The accuracy of carbon dating


20-Aug-2017 12:15

Desmond Clark (1979:7) observed that without radiocarbon dating "we would still be foundering in a sea of imprecisions sometime bred of inspired guesswork but more often of imaginative speculation." And as Colin Renfrew (1973) aptly noted over 30 years ago, the "Radiocarbon Revolution" transformed how archaeologists could interpret the past and track cultural changes through a period in human history where we see among other things the massive migration of peoples settling virtually every major region of the world, the transition from hunting and gathering to more intensive forms of food production, and the rise of city-states.

However, as with any dating technique there are limits to the kinds of things that can be satisfactorily dated, levels of precision and accuracy, age range constraints, and different levels of susceptibility to contamination.

Compared to conventional radiocarbon techniques such as Libby's solid carbon counting, the gas counting method popular in the mid-1950s, or liquid scintillation (LS) counting, AMS permitted the dating of much smaller sized samples with even greater precision.

Regardless of the particular 14C technique used, the value of this tool for archaeology has clearly been appreciated.

Creationists often criticize radiocarbon dating in the context of discussions of the age of the earth.

But, as is clear even from the very brief discussion in the previous paragraph, radiocarbon dating can say nothing one way or the other about whether the earth is many millions of years old, since such dates are far beyond this method's range of resolution.

The age of the carbon in the rock is different from that of the carbon in the air and makes carbon dating data for those organisms inaccurate under the assumptions normally used for carbon dating.

This restriction extends to animals that consume seafood in their diet.

In discussions of the age of the earth and the antiquity of the human race, creationists often assail perceived weaknesses in radiocarbon dating. Morris, for instance, wrote, "Despite its high popularity, [radiocarbon dating] involves a number of doubtful assumptions, some of which are sufficiently serious to make its results for all ages exceeding about 2000 or 3000 years, in serious need of revision." [Morris2000, pg. Radiocarbon dating is based on the fact that the interaction of cosmic rays from outer space with nitrogen atoms in the atmosphere produces an unstable isotope of carbon, namely radiocarbon.

Carbon dating is used to determine the age of biological artifacts up to 50,000 years old.

This technique is widely used on recent artifacts, but educators and students alike should note that this technique will not work on older fossils (like those of the dinosaurs alleged to be millions of years old).

In contrast to relative dating techniques whereby artifacts were simply designated as "older" or "younger" than other cultural remains based on the presence of fossils or stratigraphic position, 14C dating provided an easy and increasingly accessible way for archaeologists to construct chronologies of human behavior and examine temporal changes through time at a finer scale than what had previously been possible.

The application of Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (AMS) for radiocarbon dating in the late 1970s was also a major achievement.New discoveries have filled in the gaps, and shown us in unimaginable detail the shape of the great ‘tree of life’.



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