By definition, prehistory is a period that consists of all human existence before the invention of writing. However, long before humans started to write, people were carving objects, creating paintings, constructing shelters and other functional structures. Tens of thousands of years ago our ancestors were not creating art in its modern meaning. They were chipping and polishing pieces of wood, metal, stones and other materials into arrows, knives, and spears. Art historians study such artifacts to get an understanding of early human life and culture. It is possible that many such artifacts have no single meaning at all.
For example, cave art probably meant different things to different people and we have no way to learn about the thoughts and feelings of those people when they were experiencing the art.
The structures, paintings, sculptures and other works from the period represent a very small fraction of what has been created over an extremely long time span. The conclusions that art historians make about the pieces of art from this time period are mostly based on hypotheses and theoretical ideas, making prehistoric art one of the most speculative subjects in art history.
Scholars and scientists started studying prehistory only about two centuries ago. In the nineteenth century, archaeologists found a wealth of ancient cave art, stone weapons, tools, and sculptures. This was one of the reasons why they called the early period of the development of the human civilization the Stone Age.
Today scientists divide the Stone Age into Paleolithic and Neolithic periods. The transitions dates between the periods vary depending on geography and social circumstances. For example, in Western Europe the Neolithic period started around 3000 BC while in the Near East this period began around 8000 BC.
A lot of discoveries about prehistoric art will be made in the future because archaeologists still have a lot of territory and subjects to study. For example, they have found some very old images in Australia. The estimates suggest that the images are dated 50,000 to 40,000 years ago.
Archaeologists found representational images in Australia, Africa, and Europe for the period beginning about 38,000 BCE. The earliest objects made by humans include blades and scrapers with sharp edges found at archaeological sites such as Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania.