Thirty-six ceramic fragments, apparently the broken-off remnants of modeled animals, have been unearthed at a site called Vela Spila on the Adriatic coast, Britain's Cambridge University reported.
Archaeologists said they believe they were the products of an artistic culture that sprang up in the region about 17,500 years ago, creating ceramic art for about 2,500 years then disappearing.
Most histories of ceramic technology suggest it began with more settled cultures of the Neolithic era, which began about 10,000 years ago, but the new findings have scientists re-examining that.
Over thousands of years, ceramics were invented, lost, reinvented and lost again, researchers said.
And the earliest producers did not make crockery but seemed to have had more artistic inclinations, they said.
"It is extremely unusual to find ceramic art this early in prehistory," Cambridge researcher Preston Miracle said.
"The finds at Vela Spila seem to represent the first evidence of Palaeolithic ceramic art at the end of the last Ice Age.
"We are starting to see that several distinct Palaeolithic societies made art from ceramic materials long before the Neolithic era, when ceramics became more common and were usually used for more functional purposes," he said.