History of Man (Context)

Man walked the earth for thousands or even millions of years before any record of artistic production appears. There is evidence of man's self-awareness, as seen in objects like a water-worn pebble that resembles a human face, which was found in Makapansgat, South Africa. This pebble was not carved by any human, but was picked-up and carried by someone--perhaps as a sign of early congnizance of man's place in the world. Following many migrations, as demonstrated by Stephen Oppenheimer and the Bradshaw Foundation as well as National Geographic's study on the human journey (also check out the extra content), we come to find that humans settled down as the climate allowed, and began developing higher thinking.

The very first images produced by man give us insight into who we were and are as human beings. They show how we developed mentally and how our instincts matured. Today we wonder man created images: what was their purpose, and what can they tell us about the ways man lived? These questions provide insight into our current lives as we may then compare our current thinking with our past to form a stronger understanding of what drives us as humans.

Before we begin discussing specific artifacts, we must first note that we will be looking back to two anthropological categorizations: the Palaeolithic man and the Neolithic man. During the palaeolithic era, humans adapted to their environments as they fashioned tools and became more adept at hunting and gathering. Small tribes became more common and early in this period we begin to find artifacts demonstrating creative energy. During the neolithic period, around 8000 BCE, humans begin to settle down, form agrarian civilizations, and develop monumental works of architecture requiring skilled labor and organization. Melinda Klein discusses the context in more detail in her video below:



This module will introduce you to the earliest artistic artifacts. After completing this module, you should be able to:

  • Understand the differences between palaeolithic and neolithic cultures and artifacts.
  • Gain a broader understanding of basic themes that relate to these early time periods.
  • Gain a broader understanding of some of the formal elements of design.
  • Identify some key artifacts from the eras discussed.
  • Discuss your understanding based on a discussion prompt and report the findings to the class.

Palaeolithic Themes

Though we focus on western art history in this class, it is interesting to note that we find many of the same themes mirrored in other early palaeolithic cultures scattered around the globe. We look closely at artifacts found in Europe, specifically the south of France, northern Spain, and Austria. This is where caves housed a number of paintings and the famous Venus of Willendorf was unearthed. The latter object is diminutive but powerful, and is the earliest known image of a sculpted human figure. The main themes that develop from this time are representation of animals and human figures as well as the possible beginnings of narrative and perhaps spirituality.

Please look to the following article from Smarthistory to further guide you through the Palaeolithic times: "Prehistoric Art: Palaeolithic Origins."

Neolithic Themes

The neolithic era brought agricultural development and the rise of cities as humans began settling down, starting families, and stopped following the herds of animals they had hunted for generations. Instead, they began domesticating wildlife and demonstrated their power and success by constructing architectural monuments on a massive scale. Religion or spirituality also became important themes at this time.

Please look to the following article from Smarthistory to further guide you in the themes of the neolithic age: "The Neolithic Revolution."

Formal Implications

The artworks from these time periods vary based on the types of animals depicted, but they look similar (which means their formal qualities were similar) mainly because they relied on materials at hand for their artistic endeavors and because they may have had the same psychological reasons for understanding representation. The images of man and animals from the palaeolithic era were created with a distinctive stylized form that might remind us of a child-like simplicity today.  In the neolithic era, we see initial methods of architectural production such as the post-and-lintel structures and the development of structures with functions such as defence in mind.



  • The Venus of Willendorf: Noted as one of the most important, earliest representations of the female form (28,000-25,000 BCE), this small sculpture measures only 4 1/2" tall and is carved from limestone. It has been studied endlessly by historians, anthropologists, and even psychologists as they attempt to discern the meaning behind thie figure and the exaggerations of the form. The following video by Steven Zucker and Beth Harris of Smarthistory provides some insight into this small sculpture and PBS' series, How Art Made The World by Neigel Spivey also provides some insight into this remarkable figure:








  • The Caves at Lascaux, Altamira, and Chauvet: These caves were found almost by accident in the south of France and northern Spain. They contain paintings dating back as far as 23,000 BCE. Many generations of artists layered their paintings over those of their forebears, so that animals and human forms overlap. We don't know much about the purposes of such images. Each of these caves has a wonderful web resource that allows you to actually tour the sites virtually:

    Please also look to the following resources for more information on this topic:



  • Jericho: Jericho was an early fortified city in modern-day Israel. The remains of this archaeological dig have produced amazing architectural artifacts as well as skulls, which can be reconstructed by layering clay over the surface to create a complete face and head. The original builders' massive architecture and more nuanced artistic production was made possible by the fact that this society had settled in one location, and had the ability to build up fortifications, an early cultural organization, and ritualistic traditions. Please read the following article to learn more about this archaeological site: "Senta German, "Jericho".








  •  Catal Hoyuk: Another of the earlier cities, this one in what is now Turkey, demonstrates a unique method of city growth and fortification. The structures were built against each other with no streets. All entrances were in the ceilings. This allowed for easy defense as enemies or other predators could not get into the homes, and if they did manage to break through a wall, they would simply be trapped within a room when the ladder was drawn up to the rooftops. For more information on this city please read the following: Senta German, "Catal Hoyuk". And for some fun, try out this archeological investigation activity.


  • Stonehenge: This structure has become an icon for the neolithic age. Found in southern England, historians still wonder about the exact meaning behind the arrangement. As no texts or oral tradition has survived from this era (2550-1600 BCE), we are left to speculate about the rationale behind its creation. The structure required an army of workers to construct it, as they used stones quarried miles away. The wheel had not yet been invented, so these massive stones needed to be carted on sledges. The sheer ambition of the monument denotes an extremely organized society with strong leadership. Recent evidence indicates that a king might have been buried near the structure around the time of its erection. The following descriptions of the structure by Senta German and Nigel Spivey will shed more light on the topic.


Further Reading




Works Cited

German, Senta.Jericho.Smarthistory and Khan Academy. Web. August 2013.

German, Senta.Catal Hoyuk.Smarthistory and Khan Academy. Web. August 2013.

Harris & Zucker. Nude Woman (Venus of Willendorf). Smarthistory and Khan Academy. Web. August 2013.

Klein, Melinda S. Early Man to Neolithic Communities. YouTube.com, May 28, 2008. Web. August 2013.

Oppenheimer. Journey of Mankind. Bradshaw Foundation, 2003. Web. August 2013.

Shreeve, James. Human Journey - National Geographic. National Geographic, March 2006. Web. August 2013.

Smarthistory.org. The Neolithic Revolution. Khan Academy. Web. August 2013.

Smarthistory.org. Prehistoric Art: Palaeolithic Origins. Khan Academy. Web. August 2013.

Show php error messages