Unlike observation-based relative dating, most absolute methods require some of the find to be destroyed by heat or other means.
This family of dating methods, some more than a century old, takes advantage of the environment’s natural radioactivity.
Egyptologists, for example, created a relative chronology of pre-pharaonic Egypt based on increasing complexity in ceramics found at burial sites.
Whenever possible, researchers use one or more absolute dating methods, which provide an age for the actual fossil or artifact.
It would be like having a watch that told you day and night.” Single crystal fusion: Also called single crystal argon or argon-argon (Ar-Ar) dating, this method is a refinement of an older approach known as potassium-argon (K-Ar) dating, which is still sometimes used.
Both methods date rock instead of organic material. But unlike radiocarbon dating, the older the sample, the more accurate the dating — researchers typically use these methods on finds at least 500,000 years old.
Certain unstable isotopes of trace radioactive elements in both organic and inorganic materials decay into stable isotopes. By measuring the proportion of different isotopes present, researchers can figure out how old the material is.
Here are some of the most common radiometric methods: Radiocarbon dating: Sometimes called carbon-14 dating, this method works on organic material.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.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.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.