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Organisms capture a certain amount of carbon-14 from the atmosphere when they are alive.
By measuring the ratio of the radio isotope to non-radioactive carbon, the amount of carbon-14 decay can be worked out, thereby giving an age for the specimen in question.
Bronk Ramsey’s team aimed to fill this gap by using sediment from bed of Lake Suigetsu, west of Tokyo.
Two distinct sediment layers have formed in the lake every summer and winter over tens of thousands of years.
As a rule, carbon dates are younger than calendar dates: a bone carbon-dated to 10,000 years is around 11,000 years old, and 20,000 carbon years roughly equates to 24,000 calendar years.The more accurate carbon clock should yield better dates for any overlap of humans and Neanderthals, as well as for determining how climate changes influenced the extinction of Neanderthals.“If you have a better estimate of when the last Neanderthals lived to compare to climate records in Greenland or elsewhere, then you’ll have a better idea of whether the extinction was climate driven or competition with modern humans,” says Paula Reimer, a geochronologist at Queen’s University in Belfast, UK.Signals of this kind are often used by chemists studying natural environments.
A hydrocarbon found in beach sediments, for example, might derive from an oil spill or from waxes produced by plants.Isotopes participate in the same chemical reactions but often at differing rates.