Cayuga, Onandaga and subsequently, the Tuscarora tribe. The Inuits are a later addition to such groups. There were numerous pre-Columbian sedentary societies in the present day United States of America, not so politically complex and technologically advanced as the Mesoamerican civilizations down south were.

Mississippian Culture

Occupying a large area along the Mississippi River, the people of the Mississippi Culture in pre-Columbian history earned the nickname the Moundbuilders because of their distinguishing characteristic of building large earthen mounds. Their society was complex and stratified, they cultivated intensely growing maize and other crops, and they carried on trading activities quite extensively. Emerging and growing out of the less intensively agricultural and less centralized Woodland period, the Mississippians appeared on the scene circa 1,000 CE. By 1200-1400, the Culture reached its peak, following which it apparently went on decline. In fact, when the Europeans there was not much left of it. Their largest site was Cahokia, located near present day East St. Louis, Illinois. The city apparently had a population of over 20,000. It was the most populous city in North America at the time of the flowering of the Mississippi Culture between the 12th and 13th centuries, but nowhere near the much larger cities in Mesoamerica and South America. Its ceremonial centre, the Monk’s Mound, is regarded as the largest prehistoric earthen construction in the New World.        



It is the region delineated by central Mexico in the south and the northwestern border of Costa Rica, and the land mass from which emerged a group of stratified, culturally related agrarian civilizations existing for nearly 3,000 years before the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the New World in 1492 CE. The pre-Columbian culture of this region is generally known as Mesoamerican. Mesoamerica is an environmentally similar region where for more than three thousand years various ancient cultures having nearly similar views on art, architecture, religious beliefs and technology flourished and left their imprints and marks for posterity. Formation of complex cultures began in Mesoamerica circa 1800 BCE, and continued for the next 1500 years. Some of them made progress and gave rise to advanced pre-Columbian Mesoamerican civilizations like the Olmec, Teotihuacan, Maya, Zapotec, Mixtec, Huastec, Purepecha, Toltec and Mexica, and continued for about 4,000 years before the first encounter with the Europeans. Such indigenous civilizations built pyramids and temples; created highly accurate calendars by abacus calculations along with a complex theology; made significant progress in astronomy, engineering, fine arts, intensive agriculture, medicine and writing; and discovered the wheel. As they did not possess any animal to drag loads, the wheel was used only as a toy. They knew how to work on metals and used copper and gold obtained locally to make various objects. They excelled in counting and devised one of the most complex counting system in the world with a base of 20 number system. Archaic inscriptions on rocks and rock walls of northern Mexico, particularly in the province of Nuevo Leon, are testimonies to their expertise in counting and number systems. Astronomical events influenced the Mexican Natives to a great extent, and those very early and ancient counting marks were associated with astronomical activities long before the Europeans came on the scene. It would appear that the Mexican based civilizations coming later built their ceremonial centres and cities by taking into account specific astronomical events.

Mesoamerican cities like Cholula and Teotihuacan were among the largest cities in the world of their time. Growing up as centres of ceremonies and commerce; and of ideas and theology, those cities provided inspiration to the neighbouring cultures in central Mexico. Such city-states, empires and kingdoms competed with one another and often went into war for power and prestige. Generally, however, Mesoamerica could be regarded as the seat of five major civilizations – the Mexica and the Maya; the Olmec; and the Teotihuacan and the Toltec.

With the exception of the politically divided Maya, the other four spread out to exert their influence over Mexico and beyond its boundaries. Consolidating their power over the neighbouring regions, they went on influencing the latter in matters of art and trade; politics and technology; as also theology. The regional powers formed economical and political alliances with them to make peace, and, in general, everybody was under the thrall of one of these five spheres of influence.    

Olmec civilization

It is the earliest known civilization in Mesoamerica, setting the pattern of cultural development, which the societies formed later in Mexico were to follow. Beginning from around 2300 BCE, the Olmec culture started making potteries in abundance. Then followed the consolidation of power beyween 1800-1500 BCE by the Olmec chiefs and the founding of a capital in a site near the coast in southeast Veracruz, a place known today as San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan. Across Mexico, the Olmec spread their influence, then to Central America and continued along the Gulf of Mexico. A new form of government, pyramid-temples, astronomy, art, mathematics, economics, writing and religion were the areas in which their excellence changed the thinking of many people. The greatness of the yet to come Maya civilization in the east and the flowering of the civilizations to the west in central Mexico owed a lot to the achievements of the Olmec.

