A collection of large stones in the middle of a field. The stones are set upright in a circle. Some flat stones lay on top of the others.

Stonehenge, a Neolithic monument, in Wiltshire, England.

Reader question: “Can you tell me about the changes that took place in human development from the Paleolithic through the Neolithic periods, and the ways in which art was affected by those changes?”

This is an exciting question for me, because as someone who currently works every day with contemporary visual culture, I don’t get much of a chance to look this far back in history.

As always with questions asking me to look at broad time periods or geographies, I have to start with the disclaimer that this will be an incredibly brief overview of a very complex subject (as in…thousands of years worth of history), and with some definitions:

The Paleolithic era is a period from around 3 million to around 12,000 years ago.

The Neolithic era is a period from about 12,000 to around 2,000 years ago.

These dates vary depending on what part of the world you’re looking at, so see these as very broad ranges. Basically, the Paleolithic era is when humans first discovered stone tools, and the Neolithic era is when humans started farming.

I’ll go into more depth below with some examples so you can see what I’m talking about, but the most obvious difference in human development that affected art is that humans went from living a nomadic lifestyle, to developing agricultural societies and being able to settle in one place. This was the beginning of permanent architecture, including tombs and monuments. Tools also became more advanced, leading to new forms of art.

Paleolithic era (3 million – 12,000 years ago)

Paintings of aurochs, horses, and deer on a cave wall. Two larger drawings have thick black outlines, while the others are silhouetted in red and black against the wall.

Cave paintings from around 17,000 years ago in the Lascaux cave complex in France.

During the Paleolithic era, there was more than one species related to the modern human, including Neanderthals. They lived a nomadic lifestyle as hunter-gatherers, not settling in any permanent communities and with no concept of private property. They used pretty simple stone tools.

There were two basic forms of art during the Paleolithic era: painting and sculpture, the two oldest known art forms.

Painting

A bull shape in cracked red pigment on a cave wall.

The oldest known figurative painting—over 40,000 years old—in the Lubang Jeriji Saléh cave.

The type of painting made during the Paleolithic era was cave painting, through techniques like spraying paint with the mouth, applying paint with a brush or swab, and engraving.

These cave paintings mainly depicted scenes of hunting, animals, and handprints. The earliest known figurative painting ever, dated more than 40,000 years old, depicts a bull and is found in the Lubang Jeriji Saléh cave in Indonesia. Another famous example from this era are the paintings in Chauvet cave in France, which are around 32,000–30,000 years old.

We don’t know the purpose or meaning behind these paintings—they were made so long ago that we have to be careful with trying to impose our modern interpretations and understandings on to them and potentially obscuring their actual historical and cultural significance. Possible theories as to their meaning, however, include storytelling, spiritual, and educational purposes.

Sculpture and ornamentation

Two images side by side. The image on the left shows a figurine of a person with large breasts and a large stomach and vulva, but a very small head. The image on the right shows a figurine of a person with large sagging breasts and a bald head with two rough lines for eyes.

Two Paleolithic Venus figurines. Left: Venus of Hohle Fels, the earliest known Venus figurine at 40,000 to 35,000 years old. Photo by Ramessos, CC BY-SA 3.0. Right: Venus of Dolní Věstonice, made between 29,000 to 25,000 BCE. Photo by Petr Novák, Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 2.5

The oldest examples of art are non-representational ornamentation; that is, decorative objects that don’t depict any person, animal, or thing. One example is from 82,000 years ago: a collection of Nassarius snail shells found in Morocco. They are pierced and covered with red ochre, suggesting that they might have hung off a string.

The most famous example of Paleolithic sculptures, however, are the ‘Venus figurines’: small figurines carved from stone, bone, ivory, or clay, depicting naked women, often with exaggerated body parts and genitalia. (I’ve previously mentioned these in my history of hairless vulvas in art.) Again, we don’t know what the purpose of these figurines—which have been found all over Europe—were, but there are theories that they were somehow related to in interest in fertility.

