- "In the Dawn Age of Westeros, before the coming of man, and the raising of castles and cities, there were only the Children of the Forest."
- ―Bran Stark
The Dawn Age is an epoch in the history of the Known World. It was the first historical epoch, ending roughly 8,000 years ago and extending backwards into the mists of time before the age of mankind. Little information about it has survived, even in legends.
Humans did not live in the Westeros at all for much of the Dawn Age. For centuries beyond count, the continent was only inhabited by two non-human races: the Children of the Forest and the giants. The Children were a small people skilled in magic, wielding weapons made of wood, bone, and dragonglass (obsidian) - which they used to make razor-sharp arrowheads and daggers. They were later called the "Children of the Forest" by humans, because when full-grown they were no taller than a human child in height, and they preferred to live in the deep forests and caves, building hidden villages in the trees. The Children worshiped deities known as the Old Gods of the Forest - the countless and unnamed spirits of every tree, rock, and stream.
According to legend, about 12,000 years ago the First Men migrated to Westeros - so-called because they were the first humans to settle in the continent. The First Men crossed over from Essos using a land-bridge, known as the Arm of Dorne, in the southeastern corner of Westeros. They settled the plains and cut down forests for timber and to clear new land. This led them into conflict with the indigenous Children of the Forest, particularly when they cut down the Weirwood trees that the Children carved faces into, known as heart trees, which were sacred to the Old Gods.
The Wars of the First Men and the Children of the Forest lasted for millennia. The Children were very woodcrafty, fierce fighters, and skilled in magical powers, but the First Men were more numerous, physically larger and stronger, possessed warriors mounted on horses, and introduced weapons made of bronze (which, while not as sharp as dragonglass, is much sturdier for longswords and armor). In desperation, the wise men of the Children (known as Greenseers) used their magical powers to call up the hammer of the waters; the oceans rose up and broke the Arm of Dorne, destroying the land bridge between Westeros and Essos, leaving an island chain in which the later eras is known as the Stepstones. It was too late, however, as the First Men already had a firm foothold in southern Westeros. Later, the Children attempted to call up the hammer of the waters again to keep the First Men from passing into the North, but they were only partially successful, managing to flood the narrow isthmus leading into the North known as the Neck and turning it into a near-impassable swampland.
Even so, while the Children were gradually losing, at this display of their powers wiser leaders prevailed among both sides, who were tired of the bloodshed. About 10,000 years ago, the leaders of the First Men and the Children of the Forest came together at the Isle of Faces in the center of Gods Eye Lake to make a lasting peace between the two races, subsequently known as "The Pact". In following centuries, the First Men and the Children often became staunch allies, and the First Men even adopted the religion of the Children, worshiping the Old Gods at the faces carved in weirwood trees. To show an alliance, every weirwood tree on the Isle of Faces was carved with a face.
The signing of the Pact signified the end of the Dawn Age in Westeros. The new era that began after it was known as the Age of Heroes, during which - about 8,000 years ago, and 2,000 years after the signing of the Pact - the Long Night fell upon the world, and the White Walkers rode out of the unmapped Lands of Always Winter in the far north, raising an army of the dead to wage war upon the living.
In the books
Practically nothing is known about the events surrounding the Dawn Age. Even the events from the Age of Heroes - including the Long Night, defeat of the White Walkers, and the raising of the Wall - are considered to be mostly the stuff of legends, and the Dawn Age is thousands of years older than even that era. The Age of Heroes later ended 6,000 years ago with the Andal Invasion of Westeros, and the Andals introduced the first true writing system to Westeros. Everything that came before that was primarily dependent on oral tradition. Even so, the First Men in the Age of Heroes had at least possessed a basic rune system for marking graves, and produced ruins of castles and settlements which give some validation of the oral traditions and folklore. In contrast, there is virtually no evidence regarding the histories from the Dawn Age, even the oral tradition is often vague and cursory at best - much knowledge regarding the cultures or civilizations that existed during these "lost eras of before" was destroyed during the the cataclysm of the Long Night.
The peoples living in Essos and other lands don't exactly use the same reckoning of historical epochs and eras, though they also loosely speak of "the Dawn Age" as the earliest period of human history. Because Essos did not have a corresponding Pact with the Children of the Forest from Westeros or an Andal Invasion, they didn't have a corresponding "Age of Heroes". The "Dawn Age" in Essos is generally taken to mean everything before the Long Night 8,000 years ago - which was a global cataclysm and also affected Essos, from the region of the modern Free Cities to Yi Ti in the distant east. Rhoynar legend says that the Rhoyne River froze as far south as its tributary the Selhoru River (about as far south as the Stepstones). These were generally followed by the period when the Ghiscari Empire was the dominant power in Essos (west of the Bone Mountains and not including Yi Ti, about 8,000 to 5,000 years ago), and then the period when the Valyrian Freehold used its dragons to conquer most of Essos, half the known world (5,000 to about 400 years ago), and finally the current era after the Doom of Valyria four centuries ago.
