Prehistoric refers to the time period before written records. Thus, the beliefs and practices prehistoric peoples are largely speculative based on archeological and anthropological findings.
The Paleolithic Age is often called the Old Stone Age and accounts for around 99% of human prehistory. It begins with evidence of pebble-like tools and, subsequently, rudimentary chipped stone tool manufacture, and ends with fully modern hunting and gathering societies.
Paintings and carvings depict animistic forms and Venus figurines, indicating early animistic, polytheistic and earth goddess religions. Whether these are related to afterlife beliefs or for bringing about successful hunts and fertility of the land and women, or both, is not determined. It is as the Paleolithic Age comes to an end that we start to see evidence of rituals, including burials.
The Middle Paleolithic Age (c. 200,000 - 45,000 BP) saw the evolution of Neanderthals and the first modern humans, Homo sapiens sapiens. Stone tools are more sophisticated. Hunting and gathering societies form, and ritual or symbolic behavior is more evident. Burial sites in Israel (c. 100,000) and Croatia (c. 130,000) indicate early human concern for the dead beyond life.
By the Upper Paleolithic Age (c. 45,000 - 10,000 BP), Neanderthals were in decline and by 30,000 BP they were gone. Modern humans spread all over the planet. Ancestor cults and shamanism appear to have emerged in the Upper Paleolithic Age, pointing to belief in the spirit world, perhaps tied to afterlife beliefs.
The Neolithic Age refers to the last stage of the Stone Age, sometimes called the New Stone Age. Plant cultivation and animal domestication are introduced, while hunting and gathering continues, stone tools are more polished, pottery and building emerges, including megaliths such as Stonehenge.
Archeology gives us glimpses into possible Neolithic belief systems. Art shows women as goddesses and bulls as gods, pointing to belief in the concept of duality and other worlds. Various burial customs are found: in simple pits in contracted positions; cremation; remains in vases; and collecting and burying bones beneath homes, often with funerary items. Burial offerings (pottery, tools, figurines, jewelry and even animals) suggest a belief in an afterlife. In Middle East sites, groups of plastered skulls have been found in caves and pits and under the floors of housing structures. Some believed this practice represented an ancestor cult. However, it is also commonly thought that the skulls were plastered to remind the living of the deceased. Decorative and practical objects are found with the skulls and may have been treasured by the deceased or may have been needed in the afterlife.