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.
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.
This includes factoring in many variables, such as the amount of radiation the object was exposed to each year.
These techniques are accurate only for material ranging from a few thousand to 500,000 years old — some researchers argue the accuracy diminishes significantly after 100,000 years.
Thermoluminescence: Silicate rocks, like quartz, are particularly good at trapping electrons.
Researchers who work with prehistoric tools made from flint — a hardened form of quartz — often use thermoluminescence (TL) to tell them not the age of the rock, but of the tool.
Paleontologists still commonly use biostratigraphy to date fossils, often in combination with paleomagnetism and tephrochronology.
A submethod within biostratigraphy is faunal association: Sometimes researchers can determine a rough age for a fossil based on established ages of other fauna from the same layer — especially microfauna, which evolve faster, creating shorter spans in the fossil record for each species.
Before more precise absolute dating tools were possible, researchers used a variety of comparative approaches called relative dating.