History isn’t hard. It’s just stories. Lots of stories. And remembering some dates is important, too. 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. Below is that framework.
That said, I am not the world’s biggest fan of the timeline. Other than the basic one below, in this book historical terms and concepts are chunked into four broad categories instead: ancient history, the Middle Ages, early modern times and modern times. If you know which of these historical periods an event occurred in, you will have a “good enough” understanding of its context for casual conversation and application.
Note that many dates given here are approximate, tentative and rounded.
Basic World History Terminology
Prehistory: All history that took place prior to the first cities, civilizations, and writing. Prehistory ended around 10,000 BCE.
Recorded history: History that took place after the invention of writing. It began around 10,000 BCE and continues into the present.
The Stone Age: A general term for the prehistorical era after Homo sapiens began using stone tools (around 3000 BCE) and before they engaged in metal work in a widespread manner. The Stone Age encompasses the Paleolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic Eras and ended at roughly the start of ancient times (3,000 BCE), when the Bronzeron Age began.
The Paleolithic Era: The historical era that began with the evolution of the species Homo sapiens in which these and other hominids primarily survived through big-game hunting.
The Mesolithic Era: The historical era between the Paleolithic Era and the Neolithic Era when humans lived a nomadic hunter-gatherer tribal lifestyle
The Neolithic Era: The historical era that began when humans discovered farming (around 10,000 BCE) and, with this location-stable food supply, began to settle into towns. The end of the Neolithic Era took place at approximately the beginning of ancient times (around 3,000 BCE).
The Bronze Age: The historical era that began when humans learned how to forge metal, particularly bronze, which was particularly useful in weaponry. The Bronze Age usually refers to ancient Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and Egyptian history.
The Iron Age: The historical era that began when humans began replacing much of their bronze work with iron work instead. Iron allowed for lighter, cheaper weaponry, which resulted in a more widespread use of it and more battles.
Ancient history: The historical period from the beginning of recorded history (around 3,000 BCE) to the fall of the Roman Empire (around 500 CE).
The Middle Ages: The historical period from the fall of the Roman Empire (around 500 CE) to the discovery of the New World (around 1500 CE).
Early modern times: The historical period from the discovery of the new world (around 1500 CE) to 1900 CE.
The modern era: The historical period of the 1900s, marked by industrialism, globalism, rapid technological advancement and world war.
Outline of world eras: The terms Stone Age, Iron Age, Bronze Age, Paleolithic Era, Mesolithic Era and Neolithic Era are all very rough constructs. Since they’re defined by their technological developments, they took place at different times in different places of the world. However, a rough timeline is as follows:
- Beginning of time, the earth and hominids (14 billion BCE to 3 million BCE)
- The Stone Age (including the Paleolithic Era and the Mesolithic Era and the beginning of the Neolithic Era) (3 million BCE to 10,000 BCE)
- The rest of the Neolithic Era (10,000 BCE to 3,000 BCE)
- Ancient times (including the Bronze Age and the Iron Age) (3,000 BCE to 500 CE)
- The Middle Ages (500 CE to 1500 CE)
- Early modern times (including the Colonial Period, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution and more) (1500 CE to 1900 CE)
- The modern era (the 1900s)
Basic World History Timeline
The Beginning of Time
14 billion BCE: The Big Bang occurred
4.5 billion BCE: The Earth formed
4 billion BCE: The first living organisms formed
3.5 billion BCE: LUCA, the last universal common ancestor, formed
7 million BCE: Hominids evolved
The Paleolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic Eras
3 million BCE: Homo sapients began using stone tools and the Paleolithic Era began
10,000 BCE: Farming began, the first towns were built and the Neolithic Era began
Ancient Times (3000 BCE to 500 CE)
3,000 BCE: Writing was invented and recorded history began
750 BCE: The first Greek city-states were founded
509 BCE: The Roman Republic was founded
