The uranium-thorium method is often helpful for dating finds in the 40,000- to 500,000-year-old range, too old for radiocarbon but too young for K-Ar or Ar-Ar.
Over time, certain kinds of rocks and organic material, such as coral and teeth, are very good at trapping electrons from sunlight and cosmic rays pummeling Earth.
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.
Researchers can first apply an absolute dating method to the layer.
They then use that absolute date to establish a relative age for fossils and artifacts in relation to that layer. Anything below the Taupo tephra is earlier than 232; anything above it is later.
Paleomagnetism: Earth’s magnetic polarity flip-flops about every 100,000 to 600,000 years.
These techniques are accurate only for material ranging from a few thousand to 500,000 years old — some researchers argue the accuracy diminishes significantly after 100,000 years.
Biostratigraphy: One of the first and most basic scientific dating methods is also one of the easiest to understand.
Layers of rock build one atop another — find a fossil or artifact in one layer, and you can reasonably assume it’s older than anything above it.
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.