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Prehistoric archaeology is the study of the past before historical records began. It is a field of research that looks at all the pre-urban societies of the world. It also has distinctive set of procedures for analyzing material remains so that archaeologists can reconstruct their ecological settings. The study of prehistoric archaeology reflects the cultural concerns of modern society by showing interpretations of time between economic growth and political stability. It also has very close links with biology, biological anthropology, and geology. It is also sometimes termed at anthropological archaeology because of its indirect traces with complex patterns.
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 as an archeological term 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 artifacts 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. Structural functionalism and processualism are two schools of archaeological thought which have made a great contribution to prehistoric archaeology.
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