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Prehistory - the last fifty thousand years

Ice age fauna of northern Spain, painting by Mauricio Anton
Ice age fauna of northern Spain, painting by Mauricio Antón. Woolly mammoths were driven to extinction by climate change and human impacts. The image depicts a late Pleistocene landscape in northern Spain with woolly mammoths (Mammuthus primigenius), equids, a woolly rhinoceros (Coelodonta antiquitatis), and European cave lions (Panthera leo spelaea) with a reindeer carcass. National Geographic Prehistoric Mammals, Washington, D.C.: National Geographic - original page


Now we’re down to the 50,000 year interval, too long for history but too short for paleontology. As with the next higher order of magnitude period of 500,000 years, the fifty thousand time interval is part of the no-man’ land between the deep time of geology and paleontology, and the comprehensible time periods of history.

Zooming out, 50,000 years, this could be considered the threshold of Deep Time. Here paleoclimatology, paleoanthropology, and paleontology all enter the picture. Zooming in, there is the shift from paleontology to prehistory

Clan of the Cave Bear The Inheritors

On the imaginal (mythical and mythopoetic) level, this is where both history (the past) and prediction and futurism the future turns into mythology. For the past, there are novels like Jean Auel’s 1980 Clan of the Cave Bear, or William Golding’s 1955 The Inheritors, both describing in different ways the meeting between the two hominid species of Late Pleistocene Europe (Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon)

Set a similar distance in the future there are various epic space opera settings. There is for example an entire science fantasy universe, built with incredible attention to detail, and a complete history, called “Warhammer 40k”. This is set at the seemingly unimaginable distance in the future of forty thousand years. For a storyteller, this is at the end of time (Warhammer 40k is about the death of the galaxy). That is the “feeling” orientation. But for a geologist or a paleontologist this time scale is a blink of an eye. It doesn’t even qualify as deep time. This is the difference between the feeling (short term) and thinking (long term) modes of comprehension.

Anyway, to give this period of the last 50 thousand years a name, I’m just calling it Prehistory. Technically, prehistory includes the two next larger intervals. While 50k includes history as well, but that's only right at the end.

During this time, early humans developed a wide range of sophisticated tools and technologies, humans developed language and culture, created art and music, made significant advances in communication and social organization, and right at the end - 10k years ago - developed early forms of agriculture.

This period covers the Late Pleistocene and the entire Holocene. Almost all this period is taken up by the last ice age. It saw the rise of Homo sapiens and the widespread use of tools and weapons, the Late Paleolithic, Music, Art, Cave paintings, human migration, Neanderthal flourishing and then extinction.

It covers the flourishing and then sudden extinction of megafauna in various parts of the world (but not Africa or SE Asia), and right at the end the Mesolithic and Neolithic and the agriculture revolution, in the Near East: The development of agriculture allowed for the growth of settled communities and the rise of civilization. With civilization there is religion, philosophy, monarchy, priesthood, the standing army, the monetary system, colonialism and conquest, and finally a tiny blip (half a percent of this overall period) for the rise of science, technology, and the industrial and information revolution.


Grandfather’s Path - Paleolithic and Neolithic migrations in Europe and the Near East
Grandfather’s Path - Danel Paleolithic and Neolithic migrations in Europe and the Near East - Image by Jack Danel

The last fifty thousand years

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