Isotope dating accuracy

When it comes to determining the age of stuff scientists dig out of the ground, whether fossil or artifact, “there are good dates and bad dates and ugly dates,” says paleoanthropologist John Shea of Stony Brook University.

The good dates are confirmed using at least two different methods, ideally involving multiple independent labs for each method to cross-check results.

Unlike observation-based relative dating, most absolute methods require some of the find to be destroyed by heat or other means.

This family of dating methods, some more than a century old, takes advantage of the environment’s natural radioactivity.

Researchers can first apply an absolute dating method to the layer.

They then use that absolute date to establish a relative age for fossils and artifacts in relation to that layer. Anything below the Taupo tephra is earlier than 232; anything above it is later.

Measuring carbon-14 in bones or a piece of wood provides an accurate date, but only within a limited range.

Both methods date rock instead of organic material. But unlike radiocarbon dating, the older the sample, the more accurate the dating — researchers typically use these methods on finds at least 500,000 years old.Biostratigraphy: One of the first and most basic scientific dating methods is also one of the easiest to understand.Layers of rock build one atop another — find a fossil or artifact in one layer, and you can reasonably assume it’s older than anything above it.Paleomagnetism is often used as a rough check of results from another dating method.Tephrochronology: Within hours or days of a volcanic eruption, tephra — fragments of rock and other material hurled into the atmosphere by the event — is deposited in a single layer with a unique geochemical fingerprint.Paleontologists still commonly use biostratigraphy to date fossils, often in combination with paleomagnetism and tephrochronology.


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