Carbon Dating

Which chemical element do scientists measure to determine the age of organic material?

And the answer: carbon.

The rings on trees are used to comparatively date artifacts. Photo courtesy: Stefan Dinse Alamy. 

All living things absorb carbon from the atmosphere and from food sources, including a natural radioactive isotope called carbon-14. This isotope decays at a regular rate over time, providing a sort of timestamp. Archeologists can use carbon dating to determine approximately when something was alive.

The discovery of carbon dating was a revelation for the study of our Earth. In the 1940s, upon its introduction into the field of archaeology, scientists' worlds were opened a whole new timeline: chronologies dating back some 60,000 years could be adjusted for precision in a way that had previously been impossible. By plotting the standard rate of decay of the animal (as determined by carbon-14 levels) against independently measured chunks of ancient wood (as determined by tree rings), scientists were able to plot the timeline of the creature alongside our calendar year to achieve a near-precise measurement.

Since then, the field has only grown. With the most recent calibration containing data from tree rings, lake and ocean sediment, coral and other samples drawn from across the globe, scientists are thrilled at the prospect of extending their radiocarbon dating ability back another 5,000 years. This update could also bring archaeologists closer to determining the date of the cataclysmic volcano eruption in the Grecian islands – an event whose date would effectively link the timelines of handfuls of cultures throughout the region.  

To learn more about the 2020 recalibration, check out this article. And, to learn more about carbon dating, watch the video below.


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