In the history of art, prehistoric art is all art produced in preliterate, prehistorical cultures beginning somewhere in very late geological history, and generally continuing until that culture either develops writing or other methods of record-keeping, or makes significant contact with another culture that has, and that makes some record of major historical events. At this point ancient art begins, for the older literate cultures. The end-date for what is covered by the term thus varies greatly between different parts of the world.
The earliest human artifacts showing evidence of workmanship with an artistic purpose are the subject of some debate. It is clear that such workmanship existed by 40,000 years ago in the Upper Paleolithic era, although it is quite possible that it began earlier. Engraved shells created by homo erectus dating as far back as 500,000 years ago have been found, although experts disagree on whether these engravings can be properly classified as ‘art’. From the Upper Palaeolithic through to the Mesolithic, cave paintings and portable art such as figurines and beads predominated, with decorative figured workings also seen on some utilitarian objects. In the Neolithic evidence of early pottery appeared, as did sculpture and the construction of megaliths. Early rock art also first appeared during this period. The advent of metalworking in the Bronze Age brought additional media available for use in making art, an increase in stylistic diversity, and the creation of objects that did not have any obvious function other than art. It also saw the development in some areas of artisans, a class of people specializing in the production of art, as well as early writing systems. By the Iron Age, civilizations with writing had arisen from Ancient Egypt to Ancient China.
Many indigenous peoples from around the world continued to produce artistic works distinctive to their geographic area and culture, until exploration and commerce brought record-keeping methods to them. Some cultures, notably the Maya civilization, independently developed writing during the time they flourished, which was then later lost. These cultures may be classified as prehistoric, especially if their writing systems have not been deciphered.
Lower and Middle Paleolithic
The earliest undisputed art originated with the Aurignacian archaeological culture in the Upper Paleolithic. However, there is some evidence that the preference for the aesthetic emerged in the Middle Paleolithic, from 100,000 to 50,000 years ago. Some archaeologists have interpreted certain Middle Paleolithic artifacts as early examples of artistic expression. The symmetry of artifacts, evidence of attention to the detail of tool shape, has led some investigators to conceive of Acheulean hand axes and especially laurel points as having been produced with a degree of artistic expression.
Similarly, a zig-zag etching made with a shark tooth on a freshwater clam-shell around 500,000 years ago (i.e. well into the Lower Paleolithic), associated with Homo erectus, was proposed as the earliest evidence of artistic activity in 2014.
There are other claims of Middle Paleolithic sculpture, dubbed the “Venus of Tan-Tan” (before 300 kya) and the “Venus of Berekhat Ram” (250 kya). In 2002 in Blombos cave, situated in South Africa, stones were discovered engraved with grid or cross-hatch patterns, dated to some 70,000 years ago. This suggested to some researchers that early Homo sapiens were capable of abstraction and production of abstract art or symbolic art. Several archaeologists including Richard Klein are hesitant to accept the Blombos caves as the first example of actual art.
The oldest undisputed works of figurative art were found in the Schwäbische Alb, Baden-Württemberg, Germany. The earliest of these, the Venus figurine known as the Venus of Hohle Fels and the Lion-man figurine, date to some 40,000 years ago.
Further depictional art from the Upper Palaeolithic period (broadly 40,000 to 10,000 years ago) includes cave painting (e.g., those at Chauvet, Altamira, Pech Merle, Arcy-sur-Cure and Lascaux) and portable art: Venus figurines like the Venus of Willendorf, as well as animal carvings like the Swimming Reindeer, Wolverine pendant of Les Eyzies, and several of the objects known as bâtons de commandement.
Paintings in Pettakere cave on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi are up to 40,000 years old, a similar date to the oldest European cave art, which may suggest an older common origin for this type of art, perhaps in Africa.
Monumental open-air art in Europe from this period includes the rock-art at Côa Valley and Mazouco in Portugal, Domingo García and Siega Verde in Spain, and Rocher gravé de Fornols (fr) in France.
A cave at Turobong in South Korea containing human remains has been found to contain carved deer bones and depictions of deer that may be as much as 40,000 years old. Petroglyphs of deer or reindeer found at Sokchang-ri may also date to the Upper Paleolithic. Potsherds in a style reminiscent of early Japanese work have been found at Kosan-ri on Jeju island, which, due to lower sea levels at the time, would have been accessible from Japan.
