Practice exercises on radiometric dating

The application of radiocarbon dating to determine the geochronology of archaeological sites is ubiquitous across the African continent.Accelerator mass spectrometry has made radiocarbon dating the most precise method to determine the death of living organisms that occurred within the last 50,000 years.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.L’application de la datation par le carbone 14 pour déterminer la géochronologie des sites archéologiques est. La spectrométrie de masse a rendu la datation par le carbone 14 la méthode la plus précise pour déterminer la mort d’organismes vivants ayant eux lieux au cours des 50,000 dernières années. Plus précisément, cette revue se concentrera sur la possibilité que les estimations d’âge apparentes soient exagérées par la présence de réservoirs de carbone et de restes organiques recyclées, sur la diagenèse d’isotopes de carbone dans les écologies de p H variables, et sur les climats chauds et humides ainsi que les archives sans température contrôlée qui peuvent compromettre l’efficacité des échantillons.

There are two interrelated concepts with any form of radiometric dating: accuracy and precision.

Radiocarbon dating is especially good for determining the age of sites occupied within the last 26,000 years or so (but has the potential for sites over 50,000), can be used on carbon-based materials (organic or inorganic), and can be accurate to within ±30-50 years.

Probably the most important factor to consider when using radiocarbon dating is if external factors, whether through artificial contamination, animal disturbance, or human negligence, contributed to any errors in the determinations.

Shells of known age collected prior to nuclear testing have also been dated ( to ascertain the effects of old carbon (i.e., local marine reservoir effects). However, the most common materials dated by archaeologists are wood charcoal, shell, and bone. In brief, radiocarbon dating measures the amount of radioactive carbon 14 (14C) in a sample.

Radiocarbon analyses are carried out at specialized laboratories around the world (see a list of labs at: When a biological organism dies, the radioactive carbon in its body begins to break down or decay.

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