What Is a Prehistoric Archaeologist?

Ray Hawk

A prehistoric archaeologist is an archaeologist who studies ancient human civilizations that existed before the presence of written records. This form of archaeology can vary in time scale as the process of writing came to different civilizations at different times. Generally, a prehistoric archaeologist can focus on nomadic civilizations such as those believed to have existed in the Stone Age or Paleolithic Age prior to 10,000 BC. Early city-state farming societies are also studied by the prehistoric archaeologist, such as those that existed during the Neolithic period in the Mediterranean nation of Malta from 4,100 BC to 5,000 BC. Later civilizations may also be studied, such as those of ancient Sumeria and Egypt which began to develop written records around 3,100 BC.

Prehistoric archaeologists use cultural artifacts like the cave paintings at Lascaux, France, to reconstruct prehistoric human behavior.
Prehistoric archaeologists use cultural artifacts like the cave paintings at Lascaux, France, to reconstruct prehistoric human behavior.

Cultural studies that involve early human civilizations are often referred to as the study of protohistory. This stage in human development is both a formative and transformational period in human existence that may include some forms of basic written records. Often, these records in various societies from the Maya to Chinese and Egyptians take the form of pictograph writing composed of symbolic figures that later evolve into basic alphabets. Prehistoric archeology jobs, therefore, can involve interpretation of hieroglyphics and the examination of cave paintings, which signified humanity's transition to a stage where abstract communication became a dominant feature of society.

Archaeologists who have studied Stonehenge, a megalithic site in Great Britain, have uncovered a number of artifacts that shed light on the late Neolithic Period.
Archaeologists who have studied Stonehenge, a megalithic site in Great Britain, have uncovered a number of artifacts that shed light on the late Neolithic Period.

The time line where a prehistoric archaeologist focuses his or her efforts is usually on the transitions that took place around the globe during the Neolithic period, known as the last period of the Stone Age. It was during Neolithic times when animals became domesticated and the nomadic hunter-gatherer existence was abandoned for primitive agriculture. It was also during this period that the production of basic goods for trade like pottery and textiles began to take place.

Archaeologists study prehistoric burial sites, such as the megalithic dolmens that can be found throughout Ireland, for clues as to how people once lived.
Archaeologists study prehistoric burial sites, such as the megalithic dolmens that can be found throughout Ireland, for clues as to how people once lived.

The formation of human settlements in Neolithic times varies widely from region to region, though the prehistoric archaeologist finds the greatest evidence of such societies in the distant past of Euro-Asia. The earliest human settlements in Tell Qaramel in Syria, for instance, are traced to between 10,700 and 9,400 BC, whereas the Knossus society in Crete extends back to 7,000 BC. Other regions of the world have displayed much different dates for prehistorical societies, such as the formation of early Mayan civilization in central Mexico around 2,600 BC, and research indicating that the Aboriginal societies of Australia were first formed around 39,000 BC.

The evidence that is used to define the nature of prehistoric societies is often based on rare fossils, artifacts, and little or no written records. This means that the prehistoric archaeologist is often left to formulate theories based on limited concrete information about his or her subject. The archeological study of prehistory can be a field that is often open to contentious arguments among researchers over theories ascribed to the purpose of artifacts and fossil sites.

The two main arenas of thought on the subject focus on Processualism and Functionalism. Processualism is the belief that artifacts and fossils can reveal an anthropology nature of ancient societies, or the human motivations of the inhabitants of such communities. Functionalism instead started as an American point of view in archeology in the 1930s that emphasized the role of the natural environment in determining the purpose of artifacts and fossils at dig sites.

Stone tools discovered by archaeologists can be used to date human settlements.
Stone tools discovered by archaeologists can be used to date human settlements.

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