Teotihuacan civilization

As the Olmec civilization declined, there was a power vacuum in Mexico. The Teotihuacan culture forming around 300 BCE filled that space. Circa 150 CE, it had developed considerably  making Teotihuacan the first genuine metropolis in contemporary North America. Teotihuacan introduced a form of economic and political order which was unlike anything seen before in Mexico. Extending its influence across Mexico, Teotihuacan established new dynasties in the Maya cities of Copan, Kaminaljuyu and Tikal. Bringing about changes in artistic illustrations, political power and the nature of economics, Teotihuacan’s influence over the near contemporary Maya civilization remained intact for a long time. The residents of the city of Teotihuacan were diverse and cosmopolitan; they represented many of the regional ethnicities of Mexico, for example, the Zapotecs hailing from the Oaxaca region. People lived in apartment communities where they worked on their professions and thus improving the qualities of the city’s cultural and economic aspects. By 500 CE, Teotihuacan had become the largest city in the world exercising its economic clout to regions far in northern Mexico.The architecture of the city, especially its monuments, conveyed the spirit of the times: a truly monumental era. The political decline began around 650 CE, but the cultural supremacy was maintained for 300 years more.

Maya civilization


Closely following the Teotihuacan culture was the Maya civlization, which reached the pinnacle of its glory between 250 and 650 CE. It was the time when the attributes of the Maya culture bloomed fully. Consisting of several city-states, the Maya civilisation failed to cobble political unity in the manner of the central Mexican cultures. But that did not deter Maya to provide a beneficial and forceful intellectual leadership to the Central American and Mexican cultures. The Maya cities were built with very detailed planning and were far ahead of the cities elsewhere in the continent. Their tremendous contributions in astronomy, mathematics and writng elevated the status of  Mexico to greater heights.

Aztec/Mexica civilization

Political fragmentation ensued in the Valley of Mexico, when the Toltec civilisation went into a decline. Into those troubled waters came to fish, for the Toltec mantle, complete outsiders – people of the Mexica civlization. Born and brought up in a desert climate, they were one of the seven fiercely proud groups who earlier preferred to be called Azteca to preserve the memory of Aztlan. Owing to frequent migrations from one place to another, they changed their name to Mexica. They were regarded as crude and uncivilized because of their origin from some place other than the Valley of Mexico. But they were shrewd and skilled in ferocious fighting. Combining these two traits, they formed a triple political alliance with two other Aztec cities, Texcoco and Tlacopan, and became the leader of the group. 

Though they came later to the central plateau of Mexico, from the start the Mexicas bestowed on themselves the legacy of the civilizations before them. Achievements of the earlier residents of Tula, the Toltec society, they identified as their own. These included fine arts, architecture, engraving, feather-mosaic works and the introduction of a calendar. Around 1400 CE, the Mexica-Aztecs became the rulers of a large part of central Mexico while Apaches, Coras and Yaquis controlled most of the regions of northern desert. By 1470, they consolidated their positions further after conquering most of the regional states. At that time 300,000 Mexicas held sway over 10 million people (among the total 24 million population of Mexico) who paid tributes to them. The modern nation of Mexico owes its name to them. Present day Mexico City was the site of their capital, Tenochtitlan. It was peopled by nearly 300,000 residents and boasted of a market which the conquistadors (from Europe) said the largest they had ever seen.

South America

In the first millennium of the Christian Era, the vast rainforests, mountains, plains and coasts of South America were inhabited by tens of millions of people, some of them settling down permanently. Among such permanent settlers, the Chibchas of Colombia, the Quechuas of Peru, and the Aymaras of Bolivia were the three major sedentary Indian societies in South America. It would appear that they were in contact with the Polynesians as indicated by the availability of sweet potato in some regions of the Pacific, but there is no trace of genetic imprint left behind by the visitors.    


Among the pre-Hispanic Colombians, the Chibcha linguistic communities were the largest. They  occupied a large territory and were socio-economically well developed.They laid the foundation of their civlization in the Andes in the third century CE. Modern Panama and the higher areas of the Eastern Sierra of Colombia were under their occupation at one time. The Departments of North and South Santander, Boyaca and Cundinamarca were also held by them. These are the areas where the first farms and the first industries were developed and the movement for independence was started. At present these areas are the richest in Colombia, and at one time were the most populous zone between the Inca and the Mexica civilizations. Of the sedentary indigenous cultures of South America (including the Quechua of Peru and the Aymara of Bolivia), the Chibchas of the eastern and north-eastern Highlands of Colombia were the most advanced.The Chibchas of the Oriental Andes were remarkable in the sense that the various tribes (Muiscas, Laches, Guanes, Chitareos and so on) among the population spoke in a common language, Chibchan.     

