How Do Scientists Date Ancient Things?
Archaeological archaeologica, worldwide have helped researchers to fill out the story of human evolution and migration. An essential piece of information in this research is the age of the fossils and artifacts. How do scientists determine their ages? Here are more details on a few of the methods used to date rachaeological discussed in "The Great Human Migration" SmithsonianJuly Coprolites, Paisley 5 Mile Point Caves, Oregon Age: In a cave in Oregon, archaeologists datig bones, plant dating archaeological findings and coprolites—fossilized feces.
DNA remaining in the coprolites indicated their dating archaeological findings origin but not their age. For that, the scientists looked to the carbon contained findijgs the ancient dung. By definition, every atom of a given element has a specific number of protons in its nucleus. The element carbon has six protons, for example. But the number of neutrons in the nucleus can vary.
These different forms of an element—called isotopes—are inherently stable or unstable. The latter are called radioactive isotopes, and over time they will decay, giving off particles neutrons or protons and energy radiation and therefore turn into another isotope or element. They do this at a constant rate called an isotope's "half-life". Most carbon comes in the stable forms of carbon six protons, six neutrons or carbon, but a very small amount about 0.
Living plants and animals take up carbon along with the other carbon isotopes, but when they die and their metabolic functions cease, they datint absorbing carbon. Over time, the carbon decays into nitrogen; half will do so after about 5, years this is the isotope's half-life. After about 60, years, all of the carbon will be gone. Anything that was once part of a living object—such as charcoal, wood, bone, pollen or dating archaeological findings coprolites found in Oregon—can be sent archaeologjcal a lab where scientists measure how much carbon is left.
Dating archaeological findings findihgs know how much there would have been in the atmosphere and, therefore, how much someone would have absorbed when alive, they can calculate how long it has been since death or deposition. The coprolites averaged about 14, years old and are some of the oldest human dating archaeological findings in the Americas.
Hominid skulls, Herto, Ethiopia Age: A team of scientists digging in Ethiopia in found stone tools, the fossil remains of several animal species, including hippopotamuses, and three hominid skulls. How old were they? The organic dating archaeological findings were too old for carbon dating, so the team turned to another method. Radiocarbon dating archaeo,ogical well for some archaeological finds, but it has limitations: However, there are other radioactive isotopes that can be used dating archaeological findings date non-organic dating archaeological findings fating as rocks and older materials up to billions of years old.
One of these radioisotopes is potassium, which is found in volcanic rock. After the volcanic rock cools off, its potassium decays into argon with a 1. It is possible to measure the ratio of potassium to argon and estimate a rock's age, but this method is imprecise. However, scientists discovered in the s that they could irradiate a rock sample with neutrons and thereby convert the potassium to argon, an isotope not normally found in nature and easier to measure. Though more intricate, this process yields more precise dates.
For example, scientists at dating archaeological findings University of California at Berkeley were able to date samples from the 79 A. Because the hominid skulls and other artifacts found at Herto could not be directly dated—the organic material had long since been fossilized—the researchers instead performed their analysis on volcanic rock that was embedded in the sandstone near the fossils.
The rock was abouttoyears old, making the skulls the oldest Homo sapiens remains yet to be found. Archweological ocher stones, Blombos Cave, South Africa Age: An excavation of a seaside cave in South Africa revealed two objects that were clearly manmade—pieces of ocher stone etched with a crisscross pattern. Neither the stones dating archaeological findings the rock in which they were buried were volcanic in origin, though, so the researchers chose another method archaeolofical determining their finxings As in argon-argon dating, the thermoluminescence clock also begins with the last time that a rock was heated finfings a high temperature.
The extreme heat eliminates electrons stored in certain crystals—such as quartz and feldspar—within the rock. Over arcyaeological, the crystals trap electrons produced by trace amounts of radioactive atoms found dating archaeological findings the environment. By reheating the rock, scientists can release the stored aechaeological, which is given off as light and called "thermoluminescence.
Like the Herto skulls, the ages of the carved ocher stones from Blombos Cave could not be directly determined. However, in the same rock layer as the findinge were pieces of burnt stone, which were likely the same age as the ochers and ideal for thermoluminescence dating. Findihgs burnt stone, it was revealed, was about 77, years old, which made the ochers some of the oldest pieces of abstract design to be discovered.
Sarah Zielinski is an archadological science writer and editor. She is a contributing writer in science for Smithsonian. Subscribe or Give a Gift. Toggle Share Search Search Close Search Search. GIVE A GIFT Left. How Dating archaeological findings Get Their Shapes. The Packhorse Librarians of the Great Depression. Science Age of Humans.
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