Carbon is of prehistoric knowledge as diamond as well as graphite. That diamonds were known at least as early as 1200 B.C. seems probable according to ancient Hindu writings. The earliest authentic reference to the diamond is ascribed to one Manilius near the First Century of our era. The name diamond derives from a corruption of the Greek word adamas "the invincible".

The first recognition of graphite is obscured in antiquity. It was confused with other minerals of similar appearance, chiefly molydenite (MoS2). One name for graphite is plumbago, like lead; and until modern times it was thought to contain lead. Scheele, in 1779, demonstrated that graphite oxidized to carbon dioxide providing its chemical constitution. The name graphite, which comes from the Greek verb graphain, "to write", originated with Werner in 1789.

Carbon as a reduction agent in the making of iron and other metals is also of prehistoric origin. Not until modern times, however, was the identity and role of carbon in such processes established and completely understood.