Norte Chico

The Norte Chico on the northern coast of Modern Peru was a cluster of big urban settlements whic formed and devloped circa 3,000 BCE, contemporaries of similar cultures in Mesopotamia. They flourished for about 1200 years, and then declined. One of the largest and most investigated sites among them is in Caral in the Supe Valley. 



The Chavin, archaeological finds and investigations point out, was a pre-literate civilization which lasted for about 600 years from 900 BCE. Agricultural development and establishment of a trade network were among its characteristics. The archaeological discoveries were made at a site known as Chavin in modern Peru at a height of 3,177 metres above sea level.


The Moche culture flourished 1,500 to 2,000 years before present in the north coast of Peru. They had elaborate burial rituals discovered recently by Christopher Donnan of UCLA in collaboration with with the National Geographic of the USA. People of this culture were technologically advanced as is revealed in their skilled artisanship. Their ceramic pottery carvings depict generally religious practices along with scenes from their daily lives. It is known from such sources that they practiced human sacrifice and carried out blood-drinking rituals.  



The great cougar-shaped city of Cusco was the seat of power (capital) of the Inca civilization, which dominated the Andes region from 1438 to 1533 CE. It was called the “land of the four regions” or Tawantin suyu in Quechua and was a very advanced civilization of the times. Under the Inca rule lived nearly hundred ethnic or linguistic communities comprising of 9 to 14 million people connected by a 25,000 kilometre road network. They built the cities with detailed planning and their houses were constructed of unmatched stones. Such houses were built over many levels on the sides of a mountain.Terrace farming was a natural corollary to such practices and increased the agricultural output. Exquisitely crafted metalworks of the Inca civilization are extant, and there is evidence of successful brain surgery carried out in the Inca civilisation.


The prehistory of Australia begins about 40 to 70,000 years ago with the first human habitation of the Continent and ends in 1606 with the first definitive sighting of Australia by the Europeans.              

Arrival of humans

A matter of controversy, the generally accepted timeframe for the migration of humans to Australia is between 40 to 45,000 years ago. There is an upper range supported by others going back to 70,000 years. The return of the ice age due to repeated glaciation during the Pleistocene period cooled and turned a lot of sea water into ice, due to which the level of the seas went down to the extent of 100 to 150 metres thus exposing previously submerged land bridges joining various land masses. Apparently, migration took place in the closing period of the Pleistocene era when the sea levels were much below than at present. Due to this, the continental coastline extended out considerably into the Timor Sea , and Australia and New Guinea became a single landmass called Sahul. Large, far-reaching land bridges across the Arafura Sea, Gulf of Carpentaria and Torres Strait joined Australia to New Guinea. It is believed that the ancestral people initially navigated the relatively short distances from and  between the Sunda Islands to reach Sahul. Having done that, they made use of the land bridges to spread out all over the continent. There are archaeological evidences of human habitation in the upper Swan River, Western Australia nearly 40,000 years ago. Tasmania was the next destination via a land bridge, and was reached by humans around 30,000 years ago.

A consequence of such early land bridges is the sharing of plant and animal animal species between Australia-New Guinea and the neighbouring Indonesian islands. Those land bridges vanished when rising sea water flooded them at the close of the last glacial period. The rising of the sea level due to melting ice stopped, roughly, about 6,000 years ago, and since then remained more or less constant. That is when, according to the traditions of indigenous Australians, the history of the continent begins. They call it Dreamtime, the mythical saga of creation narrating the origins of the people, animals and geography. The traditions of Dreamtime pervaded the indigenous Australians and still do in songs and stories all over Australia.

The presence of charcoal in archaeological excavations indicates that fire had been a part of the Australian landscape always. The incidence of fires increased when the hunter gatherer inhabitants started using it to scare away animals as well as to produce a new flush of vegetation to attract herbivores. They also started fires to burn off  and open up impenetrable forests. This resulted in densely grown areas becoming more open sclerophyll forests and open forests turning into grasslands. There was a profusion of fire-tolerant species, notably, sheoaks, euclypts, acacia and grasses.

The fires, however, brought about far more dramatic changes in the fauna than it did in the flora. Megafauna, defined as species considerably bigger than the humans, completely disappeared while the smaller species fared little better. It is estimated that 60 different vertebrates became extinct, including the Diprotodon species, very large marsupial herbivores closely resembling hippos. The list of the vanished include several flightless birds, carnivorous kangaroos, lizards of 5 metres length, a tortoise with the dimensions of a small car and so on…Why did it (extinctions) happen remains a matter of conjecture. It could be fire, hunting, climate change or a combination of all. Experts, however, agree that it was human intervention of one kind or another which speeded up the process. Climate change, once regarded as the probable cause, is no longer in favour. In the absence of large herbivores, the understorey vegetation grew up unchecked; rapid recycling of soil nutrients due to their dung stopped; and consequently there was more quick fuel build up. The fires burned hotter, altering the landscape more.      

