The Difference between Paleolithic and Neolithic Art

By Mary Smith. Updated: June 17, 2020
The Difference between Paleolithic and Neolithic Art

When studying History of Art, one cannot ignore some of the most primitive forms of art. We are talking about the first representations of pictures that were created during the Stone Age which used the most rudimentary of tools, styles and formats. Although we may just look at Stone Age art as cave paintings, there is a lot more that can tell the styles of different eras apart. This is why in this oneHOWTO article we're going to give you detailed information so you know the difference between Paleolithic and Neolithic art.

Placing the Paleolithic and the Neolithic in time

The first evidence of artistic purpose by the Homo Sapiens dates back 40,000 years ago, during the Upper Paleolithic era and is known as the beginning of ancient art, even though the archaeological site of the Blombos Cave, South Africa, shows ocher stones that were engraved for what is believed to be artistic purposes only.

Art in the Paleolithic era (2,000,000- 9,000 BC approx.) began among prehistorical cultures around the world, which were hunter-gatherer nomads that lived in tribes and lived in caves, outdoors or in small cabins made from branches or animal skin. This is why the first forms of art were cave paintings and portable art such as small figurines, beads and decorative work in utilitarian objects.

On the other hand, the Neolithic era (10,200- 4,500 BC approx.) is defined by the cease in the semi-nomadic lives of the homo-sapiens, which is why gathering food for the community and hunting turned into harvesting and herding of animals. Society started to create a certain hierarchy in a community, and the first forms of deities and beliefs arose. With the settling of the neolithic civilizations and the improvement of the tools used, Neolithic art is based on megalithic and monumental art as well as engravings of statues and other daily use crafts.

The dates when each Paleolithic era are not exact, as the transition from semi-nomadic life to a sedentary one did not happen during the same time in different parts of the world. Thus, the differences between Paleolithic and Neolithic art cannot be defined by years, but can be by the change in the way of life of a specific society.


Paleolithic art is the most rudimentary form of art that exists. The techniques used were conditioned by the basic tools they could find. Let's examine the techniques used in all forms of Paleolithic art:


  • Paleolithic era: Probably one of the most well-known forms of art of the Paleolithic era are cave paintings. Although may caves from this era show hand and fingerprints made with clay on their walls, these are not considered yet art but a mark created to remove the clay of the person's hands. However, these markings helped the homo sapiens sapiens of the time examine these imprints , their parallel lines and tried to reproduce them in a repetitive pattern. One of the techniques used was pigment blowing in order to create hand stencils, which depicted the silhouette of the artist's hand. As they learned this technique, they started embellishing these painted hands with clay or ocher for extra decorative value. The parallel lines created with their fingers developed into meandering lines, which gave the civilization the first idea of resemblance. With the marks they made, they then completed them to depict what they wanted to resemble. Figurative art began after all of this process, when different earth materials were used to paint the walls of caves with their finger to usually depict hunting scenes, painted in red and yellow colors of ocher, or the black from hematite, manganese oxide or charcoal. Perspective was not very good at the beginning, with frontal horns on a body in profile or legs on one side of the body only, concealing the other pair of legs the animals would have. However, cave art did develop by adding shading highlights in the shapes of the animals and makes them appear more life like. For more specific information, take a look at our article on how cave paintings were made.
  • Neolithic era: With the abandonment of caves, painting was left for outdoor walls and pottery. Neolithic wall paint has not been able to survive the passage of time very well due to the fact that paintings were done in house murals, but pottery does depict designs of geometrical motifs but also animal designs. However, there a still certain paintings of this era such as some Algerian cave paintings that depict humans. Painting was done in one or two colors, especially brown and black.


  • Paleolithic era: It is not only paintings that adorned caves in the Paleolithic era. Cave artists learned how to take advantage of the natural contour and fissures of the walls to give certain images a sense of three dimensions by using bone, ivory or reindeer horns depending on the area. Engravings of the Paleolithic era with ornamental motifs such as zizags, chevrons and leurons could also be seen in bone blades.
  • Neolithic era: The domestic life of the neolithic people meant that carvings were put at use to embellish several portable objects. Thus, stone carvings petroghlyps, or rock carvings were made by scratching, engraving, carving and scouring among other methods to create geometric figures, domestic animals, human figures and what could possibly be the depiction of what we know today as a map.

Statues and crafts

  • Paleolithic era: Figurines and small sculptures created during this era were made with flint that they carved into stones. One of the most famous examples of statues is the Venus of Willendorf. Carvings can also be seen in stones in the form of bas-reliefs such as the Venus of Laussel, which was carved into a limestone and depicts a naked woman and is painted with red ocher on top. Although it is thought that the invention of pottery was made in the Neolithic era, there is evidence of ceramic ware during the Paleolithic era in China, Japan and Russia.
  • Neolithic era:During this time, the sedentary Homo Sapiens learned abilities such as spinning, weaving and building. Pottery and ceramic art developed as they low-fired pots made from slabs turned into more manufactured and glazed pottery, with new shapes and types of vessels. Creative techniques of ornamentation in pottery and textiles show how the neolithic people searched for beauty in their objects as well as functionality. Thus, the first pieces of jewelry appeared, such as pendants, carved jade...

