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History vs. Prehistory: What's the Difference?

Edited by Aimie Carlson || By Harlon Moss || Updated on November 15, 2023
History pertains to the period after written records began, while prehistory covers the time before written documentation.

Key Differences

History is the study and account of past events, especially those involving human beings, documented through written records. Prehistory, in contrast, examines human past before the advent of written records, relying mainly on archaeological and other physical evidence.
When scholars talk about history, they refer to timelines, events, and narratives that can be verified through documents, writings, or any form of recorded communication. Prehistory deals with the vast span of human existence that predates this recorded information, a time deciphered mainly through artifacts, fossils, and other tangible remnants.
History can provide specific dates, names, and details, as it leans on written materials. Prehistory, due to its nature, often offers a broader view, requiring experts to piece together a puzzle using physical clues, like tools or cave paintings, to understand early human life and culture.
Both history and prehistory are crucial in understanding human civilization. While history gives a more detailed and documented perspective, prehistory offers insights into human evolution, early societal structures, and the dawn of human innovation.
It's essential to see both history and prehistory as complementary. History offers the script of our past, while prehistory sets the stage, providing context about our ancestors and the world they inhabited long before writing existed.

Comparison Chart

Basis of Study

Written records
Archaeological findings and artifacts

Time Period

After the advent of written documentation
Before written records existed


Offers specific dates, names, and events
Provides a broader, often generalized view


Based on verifiable written materials
Relies on tangible evidence like tools, bones, and paintings

Contribution to Knowledge

Detailed account of human civilizations, advancements, and events
Insights into human evolution, early societal structures, and innovations

History and Prehistory Definitions


The study of past events, particularly in human affairs.
The history of ancient civilizations fascinates me.


The period of time before written records.
The artifacts date back to prehistory.


The whole series of past events connected with a particular person or thing.
The history of the automobile traces back to the late 19th century.


The history of events or processes that occurred before the invention of writing.
The monument offers a glimpse into the mysteries of prehistory.


Events that form the subject of a narrative, play, or the like.
The history of their rivalry was well-known in the industry.


The earliest era of human existence before the availability of written records.
Prehistory covers the span when early humans were hunter-gatherers.


A continuous, systematic narrative of past events.
She wrote a history of the American Civil War.


Time before the development of written annals or chronicles.
This cave painting takes us back to a time deep in prehistory.


The discipline that records and interprets past events.
He has a degree in history from Harvard.


The background or circumstances of something's origin.
The prehistory of the organization is rooted in activism.


A chronological record of events, as of the life or development of a people or institution, often including an explanation of or commentary on those events
A history of the Vikings.


History of humankind in the period before recorded history.


A formal written account of related natural phenomena
A history of volcanoes.


The circumstances or developments leading up to or surrounding an event or situation; background
"[He] then told me the curious prehistory of his obsessive interest in the seduction theory" (Janet Malcolm).


How is prehistory studied?

Prehistory is studied mainly through archaeological findings, artifacts, and other physical evidence.

Can events from prehistory be dated precisely?

Events from prehistory often cannot be dated as precisely as historical events due to the lack of written records.

How do historians study history?

Historians study history through written records, documents, and other recorded communications.

How long does prehistory span?

Prehistory spans from the emergence of early humans to the advent of written records, which varies by region.

Are history and prehistory interconnected?

Yes, prehistory sets the stage for history, providing a comprehensive understanding of human civilization.

What primarily differentiates history from prehistory?

History pertains to periods with written records, while prehistory covers times before such documentation.

Why is history important?

History provides insights into past civilizations, events, and helps us understand our present and possibly predict the future.

Why is prehistory significant?

Prehistory offers knowledge about human evolution, early societies, and the dawn of human innovations.

How do archaeologists contribute to our understanding of prehistory?

Archaeologists uncover artifacts, tools, and remains that offer insights into life during prehistory.

Which came first, prehistory or history?

Prehistory came first, followed by history once written records began.

Is there still research ongoing in prehistory?

Yes, as new artifacts and evidence are discovered, our understanding of prehistory continues to evolve.

Do all regions have the same point dividing history and prehistory?

No, the division depends on when written records began in each region.

Are oral traditions considered part of history or prehistory?

While oral traditions can predate written records, they are typically considered part of history once they're documented.

What is an example of a topic studied in history?

An example would be the Renaissance period in Europe or the American Revolution.

What might be an example of a topic from prehistory?

An example would be the migration patterns of early humans or the development of stone tools.

What's an essential skill for historians and archaeologists studying these periods?

Critical analysis is crucial – historians interpret written records, while archaeologists analyze physical evidence from prehistory.

Can prehistory offer specific names or leaders like history does?

Prehistory, lacking written records, often can't provide specific names or leaders, relying more on broader insights.

Can we know about cultures or religions from prehistory?

While specifics might be elusive, artifacts can give insights into the cultural or religious practices during prehistory.

How do museums play a role in showcasing history and prehistory?

Museums preserve and display artifacts, documents, and other items from both periods, offering educational insights to the public.

Are there any overlaps between history and prehistory in any region?

There might be overlaps, especially when early written records coexisted with societies that hadn't yet developed writing.
About Author
Written by
Harlon Moss
Harlon is a seasoned quality moderator and accomplished content writer for Difference Wiki. An alumnus of the prestigious University of California, he earned his degree in Computer Science. Leveraging his academic background, Harlon brings a meticulous and informed perspective to his work, ensuring content accuracy and excellence.
Edited by
Aimie Carlson
Aimie Carlson, holding a master's degree in English literature, is a fervent English language enthusiast. She lends her writing talents to Difference Wiki, a prominent website that specializes in comparisons, offering readers insightful analyses that both captivate and inform.

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