Key points (adapted from the AP* Art History Curriculum Framework)

Periods and definitions

  • Prehistory (or the prehistoric period) refers to the time before written records, however, human expression existed across the globe long before writing. 
  • Writing emerged at different times in different parts of the world. The earliest writing is found in ancient Mesopotamia, c. 3200 B.C.E.
  • Often, art history texts begin with the prehistoric art of Europe. However, very early art is found worldwide.
  • Homo sapiens (modern humans are a subspecies) - homo sapiens migrated out of Africa between 120,000 and 50,000 years ago.
  • The stone age is a prehistoric period when stone implements were widely used. The stone age is divided into the Paleolithic (old stone age) and Neolithic (new stone age). After the Stone age, the next periods are known as the bronze age and the iron age.
  • Historians distinguish the Neolithic period by the transition from people living as hunter-gatherers to the development of farming and the domestication of animals. The "Neolithic revolution" allowed people to create a more settled way of life. This happened at different times in different parts of the world. The first agriculture occurred in southwest Asia—in an area historians call the "fertile crescent."
  • Prehistory was a time of major shifts in climate and environment. 
  • Modern archaeology uses a stratigraphic process, where archaeologists precisely record each level and the location of all objects.

Art making

  • The earliest peoples were hunter-gatherers (until about 12,000 years ago) who created imagery in many different media—fired ceramics, painting, sculpture and who built architecture.
  • The oldest “art” found to date are rock paintings and sculpture from c. 77,000 years ago.
Jade Cong, c. 3300 - 2200 B.C.E., Liangzhu culture, Neolithic period, China (The British Museum)
Jade Cong, c. 3300 - 2200 B.C.E., Liangzhu culture, Neolithic period, China (The British Museum)
  • In Asia, we have found Paleolithic and Neolithic cave paintings that feature animal imagery (in the mountains of Central Asia and Iran). Animal imagery has also been found in rock shelters throughout central India. In prehistoric China, we find ritual objects created in jade, (beginning a 5,000-year tradition of working with the precious medium). Ritual, tomb, and memorializing arts are found across Neolithic Asia, including impressive funerary steles from Saudi Arabia and Yemen. 
  • In Europe, we have found small human figural sculptures (central Europe), cave paintings (France and Spain), and outdoor, monumental stone assemblages (British Isles) that date from the Paleolithic and Neolithic periods.
  • In the Pacific region, people migrated from Asia approximately 45,000 years over land bridges. The earliest created objects have been dated to c. 8,000 years ago. The Lapita peoples, who moved eastward from Melanesia to Polynesia beginning about 4,000 years ago, created pottery with incised geometric designs that appear across the region in multiple media today.
  • On the American continent, peoples who migrated from Asia (before 10,000 B.C.E.) first made sculptures from animal bone and later from clay.
** AP Art History is a registered trademark of the College Board, which was not involved in the production of, and does not endorse, this product.
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