The oldest petroglyphs are dated to approximately the Mesolithic and late Upper Paleolithic boundary, about 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. The earliest undisputed African rock art dates back about 10,000 years. The first naturalistic paintings of humans found in Africa date back about 8,000 years apparently originating in the Nile River valley, spread as far west as Mali about 10,000 years ago. Noted sites containing early art include Tassili n’Ajjer in southern Algeria, Tadrart Acacus in Libya (A Unesco World Heritage site), and the Tibesti Mountains in northern Chad. Rock carvings at the Wonderwerk Cave in South Africa have been dated to this age. Contentious dates as far back as 29,000 years have been obtained at a site in Tanzania. A site at the Apollo 11 Cave complex in Namibia has been dated to 27,000 years.
Göbekli Tepe in Turkey has circles of massive T-shaped stone pillars dating back to the 10th–8th millennium BCE; the world’s oldest known megaliths. Many of the pillars are decorated with abstract, enigmatic pictograms and carved animal reliefs.
Asia was the cradle for several significant civilizations, most notably those of China and South Asia. The prehistory of eastern Asia is especially interesting, as the relatively early introduction of writing and historical record-keeping in China has a notable impact on the immediately surrounding cultures and geographic areas. Little of the very rich traditions of the art of Mesopotamia counts as prehistoric, as writing was introduced so early there, but neighbouring cultures such as Urartu, Luristan and Persia had significant and complex artistic traditions.
The earliest Indian paintings were the rock paintings of prehistoric times, the petroglyphs as found in places like the Rock Shelters of Bhimbetka, and some of them are older than 5500 BC. The Indus Valley civilization produced fine small cylinder seals and sculptures, and may have been literate, but after its collapse there are relatively few artistic remains until the literate period, probably as perishable materials were used.
Prehistoric artwork such as painted pottery in Neolithic China can be traced back to the Yangshao culture and Longshan culture of the Yellow River valley. During China’s Bronze Age, Chinese of the ancient Shang Dynasty and Zhou Dynasty produced multitudes of Chinese ritual bronzes, which are elaborate versions of ordinary vessels and other objects used in rituals of ancestor veneration, decorated with taotie motifs and by the late Shang Chinese bronze inscriptions. Discoveries in 1987 in Sanxingdui in central China revealed a previously unknown pre-literate Bronze Age culture whose artefacts included spectacular very large bronze figures (example left), and which appeared culturally very different from the contemporary late Shang, which has always formed part of the account of the continuous tradition of Chinese culture.
According to archeological evidence, the Jōmon people in ancient Japan were among the first to develop pottery, dated from the 11th millennium BCE. With growing sophistication, the Jōmon created patterns by impressing the wet clay with braided or unbraided cord and sticks.
The earliest examples of Korean art consist of Stone Age works dating from 3000 BCE. These mainly consist of votive sculptures, although petroglyphs have also been recently rediscovered. Rock arts, elaborate stone tools, and potteries were also prevalent.
Clearer evidence of culture emerges in the late Neolithic, known in Korea as the Jeulmun pottery period, with pottery similar to that found in the adjacent regions of China, decorated with Z-shaped patterns. The earliest Neolithic sites with pottery remains, for example Osan-ri, date to 6000–4500 BCE. This pottery is characterized by comb patterning, with the pot frequently having a pointed base. Ornaments from this time include masks made of shell, with notable finds at Tongsam-dong, Osan-ri, and Sinam-ri. Hand-shaped clay figurines have been found at Nongpo-dong.
During the Mumun pottery period, roughly between 1500 BCE and 300 BCE, agriculture expanded, and evidence of larger-scale political structures became apparent, as villages grew and some burials became more elaborate. Megalithic tombs and dolmens throughout Korea date to this time. The pottery of the time is in a distinctive undecorated style. Many of these changes in style may have occurred due to immigration of new peoples from the north, although this is a subject of debate. At a number of sites in southern Korea there are rock art panels that are thought to date from this period, mainly for stylistic reasons.