Humans seem to have come to Westeros from Essos, but where humans came from before that is pure speculation, fading into various religious or legendary explanations. Several different known civilizations in Essos have rival claims to be the eldest, though if they were they must have been in their infancy during the Dawn Age, before the Long Night 8,000 years ago. The Valyrians were comparatively young, a society of simple shepherds until they discovered dragons in the volcanoes around their homeland about 6,000-5,000 years ago, so they did not originate as far back as the Dawn Age. Those with particular claims to extending back to the Dawn Age are Yi Ti, Qarth, and the Ghiscari Empire.
Of these, only the Ghiscari Empire possessed a written record extending far back enough to serve as reliable proof that it was eldest, and that originated in the Dawn Age. Nonetheless it was still "young" when the disaster struck. Yi Ti claims that it had an even older empire for many thousands of years before that, but which was destroyed during the Long Night and had to be rebuilt (the tales of this Dawn Empire are fabulous and apparently mostly legend, filled with emperors who lived for centuries and warred with gods). Still, only a few generations separated the confirmed founding of both, Old Ghis slightly before the Long Night and Yi Ti slightly after. Ultimately the Ghiscari Empire was wiped out by the Valyrian Freehold 5,000 years ago, however, while the Golden Empire of Yi Ti has had a continuous run of civilization for the past 8,000 years since the Long Night.
The World of Ice and Fire sourcebook (2014) revealed only a little more of the Dawn Age, as most knowledge about it is simply forgotten or was never recorded, and only exists as a scrap of legend here or there. In ancient times, the sea level used to be much higher than it is now: the years-long winters seem to have trapped enough water as ice that it led to severe desertification in certain areas, and expanding coastlines. The Sea of Dorne that separates Dorne itself from the Stormlands used to be a large region of low-lying salt marshes, but they were later completely flooded by the ocean. The large kingdom known as the Patrimony of Hyrkoon once flourished in plains northwest of Yi Ti, but situated on the eastern leeward side of the bones, in later eras the lands dried out and turned into the Great Sand Sea; all that remains of Hyrkoon are its colony-cities to the west, founded as fortresses to guard the mountain passes.
Civilization as the world knows it first began in the vast plains and flat river valleys of central Essos, in the western portion of what would later become known as the Dothraki Sea - though the Dothraki themselves are a younger race that only crossed west over the Bone Mountains thousands of years after the Dawn Age. The few legends of this time say that there was once a vast inland sea in the heart of the grasslands, known as the Silver Sea. The coasts and river valleys around this inland sea are where the first known humans shifted from being hunter-gatherers to practicing agriculture. They came to be ruled by the legendary (if not mythical) "Fisher Queens", a matrilineal line who ruled from a large floating palace of wood that gradually made its way around the coasts of the Silver Sea. After many generations the Fisher Queens eventually died out, but their domains were surrounded by other tribes and peoples, including quite probably the ancestors of the First Men, the Andals, and the Rhoynar. Other peoples nearby included the Hairy Men, the lost city of Lyber, the Cymmeri, the Gipps, the Zoqora, the Qaathi, and the Sarnori. At least some of them were in contact with the Fisher Queens and may have been under their hegemony, or at least their sphere of influence.
Over the eons, the great inland Silver Sea which had once seen the dawn of civilization with the Fisher Queens mostly dried up. Today all that is left is a very small body of water directly north from Meereen, across hundreds of miles of plains. The Fisher Queens and these other early peoples that settled around the inland sea may have been the first who were "civilized" in the sense that they built towns and cities and carried out agriculture, though they were not apparently not full "civilizations" in the sense of the Ghiscari Empire or Yi Ti: unlike these others, they do not seem to have developed a writing system yet to record histories (i.e. like the real-life very earliest Bronze Age cultures) - assuming that the Fisher Queens ever really existed.
