History is the study of the past using written records. Archaeology can also be used to study the past alongside history. Prehistoric archaeology is the study of the past before historical records began.
In Western Europe the prehistoric period generally ends with Roman colonisation although in many other places, notably Egypt and China, it finishes much earlier and in others, such as Australia, much later. A transitional phase of protohistory or protohistoric archaeology may exist where written records provide a limited picture of the society in question.
The earliest record of the word prehistoric comes from the French archaeologist and scientist Paul Tournal who used it in 1831 to describe the finds he made in ancient caves he had investigated in the Bize-Minervois in the south of France. It did not enter English until 1851 when it was used by the Scots-Canadian archaeologist Sir Daniel Wilson. The three-age system, which just predates the coining of the term, was created in an attempt to make sense of the chronology of prehistoric Europe.
Without history to provide evidence for names, places and motivations, prehistoric archaeologists speak in terms of cultures which can only be given arbitrary modern names relating to the locations of known occupation sites or the artefacts used. It is naturally much easier to discuss societies rather than individuals as these past people are completely anonymous in the archaeological record.
Such a lack of concrete information means that prehistoric archaeology is a contentious field and the arguments that rage over it have done much to inform archaeological theory. The variety of theories regarding the purpose of objects or sites for example obliges archaeologists to adopt a critical approach to all evidence and to examine their own constructs of the past. Functionalism and Processualism are two schools of archaeological thought which have made a great contribution to prehistoric archaeology.