Superb samples of Steppes art – mostly golden jewellery and trappings for horse – are found over a vast expanses of land stretching from Hungary to Mongolia. Dating from the period between the 7th and 3rd centuries BCE, the objects are usually diminutive, as may be expected from nomadic people always on the move. Art of the steppes is primarily an animal art, i.e., combat scenes involving several animals (real or imaginary) or single animal figures (such as golden stags) predominate. The best known of the various peoples involved are the Scythians, at the European end of the steppe, who were especially likely to bury gold items.
The Ain Sakhri Lovers from modern Israel, is a small Natufian carving in calcite, from about 9,000 BCE. Around the same time, the extraordinary site of Göbekli Tepe in eastern Turkey was begun. During the first phase, belonging to the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A (PPNA), circles of massive but neatly shaped T-shaped stone pillars were erected – the world’s oldest known megaliths. More than 200 pillars in about 20 circles are currently known through geophysical surveys. Each pillar has a height of up to 6 m (20 ft) and weighs up to 10 tons. They are fitted into sockets that were hewn out of the bedrock. In the second phase, belonging to the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (PPNB), the erected pillars are smaller and stood in rectangular rooms with floors of polished lime. On the smoothed surfaces of the pillars there are reliefs of animals, abstract patterns, and some human figures.
The Art of the Upper Paleolithic includes carvings on antler and bone, especially of animals, as well as the so-called Venus figurines and cave paintings, discussed above. Despite a warmer climate, the Mesolithic period undoubtedly shows a falling-off from the heights of the preceding period. Rock art is found in Scandinavia and northern Russia, and around the Mediterranean in eastern Spain and the earliest of the Rock Drawings in Valcamonica in northern Italy, but not in between these areas. Examples of portable art include painted pebbles from the Azilian culture which succeeded the Magdalenian, and patterns on utilitarian objects, like the paddles from Tybrind Vig, Denmark. The Mesolithic statues of Lepenski Vir at the Iron Gate, Serbia date to the 7th millennium BCE and represent either humans or mixtures of humans and fish. Simple pottery began to develop in various places, even in the absence of farming.
Compared to the preceding Upper Paleolithic and the following Neolithic, there is rather less surviving art from the Mesolithic. The Rock art of the Iberian Mediterranean Basin, which probably spreads across from the Upper Paleolithic, is a widespread phenomenon, much less well known than the cave-paintings of the Upper Paleolithic, with which it makes an interesting contrast. The sites are now mostly cliff faces in the open air, and the subjects are now mostly human rather than animal, with large groups of small figures; there are 45 figures at Roca dels Moros. Clothing is shown, and scenes of dancing, fighting, hunting and food-gathering. The figures are much smaller than the animals of Paleolithic art, and depicted much more schematically, though often in energetic poses. A few small engraved pendants with suspension holes and simple engraved designs are known, some from northern Europe in amber, and one from Starr Carr in Britain in shale.
The rock art in the Urals appears to show similar changes after the Paleolithic, and the wooden Shigir Idol is a rare survival of what may well have been a very common material for sculpture. It is a plank of larch carved with geometric motifs, but topped with a human head. Now in fragments, it would apparently have been over 5 metres tall when made.
In Central Europe, many Neolithic cultures, like Linearbandkeramic, Lengyel and Vinča, produced female (rarely male) and animal statues that can be called art, and elaborate pottery decoration in, for example, the Želiesovce and painted Lengyel style.
Megalithic (i.e., large stone) monuments are found in the Neolithic Era from Malta to Portugal, through France, and across southern England to most of Wales and Ireland. They are also found in northern Germany and Poland, as well as in Egypt in the Sahara desert (at Nabta Playa and other sites). The best preserved of all temples and the oldest free standing structures are the Megalithic Temples of Malta. They start in the 5th millennium BC, though some authors speculate on Mesolithic roots. One of the best-known prehistoric sites is Stonehenge, part of the Stonehenge World Heritage Site which contains hundreds of monuments and archaeological sites. Monuments have been found throughout most of Western and Northern Europe, notably at Carnac, France.
During the 3rd millennium BCE,the Bronze Age began in Europe, bringing with it a new medium for art. The increased efficiency of bronze tools also meant an increase in productivity, which led to a surplus — the first step in the creation of a class of artisans. Because of the increased wealth of society, luxury goods began to be created, especially decorated weapons.