The Australis meaning Australia and its surroundings during the last glacial maximum about 18,000 years ago was very different from what it is today. The sea level was about 150 metres below the present level, and large parts of the Sunda Shelf (Malaya/South East Asia), Sahul Shelf/Australia-New Guinea and the Bass Strait were above it. Moreover, portions of southern Aotearoa, the Tasmanian highlands and the Australian Alps were glaciated, and the Antarctic ice covered much more area in the north than it is today.

Prior to European colonization the quantum of populations settled in Australia is not known. There are two hypotheses, the trihybrid and single-origin settlers, and both of them have been discussed extensively. The issue, however, acquired political overtones when single-origin was assumed to be tied in to ethnic solidarity and multiple entry was cited in justification of the seizure of Aboriginal lands by European settlers. Not much objective data is available to reach a definite conclusion. There is an ongoing research on human genomic differences to find a conclusive answer, but there is not much evidence to differentiate the “wave invasion” model from the “single settlement” one.  

There was increased aridity due to low temperatures and less rainfall in the continent between 18,000 to 15,000 years BP. When the Pleistocene era ended around 13,000 years ago, the link from Kangaroo Island, the Bassian Plain between modern Victoria and Tasmania, and the Torres Strait connection got submerged in the rising sea. Apparently,the end of the ice age was quite sudden – as reflected in Aborignal legends of fishes falling from the sky and of water walls(tsunamis).The situation elsewhere was not that catastrophic, the sea level rose slowly. The result was geographical separation of the Tasmanian Aborigines from the continent and slow decimation of those living in the small islands in the Bass Strait and in Kangaroo Island by 9,000 BP.

The Austronesians of modern New Guinea and the indigenous Australians (Aborigines) maintained contact after geographical separation, as is supported by linguistic and genetic evidence. However, it was mostly trade, little intermarriage and absolutely not a colonisation, even though there were instances of Aboriginal settlers finding a home in Indonesia.   


Over the last 5,000 years the climate mellowed down with increases in temperature and rainfall, bringing forth a sophisticated tribal culture. Their items of trade were flint, precious stones, shells, seeds, spears, foodstuff and so on. People from Cape York to south-west Australia spoke the Pama-Nyungan language, excepting those in the south-east and Arnhem Land. Religious ideas, legends, stories, songs and dances were much the same throughout the country. Coming of age or initiation of the young to adult ways of life was celebrated by ceremony and feasting. There was a code of behaviour , and the responsibilities of an individual to relatives and others were marked out. There were moieties among communities with powers to forbid intermarriages in the community. Unlike the usual hereditary chiefs, community elders held political power who settled disputes in accordance with tribal customs. Vendettas and feuds were there, but planned wars were totally absent. As people believed that they were the descendants of the same cultural heroes, and there were bonds through marriage or blood, differences were not resolved by going into war.     

3,000 years before colonisation, the indigenous Australians had been using quartz as a substitute for chert in their craftwork. For increasing food sources, they planted yam in Western Australia and carried out fish (eel) farming.

In 1788, there were approximately half a million indigenous Australians or Aborigines – other estimates put the figure as one million. They were composed of hundreds of distinct cultural and language groups; most of them were hunter-gatherers; and they practiced land management. The last perhaps was a lesson they learnt from the ecological havoc their initial settlement thousands of years ago had caused. In areas with lakes and rivers, such as Murray River Basin, the hunter-gatherers changed their professions to fish farming. The European settlers displayed no interest in the indigenous Australians, and perhaps made little effort to know about their cultures and languages. Legend has it that before the Europeans started settling in Australia in bulk, diseases were deliberately introduced to decimate the indigenous Australians also in bulk, so as to minimise the exposure of the first to the second. In 1770, when James Cook declared Australia as a part of the British Empire, there were nearly 500 tribes among the Native population speaking several hundred different Australian Aboroginal languages, with many different dialects.   

