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Prehistory (Latin, præ = before; Greek, ιστορία = history) is a term used to describe the period before recorded history. Paul Tournal originally coined the term Pré-historique in describing the finds he had made in the caves of southern France. It came into use in France in the 1830s to describe the time before writing, and the word "prehistoric" was introduced into English by Daniel Wilson in 1851. The term "prehistory" can be used to refer to all time since the beginning of the universe, although it is more often used in referring to the period of time since life appeared on Earth, or even more specifically to the time since human-like beings appeared. In dividing up human prehistory, prehistorians typically use the Three age system, whereas scholars of pre-human time periods typically use the well defined Rock record and its internationally defined stratum base within the geologic time scale. The three-age system is the periodization of human prehistory into three consecutive time periods, named for their respective predominant tool-making technologies; the Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age.

The occurrence of written materials (and so the beginning of local "historic times") varies generally to cultures classified within either the late Bronze Age or within the Iron Age. Historians increasingly do not restrict themselves to evidence from written records and are coming to rely more upon evidence from the natural and social sciences, thereby blurring the distinction between the terms "history" and "prehistory." This view has recently been articulated by advocates of deep history.