The novel has a longer history than people expect. How long, exactly, is a bit more complicated to answer because then you have to start defining exactly what a novel is in terms of length, style, and structure.
We’ve clearly been telling stories in prose for millennia but even if we restrict ourselves to something more specifically novelistic in terms of structure and style then we’re still talking about more than a thousand years.
This is something we’ve clearly been doing for a while.
Despite this extended history, prose never really took off as a method for telling long stories. It dominated non-fiction, philosophy, and theological studies, sure, and it was the primary form of telling really short stories like fairy tales, fables, and ghost stories.
But when it came to telling longer interconnected stories poetry was what most storytellers reached for: Gilgamesh; Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey; Ovid’s Metamorphoses; Virgil’s Aeneid; Beowulf; Poetic Edda; Dante’s Divine Comedy; Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso; Milton’s Paradise Lost; Byron’s Don Juan; Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin.
Prose stories and novels existed but they have been in the storytelling minority for most of their history—even many of the exceptions relied heavily on poetry. Most of The Canterbury Tales are in verse. Even the Prose Edda was written and presented as a textbook for poets—it isn’t strictly speaking intended to be a prose retelling of the Norse myths. It was a Christian-era explanation of norse myths so that contemporary poets could read and use the metaphors, idioms, and similes that were based on those old myths. Drama and poetry ruled the storytelling roost.
(On a tangental note: what the Prose Edda omits, elides, and adds is just as interesting as the retelling itself. If you compare the Poetic to the Prose Edda, it seems clear that Snorri Sturluson adjusted the myths a bit to suit the more Christian culture of his day. For example, you can read the Poetic Edda as saying that Freyja ruled over the armies of Valhalla with Odin—that she, as the viking feminine ideal, was a lot more warlike than the Christian retellings made her out to be. Make love AND war, instead of make love, not war. The idea that the viking goddess of love would be a passionate general appeals to me.)
It wasn’t until moveable type became the norm that the novel began to make headway and even then poets like Byron and Pushkin dominated the scene with what were essentially novels in verse.
It isn’t that printed poetry doesn’t work. It does. It’s that poetry isn’t reliant on print, as a form it works just as well orally as it does printed.
Oral transmission coupled with the mnemonic aids of verse makes poetry less dependent on print for distribution and authorship.
Novels needed print to thrive as a medium.
Print distribution put novel distribution and dissemination on an even level with poetry. But even with a more even playing field it took the novel many years to reach parity and then surpass poetry as the western world’s primary form of written storytelling.