More specifically a name is a label for a specific person, place or thing. These are sometimes called proper names. The rest of this article deals with names for people (personal names), but see place names and brand names for other types of proper names.
It is not known when humans first began using names though the practice is certainly very old, probably extending far into prehistory. Our most ancient written texts and mythologies contain examples of names. Names almost always have an etymological meaning, implying that they were originally words.
Although all cultures use names, naming customs vary greatly from people to people. In some cases they are very simple, such as those of many Indonesians who use just a single name. On the other hand, traditional Chinese naming practices were very complex. Chinese males were given different names at various points in their lives, in addition to a family name and sometimes a generation name.
Names serve several purposes. Most importantly they help distinguish us from one another. Imagine how difficult it would be to refer to people if we did not use names. Instead of saying "Bob" one would have to say something like "the short red-headed man who lives down the street". Some names carry information about our roots, such as family or clan names, which are generally inherited. Names can serve other purposes as well, such as the Chinese generation name which identifies the generation of the bearer, or the names used by some African cultures which describe the order in which siblings were born.