These ancient peoples were very diverse in culture and also ethnicity, migrating from whatever unknown lands they used to live in during the countless centuries before. The Hairy Men were apparently the ancestors of the Ibbenese. The people of Lyber had two cults, one which worshiped a spider goddess and another that worshiped a serpent god, whose followers constantly fought each other. The Cymmeri were long-legged and are believed to have been the first known people to forge iron (though the Rhoynar were also one of the earliest to discover iron forging). The Cymmeri lived in hill kingdoms, perhaps the southern foothills of the Painted Mountains. The Gipps carried wicker shields made out of the tallgrass, and stiffened their hair with lime. The Zoqora were a brown-skinned and white-haired people who rode to war in chariots. The Qaathi were the ancestors of the Qartheen, and lived in city-states to the southeast. These were the most significant of the peoples from the Dawn Age, though there may have been many dozens more, in their own corners of the lands, who are no longer remembered.
The greatest of the peoples around the Silver Sea in the Dawn Age, however, were the Sarnori. In their own language they called themselves the Tagaez Fen, which means "Tall Men". The Sarnori were brown-skinned and dark haired, tall in stature and long-limbed, and they rode chariots into battle (they may have been akin to the Zoqora, who also rode chariots and were brown-skinned, though the Zoqora had white hair). In the aftermath of the collapse of the Fisher Queens, the Sarnori conquered and assimilated the Cymmeri, the Gipps, and the Zoqora. According to legend the Sarnori were led by their hero-king Huzhor Amai the Amazing, son of the last of the Fisher Queens, who took to wife the daughters of the greatest kings and lords of the Cymmeri, Gipps, and Zoqora, and had descendants by each of them (it isn't clear if Huzhor Amai was a real person, or a conglomeration by oral tradition of several kings, and his harem of wives a metaphor for how the Sarnori absorbed these other peoples). Meanwhile, the expansion and consolidation of the Sarnori caused the other peoples living on the fringes of the plains to spiral outwards: this may have been what caused the First Men to migrate to Westeros, while the ancestors of the Andals and Rhoynar were pushed west, into the region of the later Free Cities (the Andals in the north, the Rhoynar in the south). The remnants of the Hairy Men were wiped out, or apparently later moved to the westernmost coast which later became Andalos - centuries later to be wiped out by the Andals when they migrated to Andalos from the Axe peninsula to the north, until in the present day their descendants the Ibbenese only live on the large frozen island Ib, to the northeast of the Dothraki Sea. Thousands of years later, the rise of Valyria made the wary Andals start migrating to Westeros 6,000 years ago, and when later the Valyrians at their height defeated the Rhoynar, their refugees fled to Dorne 1,000 years ago.
The Qaathi to the southeast also fought extensively with the Sarnori in ancient times, but their city-states tended to lose more than they won, and were gradually pushed further and further southeast into increasingly poor lands. The overall drying out of the lands in subsequent millennia led to desertification in this region as well as time went on, furthering their decline. They did their best to make new colony-cities there but even with extensive irrigation projects they were already well on the way to internal collapse when the Doom of Valyria struck four centuries ago: their weakened city-states east of Slaver's Bay had no chance of withstanding the Dothraki hordes, who wiped them out. Without their irrigation projects what little life the region could sustain evaporated, truly turning that region into the Red Waste. One colony city survived, however, on the coast on the opposite side of the deserts, which the Dothraki would not cross: Qarth. Oddly, while the other Qaathi colonies were all wiped out after the Doom, the loss of Valyrian fleets patrolling the Summer Sea led to a resurgence for Qarth: with a stranglehold on the narrow straits commanding all west-east traffic into the Jade Sea and to the riches of Yi Ti, the Qartheen dominated the west-east maritime trade, and became fabulously wealthy - though they are still an odd remnant of what the much larger Qaathi people used to be.
After the Long Night and the end of the Dawn Age in Essos eight thousand years ago, civilization flowered across the continent. The Sarnori established a loose confederation of city-states known as the "Kingdom of Sarnor", even though they had their own kings, loosely under one high-king. Their power balanced out with other rising empires such as the mighty Ghiscari Empire which had arisen to the southeast, but which was spreading northwards from the coast. Long afterwards, the Valyrian Freehold rose about 5,000 years ago. Sarnor extended from north of the Valyrians in the west to north of the Ghiscari in the east, and became drawn into the series of five great wars between them.
Other more far-flung regions developed sophisticated civilizations at their own pace. The Summer Islands, separated from both Westeros and Essos by vast stretches of the Summer Sea, developed large cities and trading fleets without outside contact. Indeed, they had no knowledge of the outside world for many millennia: ancient maps from their temples show only the Summer Islands, surrounded by a world-encompassing ocean, assuming they were the only people in existence. During the height of the Ghiscari Empire (between 8,000 and 5,000 years ago), a Ghiscari trade ship blown off course by a storm landed on one of the islands, making them aware of the outside world.