Ages of Technology in History

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

There is so much human history to study, have you ever wondered if we can approach it all? In this lesson, we'll talk about categorizing history through technology and discuss periods of major technological changes.

Ages of Technology

Humans have a lot of history. A lot. I mean, have you ever tried to study absolutely all of human history? It's practically impossible to do. So, as historians, we take some shortcuts and try to find ways to organize historical moments by shared trends. One method of organization that scholars have found particularly useful is grouping the use of technology into ages. As a species designed for tool-making, technologies define our lives, now and throughout history. These categories are used more for academic purposes; it's not like people woke up one day and realized they were in a new period. The date ranges on these periods can also vary drastically because people in different places developed new technologies at different times; just because one group started using a new tool doesn't mean everyone did. However, these categories can be pretty useful when trying to tackle the huge amount of information that is human history.

The Paleolithic

Depending on who you ask, there are up to ten accepted technological ages in human history. Not all are used by everyone, but we'll cover each of them briefly. The first is the Paleolithic, which means Old Stone Age. Human tools in this era were, yes, made of stone, but also other easy-to-obtain materials like wood or bone. Human societies in the Paleolithic were mostly small bands of nomadic hunter-gatherers. This period covers over 99% of human history, ranging from about 600,000 BCE to around 10,000 BCE in some parts of the world, and even later in others.

Paleolithic tools
Paleolithic tools

The Mesolithic

The end of the Paleolithic is defined by new changes in lifestyles as people first developed settled societies, based on farming. But, this wasn't an easy process. The transition out of the Paleolithic is often considered its own time period called the Mesolithic, or Middle Stone Age. People were still using stone tool technology, but were starting to domesticate plants, allowing them to stay in one place longer. This led to the need for new innovations, like baskets and in some cases pottery. Most historians place the Mesolithic as roughly 10,000-4,000 BCE in most places.

The Neolithic

Finally, many human societies became fully agricultural, living year-round in permanent societies. This was the Neolithic, or New Stone Age. In the Neolithic, people built houses, developed pottery, and for the first time in history began producing more food than they could eat. As a result, some people could focus more on new inventions like pottery, others could become warriors, and others became leaders. Of the new inventions to enter the world, the wheel may have been the most significant. In most places, the Neolithic occurred between roughly 4,000 and 2,300 BCE.

The Chalcolithic

The previous three ages are collectively known as the 'stone ages,' and were defined by technologies made of, well, stone. But we don't use stone tools as often today. You may have noticed. At one point human societies switched to the use of metal. Like the transition out of the Paleolithic, this was not an immediate change, and we've got another period of transition here called the Chalcolithic, or Copper Age. Copper is relatively easy to mine, smelt, and work, and in many places it was the first metal to be used for tools, jewelry, arts, and weapons. The Chalcolithic occurred around the 3rd millennium BCE.

The Bronze Age

Next is the Bronzolithic. I'm just kidding-nobody calls it that. Human societies fully turned towards the use of metal in the Bronze Age. During the Bronze Age, people learned to mix copper and tin to create a stronger metal, bronze, and used it everywhere they could. But, bronze wasn't the only change in this era. New technology meant better agricultural practices, and societies grew much larger, forming the first true kingdoms and empires. Things like writing, philosophy, mathematics, and international trade appeared. The Bronze Age is generally considered to cover the time frame of roughly 2,300 to 700 BCE.

The Iron Age

Bronze is swell, but not a perfect metal. So, people kept innovating, and eventually found better ways to process metal, making iron. The Iron Age saw stronger, more efficient tools that again redefined agriculture, as well as the arts and warfare. Military empires, armed with iron weapons, fought for control of trade routes. Artists, armed with iron tools, carved marble and other materials into astounding sculptures. The Iron Age began around 700 BCE, but its end date is contested because people used iron for millennia. However, the social and cultural changes of the Iron Age waned by around 450 CE, so that's what we'll use as the end of this era.

Iron Age armies created major empires
Roman column

The Middle Ages

The collapse of the mighty empires of the Iron Age led to the start of the Middle Ages. The Middle Ages were defined by kingdoms, not empires, who existed in near-perpetual states of war, but also by new technological advancements. Wrought iron, an even stronger kind of iron, became widespread and with this material came things like horseshoes, cannons, and clocks. The Middle Ages lasted from roughly 450 to 1400 CE.

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