Examples include ceremonial bronze helmets, ornamental ax-heads and swords, elaborate instruments such as lurer, and other ceremonial objects without a practical purpose, such as the oversize Oxborough Dirk. Special objects were made in gold; many more gold objects have survived from Western and Central Europe than from the Iron Age, many mysterious and strange objects ranging from lunulas, apparently an Irish speciality, the Mold Cape and Golden hats. Pottery from Central Europe can be elaborately shaped and decorated. Rock art, showing scenes from the religious rituals have been found in many areas, for example in Bohuslän, Sweden and the Val Camonica in northern Italy.
In the Mediterranean, the Minoan civilization was highly developed, with palace complexes from which sections of frescos have been excavated. Contemporary Ancient Egyptian art and that of other advanced Near Eastern cultures can no longer be treated as “prehistoric”.
The Iron Age saw the development of anthropomorphic sculptures, such as the warrior of Hirschlanden, and the statue from the Glauberg, Germany. Hallstatt artists in the early Iron Age favored geometric, abstract designs perhaps influenced by trade links with the Classical world.
The more elaborate and curvilinear La Tène style developed in Europe in the later Iron Age from a centre in the Rhine valley but it soon spread across the continent. The rich chieftain classes appear to have encouraged ostentation and Classical influences such as bronze drinking vessels attest to a new fashion for wine drinking. Communal eating and drinking were an important part of Celtic society and culture and much of their art was often expressed through plates, knives, cauldrons and cups. Horse tack and weaponry were also decorated. Mythical animals were a common motif along with religious and natural subjects and their depiction is a mix between the naturalistic and the stylized. Megalithic art was still sometimes practiced, examples include the carved limestone pillars of the sanctuary at Entremont in modern-day France. Personal adornment included torc necklaces whilst the introduction of coinage provided a further opportunity for artistic expression. The coins of this period are derivatives of Greek and Roman types, but showing the more exuberant Celtic artistic style.
The famous late 4th century BCE Waldalgesheim chariot burial in the Rhineland produced many fine examples of La Tène art including a bronze flagon and bronze plaques with repoussé human figures. Many pieces had curvy, organic styles though to be derived from Classical tendril patterns.
In much of western Europe elements of this artistic style can be discerned surviving in the art and architecture of the Roman colonies. In particular in Britain and Ireland there is a tenuous continuity through the Roman period, enabling Celtic motifs to resurface with new vigour in the Christian Insular art from the 6th century onwards.
The sophisticated Etruscan culture developed from the 9th to 2nd centuries, with considerable influence from the Greeks, before finally being absorbed by the Romans. By the end of the period they had developed writing, but early Etruscan art can be called prehistoric.
Ancient Egypt falls outside the scope of this article; it had a close relationship with the Sudan in particular, known in this period as Nubia, where there were advanced cultures from the 4th millennium BCE, such as the “A-Group”, “C-Group”, and the Kingdom of Kush.
There is a significant body of rock painting in the region around Matobo National Park of Zimbabwe dating from as early as 6000 BCE to 500 CE.
Horn of Africa
Laas Geel is a complex of caves and rock shelters in northwestern Somalia. Famous for their rock art, the caves are located in a rural area on the outskirts of Hargeisa. They contain some of the earliest known cave paintings in the Horn of Africa, many of which depict pastoral scenes. Laas Geel’s rock art is estimated to date back to somewhere between 9,000–8,000 and 3,000 BCE.
In 2008, archaeologists also announced the discovery of cave paintings in Somalia’s northern Dhambalin region, which the researchers suggest includes one of the earliest known depictions of a hunter on horseback. The rock art is in the Ethiopian-Arabian style, dated to 1000 to 3000 BCE.
Works of the Bubalus period span the Sahara, with the finest work, carvings of naturalistically depicted megafauna, concentrated in the central highlands. The Round Head Period is dominated by paintings of strangely shaped human forms, and few animals, suggesting the artists were foragers. These works are largely limited to Tassili n’Ajjer and the Tadrart Acacus. Toward the end of the period, images of domesticated animals, as well as decorative clothing and headdresses appear. Pastoral Period art was more focused on domestic scenes, including herding and dancing. The quality of artwork declined, as figures became more simplified.
