When Did Humans Figure Out How to Run the World


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  • M.A., Anthropology, University of Iowa
  • B.Ed., Illinois State University

K. Kris Hirst is an archaeologist with 30 years of field experience. Her work has appeared in scholarly publications such as Archaeology Online and Science.

K. Kris Hirst

Updated August 31, 2019

Most of the history of the ancient world has been collected by archaeologists, built, in part, by the use of fragmentary records, but also through myriad dating techniques. Each of the world history timelines on this list is part of larger resources addressing the culture, artifacts, customs, and people of the many many cultures who have lived on our planet for the past 2 million years.

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

The Stone Age (known to scholars as the Paleolithic era) in human prehistory is the name given to the period between about 2.5 million and 20,000 years ago. It begins with the earliest human-like behaviors of crude stone tool manufacture, and ends with fully modern human hunting and gathering societies.

Applique Pot, Middle Jomon, Sannai Maruyama Site Applique Pot, Middle Jomon, Sannai Maruyama Site. Perezoso

The Jomon is the name of the early Holocene period hunter-gatherers of Japan, beginning about 14,000 BCE and ending about 1000 BCE in southwestern Japan and 500 CE in northeastern Japan.

Artifact from Lepenski Vir, Serbia Artifact from Lepenski Vir, Serbia. Mazbln

The European Mesolithic period is traditionally that time period in the Old World between the last glaciation (ca. 10,000 years BP) and beginning of the Neolithic (ca. 5000 years BP), when farming communities began to be established.

Artist's conception of the Neolithic city of Catalhoyuk Artist’s conception of the city of Catalhoyuk, with its one-room houses which were accessed from the roof, about 7th-6th millennium BCE. De Agostini Picture Library / Getty Images Plus

The Pre-Pottery Neolithic (abbreviated PPN) is the name given to the people who domesticated the earliest plants and lived in farming communities in the Levant and Near East. The PPN culture contained most of the attributes we think of Neolithic—except pottery, which was not used in the region until ca. 5500 BCE.

Close-Up of Narmer Pallette Facsimile in the Royal Ontario Museum A procession of the early dynastic Pharaoh Narmer is illustrated on this facsimile of the famous Narmer Palette, found at Hierakonpolis. Keith Schengili-Roberts

The Predynastic period in Egypt is the name archaeologists have given to the three millennia before the emergence of the first unified Egyptian state society.

Ziggurat of Warka, Mesopotamia Ziggurat of Warka, Mesopotamia, image taken by an unnamed photographer at the American Colony at Jerusalem between 1898 and 1946]. Matson (G. Eric and Edith) Photograph Collection, US Library of Congress, LC-M31- 14546 [P&P]

Mesopotamia is an ancient civilization that took up pretty much everything that today is modern Iraq and Syria, a triangular patch wedged between the Tigris River, the Zagros Mountains, and the Lesser Zab River

Stamp Seal, Indus Valley Script, 26th-25th century BC Stamp Seal, Indus Valley Script, 26th-25th century BC. DEA / G. NIMATALLAH / Getty Images

The Indus civilization (also known as the Harappan Civilization, the Indus-Sarasvati or Hakra Civilization and sometimes the Indus Valley Civilization) is one of the oldest societies we know of, including over 2600 known archaeological sites located along the Indus and Sarasvati rivers in Pakistan and India, an area of some 1.6 million square kilometers.

View of Palace of Knossos, Crete, Greece, Minoan civilization, 18th-15th century BC View of Palace of Knossos, Crete, Greece, Minoan civilization, 18th-15th century BC. De Agostini / Archivio J. Lange / Getty Images

The Minoans lived in the Greek islands during what archaeologists have called the early part of the prehistoric Bronze Age of Greece.

The Pyramids at Giza, UNESCO World Heritage Site, Cairo, Egypt, North Africa, Africa The Pyramids at Giza, UNESCO World Heritage Site, Cairo, Egypt, North Africa, Africa. Gavin Hellier / Getty Images

Ancient Egypt is considered to have begun about 3050 BCE, when the first pharaoh Menes united Lower Egypt (referring to the river delta region of the Nile River), and Upper Egypt (everything south of the delta).

White Pottery Gui, Longshan Culture, Rizhao, Shandong Province White Pottery Gui, Longshan Culture, Rizhao, Shandong Province. Editor at Large

The Longshan culture is a Neolithic and Chalcolithic culture (ca 3000–1900 BCE) of the Yellow River Valley of Shandong, Henan, Shanxi, Shaanxi, and Inner Mongolia provinces of China.

