Eras in Human History

The Homo sapiens race has been around for over three million years, resulting in the need to separate history into categories using various systems. Unfortunately, attempts to create a universal system have continually failed to encompass all of human history. Instead, they tend to focus on regional histories, most commonly European, as this continent contains the most complete archaeological records, both in writing and actual excavations.

The Euro-Centric Systems

Three major systems are used to catalogue western civilization. As mentioned, Europe has the most complete archaeological record, with evidence dating back into prehistory. Even though humanity is believed to originate in either southwestern Asia or Africa, very little evidence has survived of the most ancient civilizations.

The following three systems are taught throughout much of the world, although they may not be the most appropriate options available.

The Historical Era System

The most widely accepted method uses seven eras defined by human advancement. These eras and their approximate timeframes are:

  1. Stone Age: 3.3 million to 5,000 years ago (YA)
  2. Bronze Age: 5,000 to 1,200 1,200 BCE
  3. Iron Age: 1,200 BCE to 500 BCE
  4. Classical Era: 500 BCE to 500 CE
  5. Medieval Era: 500 CE to 1500 CE
  6. Early Modern Era: 1500 CE to 1800 CE
  7. Modern Era: 1800 CE to present

Unfortunately, while this system at first appears to be precise and easy to understand, it also has a major flaw. Just as Erik Erikson discovered when developing his Stages of Psychosocial Development, humanity can develop at different speeds, sometimes skipping a stage or even regressing. Thus, there are still cultures in the Modern Era that live in the Stone Age of development.

The Time Period System

A popular alternative also uses seven eras, this time further broken down into multiple time periods. According to this system, the eras are:

  1. Prehistoric Era: 2.6 million years ago to 3,000 BCE (three Periods)
  2. Ancient Era: 3,000 BCE to 500 CE (two Periods)
  3. Classical Era: 800 BCE to 400s CE (three Periods including the Han Dynasty of China)
  4. Medieval Era: 400s CE to 1400s CE (three Periods)
  5. Renaissance and Early Modern Era: 1300s CE 1700s CE (three Periods)
  6. Modern Era: 1760 to 1991 (five Periods)
  7. Contemporary Era: 1991 to present day 9currently three Periods)

The flaws in this second system are glaring. Not only does it suffer from the same generalisations of the first Era system, it adds more complexity with the time periods. As we know more about recent history than ancient history, the eras become shorter, yet include an increasing number of time periods. Finally, a portion of early human history is omitted while also giving broad ranges for older eras that sometimes overlap.

The Historical Period System

Undoubtedly the most complex of the three major systems, the Historical Period system is a complicated chart in which the terms period and era are reversed.

This system has two historical periods:

  1. Pre-History: 2,500 BCE to 800 BCE (three Ages and seven Eras)
  2. History: 800 BCE to present day (three Ages and 11 Eras)

As complicated as this system is, there’s a lot of academic support behind it. The separation between pre-history and history involves the invention of written language. Unfortunately, this separation is (once again) based on European history and ignores older petroglyphic writing systems found in southwestern Asia, Egypt and Meso-America.

Ignoring this major flaw, the system’s complexity has proven useful when creating historical curriculums to be used in both basic and higher education.

The Three-Age System

While the three systems above are all considered different, both the Historical Era and Historical Period systems involve a more specific system known as the Three-Age System. This particular system divides prehistory into three distinct ages: Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age. Any system which uses these three Ages may be considered a variation of the Three-Age System.

Note that the Time Period system doesn’t include the Stone Age and therefore isn’t considered a variant.

Regional Historical Systems

Due to the various differences between human civilizations throughout the world, the three Euro-centric systems are a poor choice for much of the world. Instead, many regions have their own historical systems that focus on local archaeological evidence. Some examples of these regional systems include:

American Period System

For example, the American Periods System includes the histories of North and South America. It’s divided into two major eras: Pre-Columbian America and Colonial America. Modern American history is absent from this system, and the Eras included often overlap. As a result, the system is poorly-suited for academia.

Australian Historical System

Perhaps the most complete system outside of the Euro-Centric systems, the Australian Periods system covers seven Periods dating back to 65,000 BCE. However, six of these periods occur after 1606 CE, proving that pre-colonial history remains largely unknown.

Chinese History

The Chinese Historical System covers a period of history dating back to 2852 BCE, although the exact historical periodization is still under debate.

The Human History System

Finally, it’s worth mentioning the Human History System. This system expands beyond Homo sapiens, beginning with Geologic Time (4.6 billion years ago to 3.3 million years ago) and including multiple evolutionary eras charting the evolution from pre-primates to Homo sapiens.

What sets this system apart, however, isn’t its inclusion of human evolution. Its Ancient and Post-Classical eras include many major non-European empires. Another way in which this system stands out is the vague timeline of its Modern Era, which includes a Contemporary History period that currently begins around 1945. As this period is described as “historic events in living memory”, the timeframe it encompasses constantly updates as older generations die out.

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