Protohistory is a period between prehistory and history, during which a culture or civilization has not yet developed writing but other cultures have already noted its existence in their own writings. For example, in Europe, the Celts and the Germanic tribes may be considered to have been protohistoric when they began appearing in Greek and Roman sources.

Protohistoric may also refer to the transition period between the advent of literacy in a society and the writings of the first historians. The preservation of oral traditions may complicate matters as these can provide a secondary historical source for even earlier events. Colonial sites involving a literate group and a non-literate group are also studied as protohistoric situations.

It can also refer to a period in which fragmentary or external historical documents, not necessarily including a developed writing system, have been found. For instance, the Proto–Three Kingdoms of Korea, the Yayoi[1] and the Mississippian groups recorded by early European explorers are protohistoric.

Usage of the term

In The Oxford Illustrated History of Prehistoric Europe,[2] an article[3] by Timothy Taylor says,

Because of the existence in some but not all societies of historical writing during the first millennium BC, the period has often been termed 'protohistoric' instead of prehistoric. Of course, the understanding of the past gained through archaeology is broadly different in nature to understanding derived from historical texts. Having both sorts of evidence is a boon and a challenge.

In the abstract of a later paper on "slavery in the first millennium Aegean, Carpatho-Balkan and Pontic regions",[4] Taylor, who is primarily an archaeologist, says,

I have taken the rather unusual step of trusting what the classical authors tell us they knew.

For other examples, see also the writings of Brian Fagan on the protohistory of North America[5] and the work of Muhammed Abdul Nayeem on that of the Arabian Peninsula[6]


As with prehistory, determining when a culture may be considered prehistoric or protohistoric is sometimes difficult for archaeologists. Data vary considerably from culture to culture, region to region, and even from one system of reckoning dates to another.

In its simplest form, protohistory follows the same chronology as prehistory, based on the technological advancement of a particular people with regard to metallurgy:

Civilizations and peoples

The best known protohistoric civilizations and ethnic groups are those for whom the term was originally coined: the barbarian tribes mentioned by European and Asian writers. Many of these peoples of course also experienced periods of prehistory and history.

See also


  1. Bahn, Paul (ed.) The Penguin Archaeology Guide Penguin Books Ltd (29 Nov 2001) ISBN 978-0-14-029308-1 p. 368
  2. Cunliffe, Barry (2001). The Oxford Illustrated History of Prehistoric Europe. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-285441-4.
  3. Taylor, Timothy (1994). "Thracians, Scythians and Dacians". In Cunliffe, Barry. The Oxford Illustrated Prehistory of Europe. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 373–410.
  4. Timothy Taylor (2001). "Believing the Ancients: Quantitative and Qualitative Dimensions of Slavery and the Slave Trade in Later Prehistoric Eurasia". World Archaeology, Vol. 33, No. 1, The Archaeology of Slavery (Jun., 2001), pp. 27-43. Retrieved 2007-05-13.
  5. Fagan, Brian (2005). Ancient North America: The Archaeology of a Continent (4th ed.). London: Thames & Hudson. ISBN 978-0-500-28532-9.
  6. Nayeem, Muhammed Abdul, ed. (1990). Prehistory and Protohistory of the Arabian Peninsula (5 volumes). Hyderabad: Hyderabad Pub.
  7. "Alani". Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved March 12, 2016.
  8. "Gaul - Ancient History Encyclopedia". Ancient History Encyclopedia.
  9. Herodotus. "The Histories". Sacred Texts.
  10. Van Rhyn, G.A.F. "The American Cyclopaedia (1879)/Germanic Races and Languages". Wikisource. Retrieved 13 March 2016.
  11. Maenchen-Helfen, Otto J. (1973). Max Knight, ed. The World of the Huns: Studies in Their History and Culture. University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-01596-7.
  12. Kōzō, Yamamura; John Whitney Hall (1997). The Cambridge history of Japan. Cambridge University Press.
  13. "Timucua Indians of the Southeast". Manataka Indian Council. Manataka Indian Council.
  14. "Where are the Susquehannock". The Susquehannock Fire Ring. Retrieved 13 March 2016.
  15. Sultzman, Lee. "Erie". Dick Shovel.
  16. "Mid-America : an historical review.". p. 228. Retrieved 2015-07-16.
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