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Sometimes only one method is possible, reducing the confidence researchers have in the results. “They’re based on ‘it’s that old because I say so,’ a popular approach by some of my older colleagues,” says Shea, laughing, “though I find I like it myself as I get more gray hair.” Kidding aside, dating a find is crucial for understanding its significance and relation to other fossils or artifacts.

Methods fall into one of two categories: relative or absolute.

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

Says Shea: “Beyond 40,000 years old, the sample is so small, and the contamination risk so great, that the margin of error is thousands of years.

Our scientists develop new methods and tools to supply timely, relevant, and useful information about the Earth and its processes.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.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.

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