1.1 Learning About Our Past

More than 5,000 years ago, groups of people in different parts of the world began to keep written records. The development and use of writing marked the beginning of recorded history. Humans and their ancestors, however, had lived on Earth for many tens of thousands of years before recorded history. The long period of time before people invented writing is called prehistory.

Photo of woman wearing safari clothing in desert, kneeling over a set of tracks in the sand.

Studying ancient footprints is one way scientists can learn about the past. These footprints, preserved in volcanic ash, were made in Tanzania some 3.5 million years ago.


  • Learn how scholars study the historical past.
  • Find out how anthropologists investigate the period of prehistory.
  • Understand how discoveries in Africa and beyond have influenced anthropologists' views about early humans and their ancestors.

Key Terms

  • prehistory
  • historian
  • artifact
  • anthropology
  • culture
  • archaeology
  • Mary Leakey
  • Louis Leakey
  • Olduvai Gorge
  • technology
  • Donald Johanson

Studying Prehistory

Understanding Our Past

Most of the events you will read about here comes from the work of historians. Historians are experts in the study of how people lived in the historical past. Historians study artifacts, or objects made by humans. Clothing, coins, artwork, and grave sites are all types of artifacts.

However, historians rely even more on written evidence, such as letters or tax records. Historians of the recent past also study such evidence as photographs or films.

Sometimes historians have a wealth of written records. They can study diaries, official histories, birth and death records, and eyewitness accounts. At other times, they have relatively few records, or records that merely list a name or date.

Like a detective, a historian must evaluate all evidence to determine if it is reliable. Do records of an official meeting tell us exactly what was said? Who took notes? Was a letter writer really giving an eyewitness account or just passing on rumors? Is the letter a forgery? Historians try to find the answers to questions like these.

End ofPage 4

Table of Contents

World History Topic 1 Origins of Civilization (Prehistory–300 B.C.) Topic 2 The Ancient Middle East and Egypt (3200 B.C.–500 B.C.) Topic 3 Ancient India and China (2600 B.C.–A.D. 550) Topic 4 The Americas (Prehistory–A.D. 1570) Topic 5 Ancient Greece (1750 B.C.–133 B.C.) Topic 6 Ancient Rome and the Origins of Christianity (509 B.C.-A.D. 476) Topic 7 Medieval Christian Europe (330–1450) Topic 8 The Muslim World and Africa (730 B.C.-A.D. 1500) Topic 9 Civilizations of Asia (500–1650) Topic 10 The Renaissance and Reformation (1300–1650) Topic 11 New Global Connections (1415–1796) Topic 12 Absolutism and Revolution Topic 13 The Industrial Revolution Topic 14 Nationalism and the Spread of Democracy (1790–1914) Topic 15 The Age of Imperialism (1800–1914) Topic 16 World War I and the Russian Revolution (1914–1924) Topic 17 The World Between the Wars (1910–1939) Topic 18 World War II (1930–1945) Topic 19 The Cold War Era (1945–1991) Topic 20 New Nations Emerge (1945–Present) Topic 21 The World Today (1980-Present) United States Constitution Primary Sources 21st Century Skills Atlas Glossary Index Acknowledgments