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Second, radiocarbon dating becomes more difficult, and less accurate, as the sample gets older.
The bodies of living things generally have concentrations of the isotope carbon-14, also known as radiocarbon, identical to concentrations in the atmosphere.
In short, carbon dating is as useful as any other technique, so long as it’s done properly and the results are objectively interpreted.
It is not, however, an inherently error-free or black-and-white method for dating objects.
When an organism dies, it stops taking in new carbon-14, and whatever is inside gradually decays into other elements.
Carbon-14 normally makes up about 1 trillionth (1/1,000,000,000,000) of the earth’s atmosphere.
As samples get older, errors are magnified, and assumptions can render carbon dating all but useless.
The explanation given for these outliers is usually “contamination.” Inconsistent results are another reason why multiple samples, multiples tests, and various parallel methods are used to date objects.Tiny variations within a particular sample become significant enough to skew results to the point of absurdity.Carbon dating therefore relies on enrichment and enhancement techniques to make smaller quantities easier to detect, but such enhancement can also skew the test results. As a result, carbon dating is only plausible for objects less than about 40,000 years old.Due to all these factors, it’s common for carbon dating results of a particular sample, or even a group of samples, to be rejected for the sole reason that they don’t align with the “expected” results.That’s not unusual in science, so far as it goes, but the relationship between assumptions and interpretations must be kept in mind. At worst, it can make carbon dating circular and self-confirming, though there are other means of dating that can reduce this risk.Scientists must assume how much carbon-14 was in the organism when it died.Complicating matters is the fact that Earth’s carbon-14 concentrations change drastically based on various factors.Radiocarbon dating can’t tell the difference between wood that was cut and immediately used for the spear, and wood that was cut years before being re-used for that purpose.Nor can it tell if a much older spearhead was attached to a brand-new shaft.The other major factor affecting the results of carbon dating is gauging the original proportion of carbon-14 itself.Carbon dating is based on the loss of carbon-14, so, even if the present amount in a specimen can be detected accurately, we must still know how much carbon-14 the organism started with.