Contact outside Australia

Before the Europeans came, for thousands of years people residing along the northern coastline, that is, the Kimberley region of Western Australia, Arnhem Land, Gulf of Carpentaria and Cape York had interacted and traded with people from outside. Even after the land bridges were submerged as also before the event, commodities of trade along with people moved freely between New Guinea and Australia 6,000 years ago. With the bridges flooded, the trade and people to people contact continued across the newly-formed Torres Strait, whose 150 kilometre width was navigated by stopping at the intermediate islands and coral reefs along the route. Settlers in those islands were seagoing Melanesians, and the indigenous Australians from northeast of the continent maintained a cultural link to the outside world through this route nearly 2,500 years ago. The visits of the Indonesians and the people of New Guineea to the Australians and vice versa for fishing and trade by sailing crafts point to the possibility of similar forays by the Arab and the Chinese traders as earlly as 9th century CE. The controversial Bradshaw figurines in Kimberley art are stated to have been brought by Indian visitors in the early years of the Christian Era. For several hundred years, Indonesian “Bajini” fishermen from Spice Islands (e.g., Banda Island) had fished off the coast of Australia. Nearly, 400 years ago Macassan traders of Sulawesi (Celebes) regularly came to the northern coast of Australia for trepang (an edible sea cucmber) to trade with the Chinese.

Prehistoric Art

Prehistoric art is defined as all artwork created in preliterate cultures, which begins somewhere very recent in the geological time scale. 

In Algeria, cave paintings of everyday life in central North Africa were found in Tassili-n-Ajjer, north of  Tamanrasset and in other places drawn in a vivid and realistic manner. Those works of art dating back to 6 – 10,000 years were created by hunters of the Caspian period of the Neolithic Age roaming about in tall grasslands full of gigantic buffaloes, elephants, rhinoceros and hippopotamus. Such animals are no longer found in the region which is now arid and almost like a desert. Those cave paintings are a record of prehistoric African culture.

Predecessors of such people in the central North Africa had left behind for posterity equally important remains. Ain el Hanech near Saida yielded signs of early hominid occupation in North Africa nearly 200,000 years before present. More recently, investigators discovered there signs of Oldowan technique dating back to nearly 1.8 million years BCE. Much later, about 45,000 years ago, Neanderthal tool makers produced hand axes in the Levalloisian and Mousterian styles, similar to those found in the East Mediterranean region. North Africa, some sources indicate, represent the site of the highest state of development of Middle Paleolithic flake-tool techniques. Oranian or Ibero-Maurusian is the term used to describe the earliest blade industries  in North Africa, named so because of the findspot near a place called Oran. Apparently, this technique of creating stone daggers spread all over the coastal regions of North Africa during 15,000 to 10,000 BCE.  Then the method came under the gradual influence of  the Caspian culture for the next 5,000 years with the result that from 3,000 BCE remains of just one human type can be found throughout the region. About 4 to 8,000 years ago, Neolithic culture with its characteristics of animal domestication and subsistence agriculture took hold in the Mediterranean and Saharan North Africa. Upto the classical period, this Neolithic way of life prevailed in North Africa, and the cave paintings in Tassili-n-Ajjer are a detailed illustration of that.  Such people of different ethnicity in North Africa over time gave rise to a distinct native population called Berbers. Even though they had clearly perceptible cultural and linguistic characteristics, the Berbers continued to be ignored and neglected in historical accounts due to the presence of larger empires nearby. They are mentioned as barbaric enemies, ignorant peasants or troublesome nomads by Roman, Greek, Byzantine and Arab Muslim historians. This marginalisation is uncalled for because the roll the Berbers played in the history is not insignificant.

Indigenous Australian (Aboriginal) rock and bark paintings indicate a vigorous cultural exchange with the neighbouring islands of the continent; as also the introduction of techniques like the dug-out canoe and items like tobacco and pipes for smoking it. Intermarriage and migration among descendants of Malaya people in Australian Aboriginal communities and vice versa resulted in acquisition of Macassan words in Aboriginal languages (for example, Balanda for White person). 

Middle Acheulean period spanning 500,000 to 300,000 years before present hold the still unbroken record of the first ever dicovered figurine; 6 cms. in length, it looks like a human figure, and was found in Morocco. It appears from evidence that this piece from Morocco was shaped by natural processes with probably no human tool-work. There are, however, indications of the figurine having been painted. A greasy substance composed of a mixture of iron and manganese (ochre) covers the surface of the stone. Experts are of the view that no matter how it was formed, it was undoubtedly painted by someone who used it as a figurine.      

The history of art was indeed shaken at its roots by the findings in the South African Blombos Cave. Stones discovered there are decorated with complex red arrays. It showed that the creator or creators, the early Homo Sapiens were capable of abstraction and of its representation as a work of art. The breath-taking aspect is that those stones were adorned 70,000 years ago, which is nearly 50,000 years more than the age of the art-work found in Lascaux, France. There is no doubt about the dating; but there is no indication that the pieces really do represent advanced cognitive behaviour, a hallmark of modern art. A number of eminent archaeologists are, however, not convinced that the Blombos Cave is the first example of art.

