Symbolism is man oldest form of visual expression and prehistoric people often represented their world and beliefs through visual images.
Long before the advent of written language, man used symbols to convey what he did and did not understand of the world.The earliest prehistoric artwork, discovered in Morocco, comes from between 500,000 and 300,000 BC. It is about 6 centimeters long and resembles a human figurine and exhibit traces of human tool-work and bears evidence of having been painted with Ochre, a mixture of iron and manganese, a rock pigment commonly used in prehistoric art. As early as 25,000 BC, Stone Age artists carved female figures with swollen abdomens and breasts as symbols of life and fertility. They also painted abstract symbols on cave walls along with representations of animals.
Evidence of prehistoric art with symbolic representations were not confined to present day Europe. Cave art has been found throughout the world in North and South America, Africa, Asia and Australia.
Some of the earliest known prehistoric art comes from the Upper Palaeolithic period and includes both cave paintings, such as the famous paintings at Chauvet and Altamira and portable art, such as animal carvings and Venus figurines like the Venus of Willendorf.
Stones, decorated with complex red arrays, were discovered in Blombos cave, South Africa, that dated back to 70,000 years ago. In Australia, rock art in hundreds of sites, some as old as 60,000 years have been discovered. Terracotta pottery, decorated with fish, animals and tripodal vessels, from the sixth millenium BC, were discovered in China.
By 30,000 years ago, the rock art included intricate drawing skills like the usage of hand stencils, complex finger markings and two-dimensional paintings. Perspective, shading, outlining of animal forms and the depiction of movement were also evidenced. Together with the pigments, it demonstrated considerable effort and complexity of formulation, implying that early Homo Sapiens were capable of abstraction and production of art. A recent find, the Mask of La Roche-Cotard in France, now suggests that Neanderthals may have developed a sophisticated and more complicated artistic tradition.