Belonging in the Lithic stage, the oldest known art in the Americas is the Vero Beach bone, possibly a mammoth bone, etched with a profile of walking mammoth that dates back to 11,000 BCE. The oldest known painted object in the Americas is the Cooper Bison Skull from 10,900–10,200 BCE.
The ancient Olmec “Bird Vessel” and bowl, both ceramic and dating to circa 1000 BC as well as other ceramics were produced in kilns capable of exceeding approximately 900 °C. The only other prehistoric culture known to have achieved such high temperatures is that of Ancient Egypt.
Lithic age art in South America includes Monte Alegre culture rock paintings created at Caverna da Pedra Pintada dating back to 9250–8550 BCE. Guitarrero Cave in Peru has the earliest known textiles in South America, dating to 8000 BCE.
Lithic and preceramic periods
Peru, including an area of the central Andes stretching from Ecuador to northern Chile, has a rich cultural history, with evidence of human habitation dating to roughly 10,000 BCE. Prior to the emergence of ceramics in this region around 1850 BCE, cave paintings and beads have been found. These finds include rock paintings that controversially date as far back as 9500 BCE in the Toquepala Caves. Burial sites in Peru like one at Telarmachay as old as 8600-7200 BCE contained evidence of ritual burial, with red ocher and bead necklaces.
Initial Period and First Horizon
The Initial Period in Central Andean cultures lasted roughly from 1800 BCE to 900 BCE. Textiles from this time found at Huaca Prieta are of astonishing complexity, including images such as crabs whose claws transform into snakes, and double-headed birds. Many of these images are similar to optical illusions, where which image dominates depends in part on which the viewer chooses to see. Other portable artwork from this time includes decorated mirrors, bone and shell jewelry, and unfired clay female effigies. Public architecture, including works estimated to require the movement of more than 100,000 tons of stone, are to be found at sites like Kotosh, El Paraíso, Peru, and La Galgada (archaeological site). Kotosh, a site in the Andean highlands, is especially noted as the site of the Temple of the Crossed Hands, in which there are two reliefs of crossed forearms, one pair male, one pair female. Also of note is one of South America’s largest ceremonial sites, Sechín Alto. This site’s crowning work is a twelve-story platform, with stones incised with military themes. The architecture and art of the highlands, in particular, laid down the groundwork for the rise of the Chavín culture.
Early Intermediate Period
The Early Intermediate Period lasted from about 200 BCE to 600 CE. Late in the First Horizon, the Chavín culture began to decline, and other cultures, predominantly in the coastal areas, began to develop. The earliest of these was the Paracas culture, centered on the Paracas Peninsula of central Peru. Active from 600 BCE to 175 BCE, their early work clearly shows Chavín influence, but a locally distinctive style and technique developed. It was characterized by technical and time-consuming detail work, visually colorful, and a profusion visual elements. Distinctive technical differences include painting on clay after firing, and embroidery on textiles. One notable find is a mantle that was clearly used for training purposes; it shows obvious indications of experts doing some of the weaving, interspersed with less technically proficient trainee work.
The Middle Horizon lasted from 600 CE to 1000 CE, and was dominated by two cultures: the Huari and the Tiwanaku. The Tiwanaku (also spelled Tiahuanaco) culture arose near Lake Titicaca (on the modern border between Peru and Bolivia), while the Wari culture arose in the southern highlands of Peru. Both cultures appear to have been influenced by the Pukara culture, which was active during the Early Intermediate in between the primary centers of the Wari and Tiwanaku. These cultures both had wide-ranging influence, and shared some common features in their portable art, but their monumental arts were somewhat distinctive.
Late Intermediate Period
Following the decline of the Wari and Tiwanaku, the northern and central coastal areas were somewhat dominated by the Chimú culture, which included notable subcultures like the Lambayeque (or Sicán) and Chancay cultures. To the south, coastal cultures dominated in the Ica region, and there was a significant cultural crossroads at Pachacamac, near Lima. These cultures would dominate from about 1000 CE until the 1460s and 1470s, as the Inca Empire began to take shape and eventually absorbed the geographically smaller nearby cultures.
