What is the difficulity of studying the past, given the fact that we cannot observe prehistoric behavior directly?

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pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

There are at least two major types of problems with studying prehistory.  First, we can only know things for which we have artifacts.  Second, even when we have artifacts, we are not always able to understand what those things mean.

One major problem with studying prehistory is that only such things that leave artifacts can actually be studied.  This can be very frustrating for historians.  We cannot know anything about much of life in many places.  For example, if people built houses out of wood rather than stone, we can rarely find out much about their houses.  It is very difficult to know anything about their clothing.  If they used tools made of wood we are less likely to find them because they will not have been preserved.  Therefore, there are entire areas of life that cannot be understood because they left no artifacts.

A second major problem is that it is not always possible to understand the artifacts that have come down to us.  An example of this could be the cave paintings around Europe.  These are artifacts, but it is very hard to know what they mean.  We can only guess.  We speculate that they had religious significance, but we do not know this for sure.  When we find graves, we have to speculate about what they tell us in terms of the people’s religious beliefs.  We might be completely wrong in our speculations because we have no independent way of verifying our speculation.

Thus, it can be very difficult to truly understand the prehistoric past.