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Pre-warp civilization was a term used by the Federation to define any society that had not yet discovered and utilized faster-than-light space travel like the warp drive. Pre-warp cultures could range in technology level from extremely primitive to that of Earth in the mid-21st century. (Star Trek Into Darkness; Star Trek: First Contact; TOS: "The Omega Glory")
The Prime Directive of the Federation interdicted any disturbance of such civilizations, including any form of contact, until a culture had independently proven its warp-capability. Otherwise, any involvement in the development of pre-warp societies could result in the contamination of their culture, thereby altering their natural evolution. Usually pre-warp civilizations were limited to their homeworld. However, their technical abilities could be sophisticated enough to expand throughout their star system. (ENT: "Dear Doctor"; Star Trek: Insurrection)
The Federation did allow limited covert research to be conducted on pre-warp civilizations, usually by means of a duck blind. (TNG: "Who Watches The Watchers"; Star Trek: Insurrection) Observers could also be placed amongst a civilization as a prelude to first contact. (TNG: "First Contact")