Cave paintings (like the renowned ones at Alta Mira, Chauvet, Lascaux and Pech Merle) and portable art (like animal carvings and the widely-known Venus figurine,  the Venus of Willendorf) are the earliest examples of European art from the Upper Palaeolithic epoch. It is generally believed that only Homo Sapiens have the ability to express in an art form. That is not exactly true because Homo Erectus had created much before the former apparently purposeless designs on artefacts. Artefacts of this kind were found in Bilzingsleben, Thuringia, and could be regarded as the precursor of art. Those items reveal that the maker’s intention was to decorate, and to create something which had no practical application. But that does not mean  all art works are of no use. There are Middle Palaeolithic tools like hand axes in general and laurel points in particular, in shaping which so much attention was given to symmetry that experts regard them as works of art as well. After the recent discovery of the mask of La Roche-Cotard in France, it is now believed that Neanderthal  man could possibly have to his credit a meaningful artistic culture. Also relevant in this context are the findings from the Mizyn Archaeological Site of Ukraine, Mammoth ivory bracelets with carved meander ornaments dating back to Mousterian epoch of the Palaeolithic period. The Mesolithic period has also provided some examples of  portable  stylized rock art like painted pebbles from Birseck and Eremitage sites in Switzerland as also in the Spanish Levant. Artistic designs on items of use, for example, rowing paddles from Tybrind, Denmark are well-known in Mesolithic archaeological finds. 


In ancient Japan, the Jomon culture is credited with making potteries from braided and unbraided clay cords. Archaeological evidence shows that Jomon people were making clay figures and vessels adorned with increasingly sophisticated patterns by pressing the designs on wet clay in the 14th to 11th millennium BCE. Free standing sculptures decorated with animal figures started to be installed in the Neolithic period. The earliest were anthropomorphic figurines usually embellished circa 10th millennium BCE, and were found in Nevali Cori and Gobekle Tepe near Urfa in eastern Turkey.

In Lepenski Vir, the Mesolithic statues at the Iron Gate, Serbia are dated 7th millennium BCE, and depict humans or fishes and humans together. Many Neolithic cultures in Central Europe like Linearbandkeramic, Lengyel and Vinca made female figurines (rarely male) and animal figures with artistic qualities. In this context, Zelisovsce and painted Lengyel style of potteries with elaborate decorations are not always regarded as works of art.  Monuments made from large stones or megalithic structures of the Neolithic period are found from Poland to the British Isles, in the tip of the Sahara desert at Nabata, Egypt; and some more sites. As they belong to the 5th millennium BCE, some experts call them mesolithic; but, that is difficult to prove. The temples in Malta, not quite widely-known, constructed circa 3600 BCE are the oldest free standing structure in the world. Simply built with post and lintel architecture, they look very imposing. Likewise, there are Minoan (Crete) structures, built at the time of the more famous Egyptian Pyramids.  During the early Bronze Age, the equally famous Stonehenge was erected near Amesbury, Wiltshire, England. In fact, many such monuments are there in Western and Northern Europe, and can be found in Carnac, France; in Skara Brae in the Orkney Islands; and in Portugal. The Avebury Circle, the tombs at West Kennet and the Woodhenge also belong to this group. The tomb in New Grange, Ireland has a big stone at its entrance, on the face of which is carved a complex design of spirals. Stones of the tomb at Knowth have ornamental carvings, one of which could possibly be the oldest known image of the Moon. A number of these megalithic monuments are tombs, and archaeologists believe these have some religious significance. The tomb at Knowth is so richly ornamented with carvings that experts elieve it contains about one third of all megalithic art in Western Europe.                   

Bronze Age


The Bronze Age began in Europe the in 3rd millennium BCE ushering in a new medium for art. As tools made from bronze are more durable than those made of stone, more items were produced resulting in a surplus – the prime requirement for the formation of a class of artisans. With the creation of more wealth in the society than ever before, the demand for luxury goods, especially decorated weapons, increased. Now, there were bronze headgears, ornamental axe-heads and swords; things like lure used in falconry; and other ceremonial objects without a practical purpose. There was a profusion of rock carvings (made by bronze chisels) depicting scenes of daily life and religious ceremonies like those in Bohuslan, Sweden and the Val Camonica in  northern Italy.