China, Henan Province, Anyang, Yinxu Museum, chariot excavated from Yinxu, the ruins of the Shang dynasty dating back to 4000 years ago Shang Dynasty Chariot from Royal Tomb at Yinxu. Keren Su / Getty Images

The Bronze Age Shang Dynasty in China is roughly dated between 1700-1050 BC, and, according to the Shi Ji, it began when the first Shang emperor, T’ang, overthrew the last of the Xia (also called Erlitou) dynasty emperors.

Western Deffufa at Kerma, Sudan The 3,500 year-old mud-brick Western Deffufa, the seat of the first independent kingdom of Kush, Kerma, Sudan, Africa. Andrew McConnell / robertharding / Getty Images

The Kingdom of Kush is one of several names used for the region of Africa directly south of ancient Dynastic Egypt, approximately between the modern cities of Aswan, Egypt, and Khartoum, Sudan.

Lion Gate at the Hittite Site of Hattusha Lion Gate at the Hittite Site of Hattusha. ImageCaravan / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Two different types of “Hittites” are mentioned in the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament): the Canaanites, who were enslaved by Solomon; and the Neo-Hittites, Hittite kings of northern Syria who traded with Solomon. The events related in the Old Testament occurred in the 6th century BCE, well after the glory days of the Hittite Empire.

Sculpture of the Olmec Monkey God, at the City of La Venta, Mexico. Sculpture of the Olmec Monkey God, at the City of La Venta, Mexico. Richard I’Anson / Getty Images

The Olmec civilization is the name given to a sophisticated central American culture with its heyday between 1200 and 400 BCE. The Olmec heartland lies in the Mexican states of Veracruz and Tabasco, at the narrow part of Mexico west of the Yucatan peninsula and east of Oaxaca.

Bronze Vessel, Zhou Dynasty Tomb Bronze Vessel, Zhou Dynasty Tomb. Andrew Wong / Getty Images

The Zhou Dynasty (also spelled Chou) is the name given to a historical period roughly consisting of the last two-fifths of the Chinese Bronze Age, traditionally marked between 1046 and 221 BCE (although scholars are divided on the starting date)

Gold ring. Etruscan civilization, 6th Century BC. Gold ring. Etruscan civilization, 6th Century BC. DEA / G. NIMATALLAH / Getty Images

The Etruscan civilization was a cultural group in the Etruria region of Italy, from the 11th through the first century BCE (Iron Age into Roman times).

Great Enclosure in Zimbabwe ruins Great Zimbabwe is a ruined city in the southeastern hills of Zimbabwe near Lake Mutirikwe and the town of Masvingo. It was the capital of the Late Iron Age Kingdom of Zimbabwe from the 11th-15th centuries AD. Luis Davilla / Getty Images

The African Iron Age is roughly between the 2nd century –1000 CE. In Africa, unlike the Europe and Asia, the Iron Age is not prefaced by a Bronze or Copper Age, but rather all the metals were brought together.

Bas reliefs of Persian guards, Winter Palace of Darius (Tashara) Bas reliefs of Persian guards, Winter Palace of Darius (Tashara). Chris Bradley / Design Pics / Getty Images

The Persian Empire included all of what is now Iran, and in fact Persia was the official name of Iran until 1935; the traditional dates for the classic Persian Empire are about 550 BCE–500 CE.

Ptolemaic Tomb Entryway, 2nd Century BCE Entrance door with frescoed door frame and small statues of sphinxes, Tomb 2, Necropolis of Mustapha Pasha, Alexandria, Egypt, Ptolemaic Period, 2nd century BCE. G. Dagli Orti / De Agostini Picture Library / Getty Images Plus

The Ptolemies were the final dynasty of Egyptian pharaohs, and their progenitor was a Greek by birth: one of Alexander the Great’s generals, Ptolemy I. The Ptolemies ruled Egypt between 305–30 BCE, when the last of the Ptolemies, Cleopatra, famously committed suicide.

Tomb of the Brick Arches, Axum Tomb of the Brick Arches, Axum. Niall Crotty

Aksum (also spelled Axum) is the name of a powerful, urban Iron Age Kingdom in Ethiopia, that flourished in the centuries before and after the time of Christ; ca 700 BCE–700 CE.

Moche Spondylus Effigy Pot Moche Spondylus Effigy Pot, Museum of Precolumbian Art, Cusco, ca 1-800 AD. Ed Nellis

The Moche culture was a South American society, whose sites were located along the arid coast of what is now Peru between 100 and 800 CE, and wedged between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes mountains.

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 News / Getty Images

The Angkor Civilization or Khmer Empire (ca 900–1500 CE) ran most of Cambodia, and parts of Laos, Thailand and Viet Nam during the middle ages. They were terrific engineers, building roads, waterways and temples with great skill–but they were done in by the occurrence of a great drought, which combined with war and changes in the trade network resulted in the end of the powerful polity.

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