Prehistory and Prehistories
2009 © International Institute of Anthropology
2009 © Lolita Nikolova, PhD
Created: 3-22-09.
Prehistory and Prehistories
(Toward development of theoretical archaeological concepts)

By Lolita Nikolova

We have been living in a changing global world and one of the missions of the science is a
careful reconsideration of the scientific heritage and making meaningful updates that would
help us and all people better to understand the Past.
    Recently the prehistoric periods in the different parts of the world have been occupying
larger and larger parts in the common history and more and more books come out in which
specialists in different fields of research destructure part, construct models and make
thoughtful assumptions about our ancestors whom we owe the idea of family (today in
crisis), of house, subsistence economy, ideology, religion, entertainment – in other words of
almost all components of our everydayness and beyond everydayness life. A part of our
enculturation is not only education in prehistory, but also searching for the visible and
invisible connections with past transmitted or in some cases broken by people. In past when
I received Archaeologies (the Journal of World Archaeological Congress) it looked to me that
we need to keep the common category Archaeology, or at least to use both – Archaeology
as a mega-term and Archaeologies as a term when it relates to specific categories –
regional archaeologies, social archaeologies, semiotic archaeologies, interpretation
archaeologies, etc.
    Recently, trying to update my understanding about Prehistory, I figured out that in many
cases we have been using theoretical definitions with one and the same meaning for rather
different Prehistories. There are so many differences even between Balkan and Western
European Prehistories, between Eurasian and Mesoamerican Prehistories. Some scholars
have been using Protohistory but as a matter of fact I cannot see a big difference between
Pre- and Proto- since in both cases the meaning comes from history – something which is
not history. And this is in fact critical since history means “a chronological record of
significant events (as affecting a nation or institution) often including an explanation of their
causes” (
Merriam-Western online), but also “a branch of knowledge that records and
explains past events” (
Merriam-Western online). Then, since today we have Radiocarbon
dating, the so-called Pre-or Protohistory is also History.
    When we use the term prehistoric in fact it is not a scientific but a traditional term, full
with exotic and almost sacred knowledge since to learn about Prehistory it is not enough
literacy – you need to know many languages of the material culture and especially the
languages of the ceramic styles of the different regions. Unfortunately, in the human
civilization there was created the idea about dictionaries but still not about the languages of
the material culture. There are coming huge handbooks with theoretical concepts in
archaeology, but not of a detailed description of the prehistoric ceramic styles of different
regions that would help the next generations and the students to feel confident with their
knowledge and not to depend on people. Although we live in the 21st century, the
knowledge of prehistoric pottery is almost a sacred knowledge that has been transmitted
from a person to person and a sort of symbolic capital of different archaeologists. This fact
is also a part of the exotic term “Prehistory” today.
    I don’t feel we will forget soon the term Prehistory mostly because of the emotional part
of the perception of this term. However, we need always to make the clarification that it is a
traditional term in science and today it has been using as a tradition. It looks Pre- and
Proto are synonymic terms since we can record today history from the very beginning in
absolute dates. The only possible change for debate is whether we should use Prehistory
only or as Archaeology – Prehistory and Prehistories. Development of the scientific concept
of Prehistories may help the theory of Prehistory and more consciously to use the different
prehistoric theoretical terms like households, family, value, wealth, enculturation,
mythology, signs, etc.
    So, we can propose:
    Prehistory as a mega-theory and as a subject of a regional theory of the earliest human
history for which we do not have written records (e.g. Prehistory, Eurasian Prehistory, Aegean
Prehistory, Balkan Prehistory, European Prehistory)
    Prehistories as a complex discipline for megaregional earliest histories for which we do
not have written records (World Prehistories, Eurasian Prehistories, African Prehistories,
Mezo-American Prehistories, etc.).
Karlovo Municipality.
Karanovo VI culture.
Later fifth millennium cal
BCE. Southern Bulgaria
Gorodnitsa. Copper Age.
Tripolie culture.
Dubene-Sarovka. Yuhatsite
culture. Early Bronze II (the
first half of the third
millennium cal BCE).
Palaeolithic. Willendorf