Iron Age

In the Iron age, anthropomorphic sculptures were made, like the Warrior of Herschlanden and the statue from Glauberg, Germany. Perhaps under the influence of the Classical world resulting from trade, the Hallstatt artists in the early Iron Age preferred desgns of abstract and geometreical nature. A curvilinear and elaborate artistic style was developed in early Iron Age Europe in a centre at the Rhine valley which spread all over the continent in no time. Ostentatious living became the way of the rich chieftains following the Classical tradition, and wine drinking from richly ornamented bronze cups became the norm. In the Celtic culture, people often used to feast and drink together, and artistic expressions started to bloom in plates, knives, cauldrons and such other vessels. Weapons and horse-riding gears were also decorated, and the ornamentatinos had mythical and relegious elements as motif in stylized and naturalistic forms. Construction of megalithic monuments continued, as illustrated in the existing carved limestone pillars of the sanctuary at Entremont in France. Torc or twisted metal necklaces became a personal wear, and introduction of  coins provided ample scope for artistic experimentation. The coins were, however, poorly made copies of the Greecian and Roman coins, but the Celtic exuberance was very much there. Burying a person/warrior in his chariot was a practice in China in the 1200 BCE; the Celts did so at the famous Waldalgesheim site in the Rhineland much later, and made flagons and bronze plaques with reclining human figures in what is known as Celtic or La Tene style. The bronze plaques and others had curvy and organic   decorations, presumably after the Classical tendril patterns. This artistic style prevailed in estern Europe and can be seen in the art and architecture of Roman villas. Areas where oman influence never reached, most famously, Ireland and Northumbria this later Iron age rtisic tradition appeared later and continued very much in the historic period.               


According to present state of  information first of the humans were born in Africa, and developed subsequently from that continent. It seems the first band of hunter-gatherers roamed the dales, vales, and plains there. But, there are few sites witness to the great flowering of Upper Palaeolithic art and culture, apart fom the odd venus figurine from Morocco and the controversial Blombos cave. Any way , there are pointers that the hominids staying there had much better conception of the world around, than hitherto assumed. Still, Bushman cave and rock paintings are there in Wateberg, an area near thePalala River. The rock carvings depict a wide range of wild animals, especially antelopes, along with human motifs in a clear, uncluttered manner.



Societal hierarchies of fascinating complexity, monumental architecture for civic and religious purposes, generally permanent or urban settlements and agriculture, all created without any outside influence, were the significant characteristics of the pre-Columbian civilizations of the Americas. By the time the first permanent European settlers had arrived (between late fifteenth and early sixteenth century CE), many of these civilizations had ceased to function. These are now known only through archaeological investigations. Some contemporaries of them are also found in the historical accounts of the time. The Mayan Civilization had a script in which they had set their records. The invading Europeans regarded such texts as blasphemous and heretical to Christianity and burnt them in pyres. Somehow a few, presumably, hidden texts survived providing the modern historian with tantalising vistas of ancient culture and knowledge. 


Mesoamerican :-  Mesoamerica is an environmentally similar region where for more than three thousand years various ancient cultures having nearly similar views on art, architecture, religious beliefs and technology flourished and left their imprints and marks for posterity. Formation of complex cultures began in Mesoamerica circa 1800 BCE, and continued for the next 1500 years. Some of them made progress and gave rise to advanced pre-Columbian Mesoamerican civilizations like the Olmec, Teotihuacan, Maya, Zapotec, Mixtec, Huastec, Purepecha, Toltec and Mexica, and continued for about 4,000 years before the first encounter with the Europeans. Such indigenous civilizations built pyramids and temples; created highly accurate calendars by abacus calculations along with a complex theology; made significant progress in astronomy, engineering, fine arts, intensive agriculture, medicine and writing; and discovered the wheel. As they did not possess any animal to drag loads, the wheel was used only as a toy. They knew how to work on metals and used copper and gold obtained locally to make various objects. They excelled in counting and devised one of the most complex counting system in the world with a base of 20 number system. Archaic inscriptions on rocks and rock walls of northern Mexico, particularly in the province of Nuevo Leon, are testimonies to their expertise in counting and number systems. Astronomical events influenced the Mexican Natives to a great extent, and those very early and ancient counting marks were associated with astronomical activities long before the Europeans came on the scene. It would appear that the Mexican based civilizations coming later built their ceremonial centres and cities by taking into account specific astronomical events.



Indigenous Australians, beginning with the first settlers from Asia had a distinctive artistic tradition visible in their rock paintings. For instance, there is the class of paintings known as x-ray paintings, in which the bones and organs of the subject depicted are shown. As some kind of abstraction generally forms their art theme, to the modern viewer the works often appear to be abstract art. They represent environment and landscape by geometrical figures and shapes and generally show that on a plan view, that is, a bird’s eye view. For example, in an Aboriginal work, a swirl means a watering hole. In Western Austrslia, there are rock paintings known as the Bradshaws.Drawn in fine details with accurate anatomical proportions, the works are17,000 years old, and the identity of the creators remains a matter of controversy. Likewise, the Polynesian Natives also left behind a clearly different artistic heritage. As their artefacts were generally made with organic materials, most of them were lost due to decay. Those made from bone and clay are strikingly beautiful, as is evident from the shards of pottery dating to late 2nd millennium BCE. Also left behind in the Polynesian islands, are stone platforms and ancestor sculptures. The marvelous statues located in the Easter Islands belong to this group.