356 BCE: Alexander the Great was born
250 BCE: The Mayas were at peak power in North America
46 BCE: Julius Caesar became the first dictator of Rome
4 CE: Jesus Christ was born
31 CE: Augustus Caesar (Octavian) established the Roman Empire
395 CE: The Byzantine Empire formed
476 CE: The Roman Empire fell
The Middle Ages (500 CE through 1500 CE)
618 CE: The Tang Dynasty ushered in China’s Golden Age
800 CE: Vikings began exploring and raiding
1095 CE: The first Crusade took place
1206 CE: Genghis Khan came to power in Mongolia
1300 CE: The Aztecs came to power in North America; the Ottoman Empire was founded in the Middle East
1350 CE: The Black Plague began
1450 CE: The Gutenberg Press went into use
1438 CE: The Incas came to power in South America
1453 CE: Constantinople fell, ending the Byzantine Empire
Early Modern Times (1500 CE through 1900 CE)
1492 CE: Christopher Columbus landed in the Bahamas
1500s CE: The colonization of South America began
1500 CE: The Ottman Empire was at its peak in and past the Middle East
1502 CE: Amerigo Vespucci landed in South America and created the first map of the New World
1517 CE: Martin Luther King nailed his “97 Theses” to a church door and started the Protestant Reformation
1600s CE: The colonization of North America began
1603 CE: The Edo Period began in Japan
1620 CE: The Pilgrims settled Plymouth Colony
1698 CE: The steam engine was invented
1776 CE: America declared independence from Great Britain by issuing the Declaration of Independence, starting the American Revolution
1789 CE: The French Revolution took place
1800s CE: The South American colonies gained independence from their colonial rulers one by one
1800 CE: The Industrial Revolution was at its halfway point
1839 CE: The first of two Opium Wars began in China
1869 CE: The transcontinental railroad opened
1879 CE: Thomas Edison invented the lightbulb
1881 CE: The colonization of Africa began
1884 CE: The first skyscraper was built in Chicago
The Modern Era (The 1900s through the Present)
1908 CE: Henry Ford invented the Model T
1914 CE: World War I began
1918 CE: World War I ended
1927 CE: The first modern television was invented
1929 CE: The Wall Street crash set off the Great Depression
1933 CE: The Holocaust began
1936 CE: The Spanish Civil War began
1939 CE: World War II began; the Spanish Civil War ended
1941 CE: The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, spurred the U.S. to join World War II
1945 CE: The U.S. dropped nuclear bombs on Japan; World War II and the Holocaust ended; penicilin was made available to the public
1946 CE: The League of Nations was founded
1947 CE: India gained independence from Britain
1950 CE: The Korean War began
1953 CE: The Korean War ended
1949 CE: The USSR developed atomic weapons and the Cold War began
1950 CE: Apartheid began in South Africa
1954 CE: The court case Brown versus the Board of Education ruled against school segregation
1955 CE: The Vietnam War began
1961 CE: People traveled to space for the first time
1963 CE: Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered the “I Have a Dream” speech
1969 CE: People landed on the moon for the first time
1975 CE: The Vietnam War ended
1989 CE: Pro-democracy student demonstrations were violently quashed at Tiananmen Square in China; the fall of the Berlin Wall took place in Germany
1991 CE: The Gulf War began
2001 CE: Middle eastern terrorist group Al-Queda attacked New York City
2008 CE: Barack Obama was elected the first African American president of the United States
History Discussion Questions:
- What are some of the things that all cultures of history shared in common?
- What are some of the reasons towns and civilizations spring up independently in so many different parts of the world within a few hundred years of each other?
- Were there any good civilizations in history? Were there any bad ones?
- What are the main reasons nations and states initiated warfare? Why did smaller tribes wage war?
- How was history influenced by various technological discoveries, including metalwork, gunpowder, the printing press, the train and many more?
- What are some examples of religious wars? To what extent were they motivated by the spread of religious ideas and the quashing of other religious ideas and to what extent were they motivated by other desires or needs?
- Why did safe, prosperous nations, like Rome, continuously try to grow larger? Was this a wise strategy?
- What are some of the historical reasons for poverty?
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