I can’t count the number of times I’ve tried to recall the approximate date for the beginning of the universe, or the invention of fire, or the first known appearance of Homo sapiens on the spot but could not. Knowing a few key dates is hugely important to your understanding of the world. It provides a framework that you can build on as needed.
FYI, prehistory is history that took place prior to the invention of writing. After that, everything is part of recorded history. Also note that all dates listed here are approximate and many of them merely indicate the earliest known evidence of the events they describe. Finally, recall that the Stone Age is comprised of the Paleolithic (big-game hunting) Era, the Mesolithic (transitional hunter-gatherer) Era, and the Neolithic (farming) Era, though the dates of these eras vary by location since they’re based on the acquisition of related technologies. The Stone Age is followed by the Bronze Age and the Iron Age, though these terms are only useful regarding the ancient Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and Egyptian peoples. Among other advantages, bronze technology allowed for better weaponry, and lighter, cheaper iron technology allowed for more widespread use of weaponry.
Basic Prehistory Timeline
The Beginning of Time
14 billion B.C.: The Big Bang occurred. Matter exploded, cooled, and expanded.
4.5 billion B.C.: Earth formed.
4.4 billion B.C.: The oceans formed.
4 billion B.C.: The first microorganisms evolved.
3.8 to 3.5 billion B.C.: The last universal common ancestor (LUCA)–the most recent living organism that survived to evolve into all current life on the planet–existed.
8 to 6 million B.C.: The first great apes (hominids) evolved.
The Stone Age: The Paleolithic Era
2.5 million B.C.: Homo habilis, the first human species, evolved in East Africa from an unknown, extinct great ape. Habilis was the first to use stone tools and had a larger brain than his ancestors.
1.8 to 1.5 million B.C.: Homo erectus evolved, then migrated out of Africa to Asia.
1.6 to 1 million B.C.: Homo erectus started using fire for cooking. Half a million years later, these early humans began hunting with spears, building shelters and creating more complex tribal communities.
230,000 B.C.: The Neanderthals evolved and migrated across Asia and Europe..
200,000 B.C.: Homo sapiens evolved in Africa and migrated across Asia and Europe.
150,000 B.C.: Humans developed the ability to speak.
50,000 to 12,000 B.C.: Human culture developed rapidly. Humans began performing ritual burials and making clothing, artworks, jewelry, advanced tools, boats, ovens, pottery, harpoons, saws, woven baskets, woven nets and woven baby carriers. Also during this time, the Neanderthals mated with Homo sapiens, then went extinct. They were replaced by the Cro-Magnons, who also mated with Homo sapiens. From them the modern Homo sapiens inherited larger brains.
40,000 B.C.: Early modern humans appeared. They settled Australia, then North America.
The Stone Age: The Mesolithic and Neolithic Eras
13,000 B.C.: People in Mesopotamia (the Fertile Crescent) started raising animals.
10,000 B.C.: People in Mesopotamia started cultivating crops and forming small towns. They created religious sites, grew grain (particularly barley and wheat) and other crops, smelted copper, developed a simple writing system built irrigation channels and invented the wheel (only used for pottery, though, at this time).
10,000 B.C.: Caucasians settled Europe.
5,000 B.C.: The Sumerians built a collection of individual city-states in Mesopotamia on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, creating the world’s first true civilization. It had ziggurats (pyramid-like centers of worship), scribes and accountants.