Tracing Human History: The Stone Age to the Middle Ages

Explore the Great Cultures of Early Civilization

Archaeologists study humans and human behaviors. The data they produce helps us understand the past, present, and future. The time lines they study begin with the hominid called Australopithecus and continue down to the present day. Let's explore some of the great periods and civilization of human history, both ancient and modern.

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Stone Age (2.5 Million to 20,000 Years Ago)

Sculptor's Rendering of the Hominid Australopithecus afarensis.
Sculptor's Rendering of the Hominid Australopithecus afarensis. Dave Einsel/Stringer/Getty Images

​The Stone Age, or Paleolithic Period, is the name archaeologists give to the beginning of archaeology. This is the part of Earth's history that includes the genus Homo and our immediate ancestor Australopithecus.

It began approximately 2.5 million years ago, in Africa, when Australopithecus began making stone tools. It ended about 20,000 years ago, with big-brained and talented modern humans spread all over the world.

Traditionally, the Paleolithic period is broken into three parts, the Lower, Middle, and Upper Paleolithic periods.

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Hunters and Gatherers (20,000 to 12,000 Years Ago)

Natufian burial found on Mount Carmel
Natufian burial found on Mount Carmel. De Agostini/Archivio J. Lange/Getty Images

For a good a long time after modern humans evolved, we humans relied on hunting and gathering as a way of life. This is what distinguished us from all others in the world who did not advance.

This ersatz "hunter-gatherer" category lumps together the more formalized periods. In the Near East, we had the Epi-paleolithic and Natufian and the Americas saw the Paleoindian and the Archaic periods. The European Mesolithic and the Asian Hoabinhian and Jomon were also prominent during this time.

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First Farming Societies (12,000 to 5,000 Years Ago)

Chickens, Chang Mai, Thailand
Chickens, Chang Mai, Thailand. David Wilmot

Beginning about 12,000 years ago, humans began to invent a whole range of useful behaviors that together we call the Neolithic Revolutions. Among these were the use of tools ground from stone as well as pottery. They also started to construct rectangular buildings.

More people were also forming settlements, which led to the biggest development of them all. Humans began to tend to and then deliberately grow crops and animals using a number of ancient farming techniques.

The importance of domesticating of plants and animals cannot be understated because it led to much of what we know today.

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Early Civilizations (3000 to 1500 B.C.E.)

Shang Dynasty Chariot from Royal Tomb at Yinxu
Shang Dynasty Chariot from Royal Tomb at Yinxu. Keren Su/Getty Images

Evidence for fairly sophisticated political and social organization has been identified in Mesopotamia as early as 4700 B.C.E. Yet, most of the post-Neolithic societies that we consider "civilizations" are dated around 3000 B.C.E.

The Indus Valley was home to the Harappan Civilization while the Mediterranean Sea saw Bronze Age Greece of the Minoan culture as well as the Mycenaeans. Similarly, Dynastic Egypt was bordered on the south by the Kingdom of Kush.

In China, the Longshan culture developed from 3000 to 1900 B.C.E. This was just before the rise of the Shang Dynasty in 1850 B.C.E.

Even the Americas saw its first known urban settlement during this time. The Caral-Supe Civilization was located just off the Pacific coast of Peru at the same time as the pyramids of Giza were being built.

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Ancient Empires (1500 B.C.E. to 0)

Heuneburg Hillfort - Reconstructed Living Iron Age Village
Heuneburg Hillfort - Reconstructed Living Iron Age Village. Ulf

About 3000 years ago, towards the end of what archaeologists call the Late Bronze Age and beginning of the Iron Age, the first true imperialist societies appeared. However, not all societies which appeared during this time period were empires.

Early in this period, the Lapita culture settled the Pacific Islands, the Hittite civilization was in modern day Turkey, and the Olmec civilization dominated parts of modern Mexico. By 1046 B.C.E., China was well into their late Bronze Age, marked by the Zhou Dynasty.

This was the time when the world saw the rise of the ancient Greeks as well. Though they often fought among themselves, the Persian Empire was their greatest external enemy. The era of the Greeks would eventually lead to what we know as ancient Rome, which began in 49 B.C.E. and lasted through 476 C.E.

In the deserts, the Ptolemaic Dynasty held control of Egypt and saw the likes of Alexander and Cleopatra. The Iron Age was also the time of the Nabataeans. Their caravans dominated the Incense Trade between the Mediterranean and southern Arabia while the famous Silk Road stretched to the eastern coasts of Asia.

The Americas were bustling as well. The Hopewell culture was building settlements and ceremonial sites throughout modern day America. Also, the Zapotec civilization had, by 500 B.C.E., sprouted great sites throughout what we know today as Oaxaca in Mexico.

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Developing States (0 to 1000 C.E.)

East Gate at Angkor Thom
The East gate of Angkor Thom featuring a giant face at the famous temple area of Angkor Archeological Park on December 5, 2008 in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Ian Walton/ Getty Images

The first 1000 years of the modern era saw the rise of important societies throughout the world. Names like the Byzantine Empire, the Mayans, and the Vikings made an appearance in this age.

Not many of them became long-lasting states, but almost all modern states have their immediate roots in this period. One of the great examples is the Islamic Civilization. Southeast Asia saw the Ancient Khmer Empire during this time while the African Iron Age was in full force in Ethiopia's Aksum Kingdom.

This was also the time of greatest cultural achievement in the Americas. South America saw the rise of great empires like the Tiwanaku, the Pre-Columbian Wari Empire, the Moche along the Pacific coast, and the Nasca in today's southern Peru.

Mesoamerica was reportedly home to the mysterious Toltecs as well as the Mixtecs. Further north, the Anasazi developed their Puebloan society.

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Medieval Period (1000 to 1500 C.E.)

Reconstructed House and Palisade, Town Creek Mississippian Site, North Carolina
Reconstructed House and Palisade, Town Creek Mississippian Site, North Carolina. Gerry Dincher

The middle ages of the 11th through 16th centuries established the economic, political and religious underpinnings of our modern world.

During this period, the Inca and the Aztec empires rose in the Americas, though they were not alone. The Mississippian moundbuilders were becoming quite the horticulturalists in what is the American Midwest today.

Africa was also a hotbed for new civilizations with the Zimbabwe and the Swahili cultures forming great names in trade. The Tongan State rose during this time in Oceania and the Korean Joseon Dynasty was one to note as well.