The earliest period of world human history, which is often regarded also as constituent part of cultural and/or social anthropology, prehistory is aimed at reconstruction of world diversity of forms, and ways of human being’s and human society’s development since their origin until the formation of early political structures. The perspective purpose of prehistoric studies is the detection of general and particular regularities in anthropological, social, ethnic, economic, and mental evolution of humankind at the early stages of its existence.
The subject field of prehistory in its contemporary comprehension covers series of global theoretic issues; among them:
- problem of genus Homo and modern human beings’ origins and physical anthropological evolution;
- formation of human community, family, kinship, and sociality;
- rise of ideology, mythology, arts, speech, and rational knowledge;
- origin and evolution of production, livelihood systems, household activities, economic systems, products distribution, exchange, and property;
- shaping of self-identification in different forms, ethnic and gender including:
- formation of leadership, hierarchy, power, and administration;
- origin of private property, exploitation, and classes.
Chronology and periodization. Prehistory appears to be the longest period of human history, which covers approximately 5 million years. Chronological frameworks of prehistory traditionally are referred with special events in social history and are considered relative as far as the irregularity of social progress of humankind, which displays itself already at this earliest stage of human history.
The beginning of prehistory could be referred with the origin of the earliest representatives of genus Homo, which currently is dated between 5-2 million years B.P. in Africa, approximately 1 million years ago in Europe and Asia, an estimated 40,000 years B.P. in Australia, and even less in America.
Formation of the earliest states in the Near East and Egypt (border of 4,000-3,000 years B.C.) traditionally is regarded as the upper frame of prehistory in its world global context. At the same time in Europe and America the prehistoric phase of human history lasts over first millennium A.D., and in particular, in the communities of Africa, Australia, and America, the prehistoric phase is still in progress.
Three main epochs could be distinguished in the frameworks of the prehistoric period of human society, body, and cultural evolution:
- period of anthroposociogenesis (i.e., time of formation of Homo sapiens and human society);
- period of primitive community, or epoch of classic prehistory, with its two phases: phase of Early Prehistoric Society (hunter-gatherers community), and phase of Late Prehistoric Community (time of early farmers and cattle-breeders);
- period of formation of political structures (states), private property, and exploitation.
Source base. Unlike other fields of historical knowledge, prehistory has no primary written sources for its reconstruction as far as it has to deal with the pre-literary period of human society. The source base of prehistory consists of data of many natural and humanitarian sciences, which gives the possibility to learn about the human body, human activity, society, and the natural environment, in which prehistoric processes, events, and phenomena occur. Most fruitful among these sciences are archaeology, ethnography, and physical anthropology. Additional information about early phases of human history could be provided by primatology, paleontology, paleogeography, geology, palinology, archaeobotanic, archaeozoology, palaeoclimatology, petrology, genetics, linguistics, art criticism, sociology, demography, physics, chemistry, statistics, information technology, mathematics, and others providing scientific data and the peculiar methods and approaches of their processes. As a result prehistory tends to be an interdisciplinary synthetic field of historic and anthropological knowledge whose reliability and cognitive potential deeply depend on the complexity of the source base used in a particular case study, and on the diversity of approaches and methods that were explored during this source base evaluation and interpretation.
History of prehistoric studies. Traditionally the beginning of prehistoric societies studies is referred with the middle of the 19th century, when early evolutionists in biology (Charles Darwin), cultural anthropology (L.H. Morgan, E.B. Tylor), and other fields of knowledge put forward a necessity to revise traditional creationists’ postulates about the place of human beings and human society in the Universe. First attempts of knowledge generalization regarding a pre-state period of human history have been made during the second half of the 19th to the beginning of 20th century.
The first half of the 20th century has become the period of database intensive accumulation. The necessity of its theoretical conceptualization has caused the origin of a wide spectrum of approaches, directions, and schools of prehistoric studies. Ideas of cultural anthropology, ethnography, and sociology created grounds of diffusionistic, functional, cultural, sociological, structural, and Marxist interpretations of prehistoric processes and phenomena.
Deep integration of prehistoric studies with natural sciences (geography, biology, climatology, etc.) at the second half of the 20th century has caused specific ecological interpretation of prehistoric culture, livelihood systems, and productive activity in Western Europe, the United States, and the Soviet Union.
The formation of a post-industrial society from the end of the 20th to the beginning of the 21st century has caused the propagation of postmodern forms of prehistory comprehension as image or text.
In West European understanding, prehistory sometimes is contrasted to proto-history, which concentrates on prehistoric communities studies on the basis of written sources of neighboring civilizations.
Significance of prehistory in contemporary world. Today prehistoric reconstruction seems to be acute with regard to the general theoretic comprehension of many processes and phenomena that occur in the contemporary world. At the border of the third millennium, postsocialist societies face the process of private property and economic hierarchy formation; traditional societies of Central Africa as well as communities of inner parts of Southern America experience social inequality, power struggle, and the shaping of political administration. Our knowledge about the peculiarities of these processes’ realizations many thousands of years ago could help us to model and settle many problems that inevitably arise in this context.
Existence at the beginning of the 21st century of many societies whose culture, livelihood systems, and mode of life correspond to hunter-gatherers or early farmers and cattle-breeders’ phases of historical evolution causes the deep moral significance of prehistory. It helps to comprehend the uniqueness of these contemporary prehistoric societies, evaluate their importance for our past understanding, realize their potential for further inner development, and exclude racial, cultural, moral, or other types of discrimination.
Theoretical conceptualization of many global philosophic issues (for example, the origin of human beings and the sense of their lives on Earth, the genesis of ideology and its historical evolution, the appearance of art, the formation of different forms of identification and self-realization, the origin of sociality and culture, the development of speech) shapes the worldview and philosophic significance of prehistory as special field of knowledge.