Historians rely on written records and archaeological evidence to understand more about human history. They use these resources to divide human existence into five main historical eras: Prehistory, Classical, Middle Ages, Early Modern, and Modern eras. Keep reading to learn the main civilizations, technological achievements, important historical figures, and significant events during these major time periods in history.
The Prehistoric era in human history reflects the period between the appearance of humans on the planet (roughly 2.5 million years ago) and 600 B.C. (Before Christ) or 1200 B.C., depending on the region. It indicates the period on Earth in which there was human activity, but little to no records of human history. This era is also known as the Foundational era, as many foundations of human civilization occurred during this span of time.
The Prehistoric era can be divided into three shorter eras based on the advancements that occurred in those time periods. They include:
- The Stone Age (2.5 million B.C. to 3000 B.C.) - documents the human migration from Africa and first use of tools by Neanderthals, Denisovans and early humans
- The Bronze Age (3000 B.C. to 1300 B.C.) - humans settle in Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley and ancient Egypt; invention of the wheel and metalworking
- The Iron Age (1300 B.C. to 600 B.C.) - formation of planned cities, introduction of ironworks, steel, and writing systems
The Classical era, also known as Classical antiquity, began roughly around 600 B.C. in most of the world. It marked the beginning of a philosophical period in world history as well as the first recorded sources of human history. Politically, the Classical era saw the rise – and fall – of most world empires.
The Classical era was mainly centered around the civilizations on the Mediterranean Sea and their contributions to world culture. These empires included:
- Ancient Greece (600 B.C. to A.D. 600) - foundation of democracy, philosophy, mathematics, drama, and poetry
- Ancient Rome (753 B.C. to A.D. 476) - political power that developed the legal system, irrigation, architecture, city roads, and Christianity
- Persian Empire (550 B.C. to 330 B.C.) - Middle Eastern empire that practiced Zoroastrianism before Islam and fell to Alexander the Great in 330 B.C.
- Byzantine Empire (A.D. 285 to A.D. 1453) - Mediterranean culture that incorporated practices and beliefs from ancient Greece and Rome; the only major power not to fall until after the Renaissance
The Middle Ages is also known as the Medieval or Post-Classical era. Historians refer to the early part of this period as the Dark Ages due to the loss of recorded history after the fall of the Roman Empire in A.D. 476.
The Middle Ages was an unstable period that lasted for nearly a millennium. Historians often group the era into three distinct periods: the Early Middle Ages, the High Middle Ages and the Late Middle Ages.
- Early Middle Ages (A.D. 476 to A.D. 1000) - also known as Late Antiquity; this period shows most powers rebuilding after the collapse of the Roman Empire and the beginning of Islam in the Middle East
- High Middle Ages (A.D. 1000 to A.D. 1250) - 250-year period that saw the height of the Catholic church’s power in the Crusades
- Late Middle Ages (A.D. 1250 to A.D. 1450) - a period that saw the Black Plague, the beginning of European exploration and the invention of the printing press
The Early Modern Era, which immediately followed the Middle Ages, saw a resurgence of the values and philosophies from the Classical era. When you think of Leonardo da Vinci, William Shakespeare, Johann Sebastian Bach, and Christopher Columbus, you’re thinking of the Early Modern Era.
The major movements in politics, religion, and geography helped to guide human civilization into the Modern era. These movements include:
- Renaissance Humanism (A.D. 1400 to A.D. 1500 ) - break from medieval scholasticism that incorporated Classical thought into Early Modern ideas
- Protestant Reformation (A.D. 1517 to A.D. 1648) - religious movement in which Lutheranism (started by Martin Luther) broke with the Catholic church and redefined Christianity
- The European Renaissance (A.D. 1450 to A.D. 1600) - known as a cultural “rebirth” in art, music, literature, society, and philosophy
- The Enlightenment (A.D. 1650 to A.D. 1800) - an intellectual movement that is also called the Age of Reason; saw the re-examination of politics, economics and science before giving way to Romanticism in the 19th century
The European Renaissance, or “rebirth,” occurred during this period, as well as the discovery and colonization of the Americas and the Age of Enlightenment.
The influences of both the Renaissance and the Enlightenment led to a technological boom in the Modern era, also known as the Late Modern era. The world of politics was rocked by wars, revolution and the end of the monarchy in many countries. The Modern era is truly a cumulation of millions of years of human development.
Because our history of the last three centuries is so well documented, it’s possible to examine each period of the Modern era on its own. These eras include:
- First Industrial Revolution (A.D. 1760 to A.D. 1840) - beginning of the modern era that saw several technological innovations, including the invention of the cotton gin, the increase of city factories and mills and the completion of the Erie Canal
- Revolutionary Period (A.D. 1764 to A.D. 1848) - period of revolutions around the world, including the American Revolution, French Revolution, Spanish-American Wars for Independence, Italian Revolutions, Greek War of Independence, and the Spring of Nations
- Age of Imperialism (A.D. 1800 to A.D. 1914) - century of time in which France, Britain, Spain, the Netherlands, and the United States colonized in other nations around the world
- Victorian Era (A.D. 1837 to A.D. 1901) - reign of Queen Victoria I that saw increased urbanization, the American Civil War and the end of African slavery
- Second Industrial Revolution (A.D. 1869 to A.D. 1914 ) - often referred to as the Technological Revolution; period in which the light bulb, the telephone, the airplane, and the Model T automobile were invented
- World War I (A.D. 1914 to A.D. 1918) - worldwide conflict centered in Europe; also known as the Great War
- Great Depression (A.D. 1929 to A.D. 1939) - extended period of worldwide economic hardship that started with the stock market crash in 1929
- World War II (A.D. 1939 to A.D. 1945) - wartime period that began with Germany’s invasion of Poland and ends with the surrender of Japan, the last standing Axis power
- Contemporary Period (A.D. 1945 to current) - also known as the Information Age; the period in which technological advances define social, economic and political life
So where does the Modern era end and the next era begin? The only way to know is to learn from these historical eras – and to know more about how society works in large and small ways. Continue your trip through human history and society with a list of key sociology terms and concepts. Then, explore the history of one region with a list of Roman emperors across time.