Global Prehistory

30,000 – 500 B.C.E.

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Paleolithic Art: 40,000-8,000 BCE in the Near East
"Old Stone Age" 40,000-4,000 BCE in Europe

  • Hunter-Gatherers, Nomadic

Neolithic Art:
8,000- 3,000 BCE in the Near East
"New Stone Age" 4,000- 2,000 BCE in Europe

  • Cultivated, raised livestock, organized settlements

[photo courtesy of]

Essential Understanding #1: Prehistoric art existed before writing.

Essential Knowledge:

  • Human behavior and expression was influenced by the changing environments in which they lived.
  • The earliest peoples were small groups of hunter-gatherers, whose paramount concern was sheer survival, resulting in the creation of practical objects.
  • People established many artistic media, from the first fired ceramics (in Asia), to painting and incised graphic designs (primarily on rock surfaces), sculpture (notably female and animal figurines), and architecture (stone megalithic installations).
  • Ritual and symbolic works perhaps intended to encourage the availability of flora and fauna food sources, objects often made with natural materials like bone or clay and cave art indicating strong tradition of rituals.

Essential Understanding #2: The oldest objects are African or Asian.

  • Prehistoric art is concerned with cosmic phenomena as well as down-to-earth concerns.
  • Human behavior is charted in the earliest art works.
  • Ceramics are first produced in Asia.
  • The people of the Pacific are migrants from Asia, who bring ceramic making techniques with them.
  • European cave paintings indicate a strong tradition of rituals.
  • Early American objects use natural materials, like bone or clay, to create ritual objects.

ESSENTIAL UNDERSTANDING #3: Prehistoric art is best understood as an interdisciplinary activity.

  • Scientific dating of objects has shed light on the use of prehistoric objects.
  • Archaeology increases our understanding of prehistoric art.
  • Basic art historical methods can be used to understand prehistoric art, but our knowledge increases with findings made in other fields.


Paleolithic works of art have the power to amaze and intrigue viewers in the modern world even though so little is known about their original intention, creation or meaning. The creative impulse exists with the earliest of human endeavors, as is evidenced by the cave paintings from Lascaux and sculptures such as the anthropomorphic stele. The first type of construction, the post-and-lintel method, was developed during the Neolithic period to build monumental structures like Stonehenge.