Music as culture arrived quite late, very late in the geological time scale, and prehistoric music can be defined as all of the world’s music which was there before anything was known about them. Examples of this are the traditional Native American music of the pre-literate tribes and the music of the Indigenous Australians or Aborigines. Ancient music took the place of prehistoric music in Europe around 1500 BCE and later in other European influenced areas. It is, however, customary to call the music of the non-European continents, notably the music which is surviving, as folk or indigenous or traditional music It is not known how or when music was first played or sung because there is no record of it. Generally, however, it is believed that music evolved from naturally occurring rhythms and sounds like the murmur of a brook, the crash of a thunder and the sigh of wind, borrowing from them patterns, repitition and tonality. Not only birds sing and trill, but also monkeys have been seen to beat on hollow logs to produce percussive sounds. It is said that they do so to establish authority over a certain territory (as far as the sound is heard, perhaps), but in the effort there is a whiff of creativity and an attempt to start a call and response dialogue. With regard to musical instrument, the human voice is the first one ever. It produces a wide variety of sounds, from singing, humming and whistling to clicking, coughing and yawning. There is a Neanderthal hyoid (u-shaped bone in the neck supporting the tongue) 60,000 years old and a bone flute dating 50,000 years,  giving the impression that music was played at that time. As, however , both the specimens are one of their kind, no definite conclusion is possible.    

It seems the first rhythmic percussive sound was produced by clapping of hands, by hitting stones together and so on. Theoretically, music can be traced to the Oldowan era of the Palaeothic period, the anthropological and archaeological time when stone tools were first used by hominids. Work noises like pounding of seeds and roots into food can also be regarded as rhythmic sounds made by early humans.

General relation to culture, function, complexity and style are the important features of prehistoric music, which generally vary from one place to the other. In a clay tablet, stated to be 4,000 years old, the world’s earliest known song is inscribed in Assyrian cuneiform script. Adiatonic composition, it is also the oldest example of harmony in the manner of English gymel. It, however, cannot be called prehistoric because it is a written piece.  As regards the oldest notated song from anywhere in the western world,  the First Delphic Hymn is undoubtedly the earliest surviving example.

The oldest flute is the controversial “Neanderthal Flute” discovered in 1995 in the Divje Cave, Idrijca Valley, Western Slovenia. Found in thefifth Mousterian level of the Palaeolithic period, the flute is a hollow femur of a baby cave bear. It is estimated to be 43,000 years old and has holes as in a flute. There is no unanimity on the opinion that it is a man made flute of bone: others feel that it is a carnivore chewed-up piece. At the period of its date, there was neither a method for making holes on a bone, nor was the conceoptual idea of a flute developed. There are weak indications, the number of which are steadily increasing with new finds that the Neanderthal Man was much closer to modern humans intellectually than thought previously.     

Recently (1999) at Henan , China, several Gudis (literary meaning, bone flute) dating 9,000 BCE and having 5 to 8 holes each have been found. They were made from the hollow bones of the bird, the Red-crowned Crane. One of the flutes was found still playable and produced both the five- or seven-note scale of Xia  Zhi  and six-note scale of Qing Shang of the ancient ancient  Chinese musical system.    

Cycladic culture

Cyclades are a group of small islands in the Aegean Sea. In the island named Keros among them, two marble statues from the late Neolithic culture (in this instance, called Early Cycladic culture) were discovered in a single excavation in the 19th century CE.  The statues are those of a standing double-flute player and a sitting musician playing a triangular-shaped lyre or harp and were sculpted about 4,700 BP. The harpist is approximately 23 cms. high (9 inches), and the interplay of emotions depicted on his small face is interesting. He expresses total and absolute concentration and tilts his head up to the light as if to draw inspiration from there. It is not known the purpose of these and other statues found at about the same time. They could be just toys or the talisman to ward off bad luck; or they ccould be used for religious purposes or icons from mythology. Anyway, the effect of these simplified but abstract in form statuettes on the      Euroean art scene a little over 100 years ago was very profound. Even modernists like Picasso and Modigliani were influenced by those statuettes.   

 From Wikipedia and other sources

About chepeyja

chartered engineer(India), B.Sc., risk management consultant, blogger and layabout!
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