‘Prehistory’ is the term used to refer to the period of the human past before written records were kept which, in Britain, stretches from the depths of the last Ice Age to around AD 43 the year of the Roman invasion. Archaeologists divide this enormous span of time into several different periods each with their own characteristics:
Palaeolithic (up to c. 10,000 BC)
This period stretches back millions of years into the past. Its most recent part; the Upper Palaeolithic dates from c. 50,000 years ago and is marked by the appearance of anatomically modern humans in Europe and is dominated by the most recent Ice Age in which Dartmoor was subject to tundra conditions. There is little sign of a human presence on Dartmoor at this time, although an early human fossil dating to this period has been recovered from Kent’s Cavern near Torquay.
Mesolithic (c. 10,000 - 4,000 BC)
Rapid warming of the climate following the end of the Ice Age lead, over the course of a few thousand years to the spread of forests over Dartmoor. Humans, living in small bands exploited these environments for food although they left little physical trace except for the stone tools they used and the waste from their manufacture.
Neolithic (c. 4,000 – 2,500 BC)
Several new developments mark the Neolithic, the most important of which is the adoption of farming by human communities. Although this included the beginning of the process of tree clearance which has led to the evolution of the moors as we see them today, the most obvious evidence left by the people of this time are their ceremonial monuments. These include the tombs in which the dead were buried communally, such as that at Spinster’s Rock, but also the two stone-walled enclosures which surround the Dewerstone and White Tor on the western side of Dartmoor.