Neolithic architecture

One of the main differences between Paleolithic and Neolithic art is that the latter started building settlements, thus creating certain hierarchies, beliefs and deities that demanded for monumental artistic buildings. Thus, stone megalithic constructions in the form of shrines and tombs were created out of large stones. known as petroforms, as tombs or burial grounds. Another type of megalithic construction ere alignments, which are single upright stones, known as menhirs and stone circles, the most famous being Stonehenge. The first cruciform (in the shape of a cross), serpentiform (form of a serpent) and curvilinear (curved shape) creations were built during this era.

The Difference between Paleolithic and Neolithic Art - Techniques

What did they depict

Now that you know about the different techniques used in Paleolithic and Neolithic art, let's take a look at what these two art forms depicted:


As explained above, the first artistic depictions were of rocks, stones and wood with natural forms. After hand stencils, Paleolithic art first to visually represented things they found in the natural environment. Hunting scenes were frequent, and it is though the paintings were made as part of a ritual so that hunting was fruitful. Thus, subjects showed animals that were hunted such as the following:

  • horses
  • birds
  • deer
  • bisons
  • mammoths

They also represented the predators that were a menace to them and other animals in their environment:

  • lions
  • bears
  • rhinoceros

Humans were not commonly represented. One of the only examples is found in Australia's Bradshaw rock, where cave paintings depict men with anatomically proportionate bodies. Another example is the 'Pin Hole man'. On the other hand, fertility symbols were depicted, especially in figurines, due to the fact that human reproduction was one of the determining factors of the society's survival. These representations of obese females were sculpted to celebrate what was then the mystery of birth and procreation.


During the neolithic era, the human figure became more important in their art, which often paints scenes with groups of people hunting, farming or dancing. Figures in these paintings were very schematic. The first large-scaled human figures were created, which even featured painted eyes on them and had detail in their faces only rather than the rest of the bodies (apart from bellies and breasts in the case of female depictions). Apart from the geometrical figures that had the only purpose of giving extra beauty to everyday objects, one of the other purposes of Neolithic art was purely functional. Megalithic architecture had a theological purpose. With the first deities and beliefs among communities, religious beliefs drove communities to pay homage and celebrate these deities and the dead. For example, in Egypt, Neolithic art is testimony to the very first Egyptian pyramids (predynastic period).

The Difference between Paleolithic and Neolithic Art - What did they depict

Materials used

Now, let's take a look at the tools and materials used to create art, as these influenced Paleolithic and Neolithic art creations highly:


Paleolithic art used very rudimentary tools. Flint tools were used to carve stones as well as sharp bones, ivory and antlers to sculpt into limestone, sandstone and wood. Hand-printing and stencils were believed to have been made with a rudimentary form of blow, paint. Materials used were basically mud, ocher, granite quartzite and serpentine to draw and create colors. Figurines were also made with terracotta and clay.


As the neolithic Homo sapiens acquired new craft abilities to serve their sedentary lifestyle, they learned to model and bake clay (figurines). They also used several forms of pigment for decoration.

Plaster was used for modeling figurines as well as to preserve skulls. Mud brick used to build their homes was also used for artistic purposes too. Terracotta pottery developed highly during this era, with specialized potters appearing that learned how to glaze their creations.

Megalithic construction showed the ability of these people to quarry stones and transport them without the use of the wheel. Instead, they used felled trees and earthen mounds to move these big stones. The building of mounds was generally done by alternating layers of earth and stones and covering them with growing grass and flat stones.

Most famous works of Paleolithic and Neolithic art

Now you know everything about the difference between Paleolithic and Neolithic art, let's check out some of the most famous examples of each time:

Famous works of Paleolithic art

  • Venus of Willendorf (pictured below)
  • Altamira paintings
  • El Castillo cave paintings
  • Venus of Moravany
  • Lascaux Cave Murals
  • Xianrendong Cave Pottery
  • Bradshaw Paintings
  • Les Combarelles Cave Engravings

Famous works of Neolithic art

  • Stonehenge
  • Jiahu Carvings
  • Catal Huyuk Chalocolithic archeological site
  • Thicker of Cernavoda
  • The Fish God of Lepenski Vir
  • Sydney rock engravings
  • Valfivia Figurines
  • Niola Doa figures
  • Newgrane tomb
  • Knowth Passage tomb
  • Gobelki Tepe
  • Zuschen Tomb
The Difference between Paleolithic and Neolithic Art - Most famous works of Paleolithic and Neolithic art
Image: wikimedia.commons

Summary: the key characteristics

Ok, now let's have a quick recap and check out the key characteristics of Paleolithic and Neolithic art:

Paleolithic art

  • Its main subjects were food (animals and hunting scenes) and fertility (through depiction of Venuses)
  • Thought to be with the objective of controlling their environment through rituals.
  • Boosted abstract thinking in the developing Homo sapiens sapiens' cognition.

Neolithic art

  • Art and creation was for functional purposes still.
  • Human imagery is more common than animals and proportions are more human-like.
  • Ornamentation started to be used.
  • Art started to be created in fixed locations.

For more art lessons, oneHOWTO offers several more articles, such as the characteristics of Baroque art or Renaissance art.

If you want to read similar articles to The Difference between Paleolithic and Neolithic Art, we recommend you visit our Learning category.

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