In the history of art, prehistoric art is all art produced in preliterate cultures (prehistory), beginning somewhere in very late geological history.
Unequivocal evidence of artistic expression is known only from the Upper Paleolithic, created by Homo sapiens. However, Homo erectus had long before produced seemingly aimless patterns on artifacts such as is those found at Bilzingsleben in Thuringia, and these might be understood as a precursor to art, as well as to reveal some intent of the artificer to decorate, to fashion beyond practical necessity. The symmetry and attention given to the shape of a tool has led authors to see Middle Palaeolithic hand axes and especially laurel points as artistic expressions as well. A recent find, the Mask of La Roche-Cotard in France, now suggests that Neanderthal humans may have developed a sophisticated and more complicated artistic tradition.
The earliest possible artwork yet discovered, the Venus of Tan-Tan comes from between 500,000 and 300,000 BCE, during the Middle Acheulean period. Discovered in Morocco, it is about 6 centimeters long and resembles a human figurine. Although this Moroccan artifact may have been created by natural geological processes, it appears to exhibit traces of human tool-work and bears evidence of having been painted; "a greasy substance" on the stone's surface has been shown to contain a mixture of iron and manganese termed ochre, and indicates that it was decorated by someone and used as a figurine, regardless of how it may have been formed. The identity of the artifact as evidence of human artistic expression, however, remains disputed. A more or less comparable object from Israel, the Venus of Berekhat Ram, dated to roughly 250,000 BCE, has elicited similar controversy
It remains premature, then, to claim with any degree of confidence that art existed before the Upper Paleolithic.
Further depictional art is from the Upper Palaeolithic period (broadly 40,000 to 10,000 years ago) and includes both cave painting (such as the famous paintings at Chauvet, Altamira, Pech Merle, and Lascaux), portable art (such as animal carvings and so-called Venus figurines like the Venus of Willendorf), and open air art (such as the monumental Côa Valley in Portugal, Domingo García and Siega Verde, both in Spain, Mazouco in Mexico, Fornols-Haut in France).
Free standing sculpture had already begun by the Neolithic, the earliest being the anthropomorphic figurines, often embellished by animals from the very beginning of the Neolithic discovered in Nevali Cori and Göbekli Tepe near Urfa in eastern Turkey, dating to ca. 10th millennium BCE. 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.
In Central Europe, many Neolithic cultures, like Linearbandkeramic, Lengyel and Vinča, produced female (rarely male) and animal statues that can be called art. Whether the elaborate pottery decoration of, for example, the Želiesovce and painted Lengyel style are to be classified as art is a matter of definition.
Megalithic monuments are found in the Neolithic from 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 Nabata and other sites). They start in the 5th millennium BC, though some authors speculate on Mesolithic roots. Because of frequent re-use, this is difficult to prove. There are many sites for rock and cave art of engraved animal and human scenes in the Saharan area. Not as popular are the temples of Malta dating back to 3600 BCE these are the oldest free standing monuments in all the world with a post to lintel simple architecture but still very imposing structures. Many artistic similarities where found in Minoa (Crete) dating to the same period of the very well known Egyptian pyramids. While the best-known of these is Stonehenge, where the main structures date from the early Bronze Age, such monuments have been found throughout most of Western and Northern Europe, notably at Carnac, France, at Skara Brae in the Orkney Islands, in Portugal, and in Wiltshire, England, the area of Stonehenge, the Avebury circle, the tombs at West Kennet, and Woodhenge. One tomb found in Newgrange, Ireland, has its entrance marked with a massive stone carved with a complex design of spirals. The tomb of Knowth has rock-cut ornaments as well; one of them may be the oldest known image of the Moon. Many of these monuments were megalithic tombs, and archaeologists speculate that most have religious significance. Knowth is reputed to have approximately one third of all megalithic art in Western Europe.
During the 3rd millennium BCE, however, 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. Rock art, showing scenes from the daily life and religious rituals have been found in many areas, for example in Bohuslän Sweden and the Val Camonica in northern Italy.
The more elaborate and curvilinear La Tène artistic 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 subjects deemed fit for elaboration. 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 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. Although the coins of this period are poorly made derivatives of Greek and Roman types, the more exuberant Celtic artistic style is still visible.
The famous late fourth century BCE chariot burial at Waldalgesheim 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 areas where Roman influence was missing altogether, the later Iron Age artistic tradition continued well into the historic period, perhaps most famously in Ireland and Northumbria.
Significant bushman rock paintings exist in the Waterberg area above the Palala River, some of which are considered to derive from the period 8000 BCE. These images are very clear and depict a variety of human and wildlife motifs, especially antelope. North African rock and cave art, attributed to the Neolithic age, include the Saharan rock art, especially the carvings of Tassili and those of south Oran (Algeria).
See also Australian Aboriginal art
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 Bradshaws are a unique form of rock art found in Western Australia. They are predominantly human figures drawn in fine detail with accurate anatomical proportioning. They have been dated at over 17,000 years old and debate rages as to who actually created them.
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.