Neolithic era (12,000 – 2,000 years ago)

 small house made out of large stone blocks placed together to form four walls and a roof.

Dolmen of Sa Coveccada in Sardinia. Photo by Giovanni Seu, CC BY-SA 3.0.

During the Neolithic era, there was only one species of human—the modern human. They started domesticating plants and animals, developing agriculture, and settling into permanent communities. This was the beginning of permanent architecture. Humans also developed or improved skills like spinning, weaving, and pottery. Wall paintings, which started in this era, are less durable than cave paintings, and very few survive. It’s perhaps because of this that this era is more known for crafts and architecture than painting.

Painting

Painting on a white wall depicting humans and horses depicted in red pigment.

Mural from Çatalhöyük. Photo by Omar hoftun, CC BY-SA 3.0.

With the advent of permanent buildings, this era saw the start of wall painting in addition to cave painting. A famous Neolithic site, Çatalhöyük in Turkey, has numerous wall paintings. Like Paleolithic paintings, these ones also depict animals and hunting scenes. Wall paintings, however, are not very durable, so only traces of Neolithic wall paintings have survived.

Sculpture

Two images side by side. The image on the left shows a round jar with bands of different geometric patterns. The top is missing some pieces and there’s a hole in its side. The image on the right shows a pottery shard with a painting of a black ibex silhouette.

Two examples of Neolithic pottery. Left: Jar from 4900-4300 BC in Erbil Civilization Museum, Iraq. Photo by Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg), CC BY-SA 4.0. Right: Pottery fragment from Iraq with a painting of an Ibex from 4700-4200 BC. Photo by ALFGRN, CC BY-SA 2.0.

Pottery was an increasingly important art form during this era. It was likely used to store food in these new agricultural communities, and to decorate permanent homes. Previously, pottery was thought to have started in the Neolithic era; however, recent discoveries at the sites of Xianrendong and Yuchanyan in China suggest that pottery actually started slightly earlier, around 20,000-15,000 years BC. Despite this, pottery definitely seems to have become more developed and more common during the Neolithic era.

While wall paintings were not durable and haven’t survived in great numbers, pottery painting was much more durable as the paint is baked into the pottery’s surface. As a result, we have a lot more examples of pottery painting than wall painting. The designs were usually geometric and quite simple.

Another aspect of this era seems to have been the development of sculptures and decorations for homes, with the advent of permanent settlements. This may be why Chinese jade carvings and lacquerware were both likely first developed in this era.

Architecture

A large rough wall made out of stones with multiple rough doorways that appear blocked by more stones.

The Cairn of Barnenez in France. Photo by NewPapillon, CC BY-SA 3.0.

One of the most important artistic developments during this time was the start of permanent architecture that came alongside settling down into communities. The earliest known, still remaining building was created during this era: the Cairn of Barnenez in France, which was made in around 4,800 B.C. out of heavy stone.

The Paleolithic era also saw the start of megalithic architecture. The term ‘megalithic’ architecture refers to large stones that have been placed to create structures or monuments. This leads me to perhaps the most famous example of Neolithic art: Stonehenge in England, created between 2,000-3,000 BC. This monument of large upright stones is famous for its ‘mysteries’: who created it, and for what purpose? While we don’t know exactly, I think it’s likely that this monument could not have been created during the Paleolithic era. Getting all of those stones into place would have taken time and energy; something that could not have been accomplished by nomadic people who couldn’t settle for too long in one place.

Conclusion

This is obviously a very shallow summary of the differences in these eras, but should give you at least a basic idea of the main differences between them and how those differences affected the art that was produced. The switch from a nomadic lifestyle to settling in permanent communities led to some very clear impacts on the art that was produced, such as the start of permanent architecture, the switch from cave painting to wall painting, and the increase in pottery and large sculptures.

As always, let me know if you have any feedback, extra information, or other examples of Paleolithic and Neolithic art and visual culture!