Global Prehistory, 30,000 to 500 BCE

Topic 1: Major concepts.

  • Prehistory - the time before the invention of writing -- is usually divided into three eras: the Paleolithic, or old stone age, the Mesolithic, or middle stone age, and the Neolithic, or new stone age. These eras are defined by major shifts in climate and environment, as well as in human technology. The Paleolithic era saw the migration of modern humans from Africa into Asia and Europe between approximately 70,000 and 40,000 BCE (Before Common Era).

  • The people of the Paleolithic era were nomadic hunters and gatherers whose survival depended on detailed knowledge of their natural environment. They created tools for survival, but they also created artifacts that seem to have had a symbolic or ritual function - works of art; these artifacts generally depict elements of their environment, especially the animals they depended on as food sources.

  • It's very hard to know exactly why prehistoric works of art were created or what role they played in prehistoric society. Archaeologists and art historians can propose hypotheses, but it's hard to confirm them. It's also hard to know how much prehistoric art has disappeared over the millennia; the art that survives is typically made of very durable materials, especially stone, and is often found in relatively sheltered locations.

  • When trying to interpret prehistoric art, archaeologists and art historians pay close attention to the context in which the object was found. The context includes other objects or artifacts found nearby, as well as the location itself. Scholars must take into consideration how the natural environment has changed over time(e.g., the Sahara desert was once lush grassland), and consider how people lived in the landscape they knew.

  • Archaeologists use stratigraphy, or the study of the different layers of an excavation site, to date artifacts and to create a timeline. Stratigraphic archaeology emerged around 1900. Today, laboratory-based techniques such as carbon-14 dating play a key role as well.

  • Scholars also make use of cross-cultural comparisons, both between different ancient cultures and between ancient cultures and more recent ones. These comparisons help scholars make conjectures about the way artifacts were used, especially their possible religious or ritual functions. An important an example is the hypothesis that the images of animals found in Paleolithic caves played a role in shamanistic rites meant to ensure an abundance of prey.

Related Links:
Global Prehistory, 30,000 to 500 BCE Quiz
Greek Art - Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic
AP Art History Quizzes
AP Art History Notes