To understand the pre-history of Africa, we need to understand the language of archaeologists, geologists and geneticists. See Geological periods article for how geologists describe historic time periods. The common periods used by archaeologists are covered in this article along with an explanation of the weaknesses of this system, when it is applied to Africa.
Main terms used for archaeological (or anthropological) periods
There are 15 major terms used for epochization in relation to the three-age system. Epochization is categorisation of the past – History – into time periods. Below we explain those terms.
The three-age system
Tools used by humankind for different purposes determined the ages, and have been into the three-age system. The Stone Age, Bronze age and the Iron Age comprises of the three-age system. The Stone Age lasted for about 2.66 million years according to evolutionary theory, ended around 9,000 BCE in some parts of the world and in most parts of the world overlapped with beginning of the Bronze age. The Bronze Age lasted for about 1050 years from 3000B.C. The Iron Age lasted for 1450 years just after that timeline. All these dates and sequences are not rigid time periods as various continents entered the stone age, bronze age and iron age at different times.
The Stone Age
The edge of a stone, pointed stones as well as the percussion surfaces of stones were used for very many applications by humankind during the stone age. Right from hunting for sustenance to fighting for survival and dominance, stone weapons were used extensively. Hence the name stone age.
The Bronze Age
The alloy of copper and tin is bronze. Just after the Stone Age, weapons that are stronger than stones were made using this bronze. Tougher, and less corrosive bronze was made in 3 ways, according to the needed applications. Ceremonies, artistic media, armour, and weapons were the main uses of the new metal identified just after stone.
Metallurgy begins in this era, which existed for a short time in between the Stone Age and the Bronze Age, around, 3500 BC. A metal obsessed civilization prevailed during this time. Farmers used these tools made out of copper. Hammering the metal, they made different types of copper tools, as needed.
Early Bronze Age
Bronze Age began when the first ever-bronze tools of a different kind were made in the year, 3200 BC. People belonging to the modern day area of China used bronze tools during this time, quite extensively. The strength and the resilience of bronze were easily controlled by the smelters while using appropriate proportions of arsenic in the alloy, to make bronze tools of a different type to suit the varied applications.
Middle Bronze Age
During the period from 1500 BCE to 1200 BCE, demand grew for artisans who could work on the metals, for mining, and trading too. Trading in copper, tin and bronze alloys, and metalwork made both traders and the artisans rich.
Late Bronze Age
A lot of characters mentioned in the Bible, and even in the Egyptian historical databases, belong to the late Bronze Age, 1200 BCE to 900 BCE. Moses, David, Joseph, and belonged to the Bronze age. The time varies for this age, only depending upon the particular region in question.
The Iron Age
Unlike Europe and North Africa, the three-age system doesn’t work in Sub-Sahara Africa. While in the Air mountains, the Bronze age overtook the stone age first around 3000 BCE to 2500 BCE, in other parts of Sub-Sahara Africa ancient Africans entered ‘the Iron Age’ first before commencing the Bronze Age in areas where iron ore was more abundant than copper. African first smelted iron around 2,200 BCE in the region of Rwanda.
In Eurasia, the earliest evidence of ironwork was a blade found in a Hattic tomb, in Anatolia (modern day Turkey), around 2500 B.C., marking the end of the Bronze Age in Anatolia but not the rest of Europe. Many artefacts belonging to this period were also found in Mesopotamia and Egypt.
In some regions, iron became conflated with the god of war, agriculture or both during the middle bronze age. In parts of Africa, this was Ogun (the god of iron and earth) and in Europe to the Greeks this was Athena (the goddess of wisdom, military intelligence, handiwork and warfare wearing a helmet and holding ‘Victory’) or Ares for Troy.
This is the period before 2.65 million years ago. Stone tool kits were made for the first time during this time by the humankind for hunting purposes alone. Homo Habilis lived during this phase, just prior to the homosapiens. Therefore, according to evolutionary theory the beings that used stones during this phase were not human beings.
Primitive stone implements were used by Homo Habilis and also Homo Sapiens within this time period, as both species co-existed during this early phase of Stone Age, which is referred as the Palaeolithic. Big predators killed human beings in big numbers during this phase.
The time between 2,580,000 and 200,000 years before present refers to the Lower Palaeolithic period. These time periods hold evidence for the earliest of the human ancestors whose remains have identified from Morocco and Kenya. Humans during this phase were scavengers more than the hunter type.
In the African archaeology, this term is also referred to as the Middle Stone age. Hominins lived during this phase in groups, also called bands. These societies thrived upon fishing, gathering plants, hunting wild animals, and so on while using the knapped stone tools. Wood and bone were also used as tools during this phase.
The last phase is called the Upper Palaeolithic age. This started around 73,000 years ago in Africa, when mankind started to enjoy making clothes, cave paintings, art, paint and religious thoughts, while in Europe it took another 33,000 years before the emergence of rock art, around 40,000 years ago. The weapons used during this phase were designed to finer precision using special tools made out of wood and stone.
Epipaleolithic (also called Mesolithic)
The era between the Neolithic and the upper Palaeolithic age is termed as the Epipaleolithic (also called Mesolithic) era. Retouched blades, chipped stone tools that were termed as microliths were in use during this phase. Saws and sickles were made during this period. Stitching clothes become common during this phase.
Gathering the plants and wild animals for sustenance ended when man started to farm for his needs during this era that is called as the Neolithic age. This was when pottery began too. Permanent settlements in many parts of the world began from the Neolithic age.
Copper and stone implements were used in the different cultures in different parts of the world, during this phase of the Chalcolithic age. It is also known as the stone-copper era. Harappa civilization, which is world-renowned even today, belongs to this Chalcolithic age.
Advantages of the three-age system
The three-age system is easy to explain to non-archaeologists. It relies on the design, characteristics and materials used for artefacts. It is a very cheap classification technique for analysing historical evidence.
Disadvantages of the three-age system
Potential errors from this technique could include: sequencing artefacts into different time periods that were created in the same time period of the past; forcing a European sequence of material usage on Africa, the Americas, Asia or vice versa; or identifying inaccurate dates. Lastly, not all societies in the world were located in areas with access in all three materials.