The word prehistory just means ‘before written history’. For 90% of the time that humans have lived on Earth there was no written history, and archaeology is the only way to find out about how these early people lived. In Britain, prehistory starts about 450,000 years ago when early humans came here to live. In Africa, where humans evolved, prehistory starts millions of years ago.
Palaeolithic means the old Stone Age. During the Palaeolithic period, human beings evolved from earlier ancestors into modern humans. Even the earlier species of humans, though, had remarkable skills which we today have lost. They could find or hunt all their food without needing to farm, and they could make beautifully sharp tools out of flint stone. It is very rare to find one of these tools as they are so old.
The Palaeolithic period was also the period of Ice Ages, when mammoths and sabre-toothed tigers shared a very different Britain with early humans. In these times Britain was joined to Europe.
The Palaeolithic period in Britain ended 10,000 years ago.
Mesolithic means the middle Stone Age. When the Ice Ages ended, the Mesolithic period began. People still lived by hunting and gathering food, not by farming, but Britain was now a very different place. Britain was separated from Europe by rising sea levels where water got much deeper and covered areas of land. We can see from objects found from this age that our technology changed. The large and beautiful flint tools of the Palaeolithic disappear and now most of the weapons, knives, axes and other tools are made from tiny stones called microliths. These are hard to find even for the most sharp-eyed. Have a look at the PAS database and see if any have been found near you!
Neolithic means the new Stone Age. About 5,500 years ago a new technology spread over Europe – farming. This caused huge changes in every aspect of life, and so the name of the archaeological period changes to the Neolithic. Because people now lived in one place, near their fields and animals, they needed different kinds of objects. Pottery, which is fragile, heavy and hard to carry around, begins to be used in the Neolithic. Now that sheep were kept for their wool, and flax grown for its linen thread, people could start weaving and wearing textile clothes instead of furs. Flint tools were still used, though, and because they survive better than wood or even pottery we still find more flint than anything else from the Neolithic period.
The Bronze Age in Britain began around 4,000 years ago. As you might imagine, the main new thing in the Bronze Age was the discovery of bronze. This is an alloy (alloy means mixture) of copper and tin which can be used to make all sorts of beautiful objects. It was the first metal to be commonly used and it is thought that the smiths who made the metal were very important people in Bronze Age society. People who could find the metal or make things from it could become rich and powerful. Not everybody became rich or powerful and so society became less equal.