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Researchers can measure the amount of these trapped electrons to establish an age.But to use any trapped charge method, experts first need to calculate the rate at which the electrons were trapped.Both plants and animals exchange carbon with their environment until they die.Afterward, the amount of the radioactive isotope carbon-14 in their remains decreases.
The polarity is recorded by the orientation of magnetic crystals in specific kinds of rock, and researchers have established a timeline of normal and reversed periods of polarity.
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.
Sometimes only one method is possible, reducing the confidence researchers have in the results. “They’re based on ‘it’s that old because I say so,’ a popular approach by some of my older colleagues,” says Shea, laughing, “though I find I like it myself as I get more gray hair.” Kidding aside, dating a find is crucial for understanding its significance and relation to other fossils or artifacts.
Methods fall into one of two categories: relative or absolute.