I. Prehistoric Times > A. Introduction > 2. The Study of Prehistory > f. Subdividing Prehistoric Times
  The Encyclopedia of World History.  2001.
f. Subdividing Prehistoric Times
The 2.5 million years of human prehistory have seen a brilliant diversity of human societies, both simple and complex, flourish at different times throughout the world. Ever since the early 19th century, archaeologists have tried with varying degrees of success to subdivide prehistory into meaningful general subdivisions.  1
The most durable subdivisions of the prehistoric past were devised by Danish archaeologist Christian Jurgensen Thomson in 1806. His Three Age System, based on finds from prehistoric graves, subdivided prehistory into three ages based on technological achievement: the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age. This scheme has been proven to have some general validity in the Old World and is still used as a broad label to this day. However, the term Stone Age has little more than technological significance, for it means that a society does not have the use of metals of any kind. Stone Age has no chronological significance, for although societies without metal vanished in the Near East after 4000 B.C., some still flourish in New Guinea to this day. We only use the Three Age System in the most general way here.  2
Sometimes, the three ages are subdivided further. The Stone Age, for example, is conventionally divided into three periods: the Palaeolithic, or Old Stone Age (Greek: from palaios, old; and from lithos, stone), which applies to societies who used chipped-stone technology; the Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age), which is a transitional period; and the Neolithic (New Stone Age), when people used polished stone artifacts and were farmers. However, only the term Palaeolithic remains in common use, as Mesolithic and Neolithic have proved increasingly meaningless, even if they occasionally appear in specialist and popular literature.  3
New World archaeologists have never used the Three Age System, largely because in the Americas, metallurgy of any kind had limited distribution. They tend to use more local terms, defined at intervals in these pages.  4
In recent years, archaeologists have tried to classify prehistoric societies on the basis of political and social development. They subdivide all human societies into two broad categories: prestate and state-organized societies.  5
Prestate societies are invariably small-scale, based on the community, band, or village. Many prestate societies are bands, associations of families that may not exceed 25 to 60 people, the dominant form of social organization for most hunter-gatherers from the earliest times up to the origins of farming. Clusters of bands linked by clans, groups of people linked by common ancestral ties, are labeled tribes. Chiefdoms are societies headed by individuals with unusual ritual, political, or entrepreneurial skills, and are often hard to distinguish from tribes. Such societies are still kin-based, but power is concentrated in the hands of powerful kin leaders responsible for redistributing food and other commodities through society.  6
Chiefdoms tend to have higher population densities and vary greatly in their elaboration. For example, Tahitian chiefs in the Society Islands of the South Pacific presided over elaborate, constantly bickering chiefdoms, frequently waging war against their neighbors.  7
State-organized societies operate on a large scale, with a centralized political and social organization, distinct social and economic classes, and large food surpluses created by intensive farming, often employing irrigation agriculture. Such complex societies were ruled by a tiny elite class, who held monopolies over strategic resources and used force and religious power to enforce their authority. Such social organization was typical of the world's preindustrial civilizations, civilizations that functioned with technologies that did not rely on fossil fuels like coal.  8
The Encyclopedia of World History, Sixth edition. Peter N. Stearns, general editor. Copyright © 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Maps by Mary Reilly, copyright 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.