Chimú and Sicán Cultures
The Chimú culture in particular was responsible for an extremely large number of artworks. Its capital city, Chan Chan, appears to have contained building that appeared to function as museums—they seem to have been used for displaying and preserving artwork. Much of the artwork from Chan Chan in particular has been looted, some by the Spanish after the Spanish conquest. The art from this time at times displays amazing complexity, with “multimedia” works that require artists working together in a diversity of media, including materials believed to have come from as far away as Central America. Items of increasing splendor or value were produced, apparently as the society became increasing stratified. At the same, the quality of some of the work declined, as demand for pieces pushed production rates up and values down.
Late Horizon and Inca culture
This time period represents the era in which the culture of the central Andes is almost completely dominated by the Inca Empire, which began its expansion in 1438. It lasted until the Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire in 1533. The Inca absorbed much technical skill from the cultures they conquered, and disseminated it, along with standard shapes and patterns, throughout their area of influence, which extended from Quito, Ecuador to Santiago, Chile. Inca stonework is notably proficient; giant stones are set so tightly without mortar that a knife blade will not fit in the gap. Many of the Inca’s monumental structures deliberately echoed the natural environment around them; this is particularly evident in some of the structures at Machu Picchu. The Inca laid the city of Cusco in the shape of a puma, with the head of the puma at Sacsayhuaman, a shape that is still discernible in aerial photographs of the city today.
An Inca period tunic
Textiles were widely prized within the empire, in part as they were somewhat more portable in the far-flung empire.
Early ceramics in northern South America
The earliest evidence of decorated pottery in South America is to be found in two places. A variety of sites in the Santarém region of Brazil contain ceramic sherds dating to a period between 5000 and 3000 BCE. Sites in Colombia, at Monsú and San Jacinto contained pottery finds in different styles, and date as far back as 3500 BCE. This is an area of active research and subject to change. The ceramics were decorated with curvilinear incisions. Another ancient site at Puerto Hormiga in the Bolívar Department of Colombia dating to 3100 BCE contained pottery fragments that included figured animals in a style related to later Barrancoid cultural finds in Colombia and Venezuela. Valdivia, Ecuador also has a site dated to roughly 3100 BCE containing decorated fragments, as well as figurines, many represent nude females. The Valdivian style stretched as far south as northern Peru, and may, according to Lavallée, yet yield older artifacts.
Early art in eastern South America
Relatively little is known about the early settlement of much of South America east of the Andes. This is due to the lack of stone (generally required for leaving durable artifacts), and a jungle environment that rapidly recycles organic materials. Beyond the Andean regions, where the inhabitants were more clearly related to the early cultures of Peru, early finds are generally limited to coastal areas and those areas where there are stone outcrops. While there is evidence of human habitation in northern Brazil as early as 8000 BCE, and rock art of unknown (or at best uncertain) age, ceramics appear to be the earliest artistic artifacts. The Mina civilization of Brazil (3000–1600 BCE) had simple round vessels with a red wash, that were stylistic predecessors to later Bahia and Guyanan cultures.
Southern South America
The southern reaches of South America show evidence of human habitation as far back as 10,000 BCE. A site at Arroio do Fosseis on the pampa in southern Brazil has shown reliable evidence to that time, and the Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of the continent has been occupied since 7000 BCE. Artistic finds are scarce; in some parts of Patagonia ceramics were never made, only being introduced by contact with Europeans.
Native arts of Oceania
From earliest times, the natives of Australia, often known as Aborigines, have been creating distinctive patterns of art. Much of Aboriginal art is transitory, drawn in sand or on the human body to illustrate a place, an animal totem, or a tribal story. Early surviving artworks of the Aborigines are mostly rock paintings. Many are called X-ray paintings because they show the bones and organs of the animals they depict. Some Aboriginal art seems abstract to modern viewers; Aboriginal art often employs geometrical figures and lines to represent landscape, which is often shown from a birds-eye view. For instance, in Aboriginal symbolism, a swirl stands for a watering hole.
The natives of Polynesia have a distinct artistic heritage. While many of their artifacts were made with organic materials and thus lost to history, some of their most striking achievements survive in clay and stone. Among these are numerous pottery fragments from western Oceania, from the late 2nd millennium BCE. Also, the natives of Polynesia left scattered around their islands Petroglyphs, stone platforms or Marae, and sculptures of ancestor figures, the most famous of which are the Moai of Easter Island.
Source from Wikipedia