For example, New Zealand’s massive Taupo volcano erupted in A. Relative chronology: Researchers have often constructed timelines of a culture or civilization based on the stylistic evolution of its decorative or dramatic arts — that’s why the method is also sometimes called stylistic seriation.
Generally speaking, the more complex a poem or piece of pottery is, the more advanced it is and the later it falls in the chronology.
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.
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.
While K-Ar dating requires destroying large samples to measure potassium and argon levels separately, Ar-Ar dating can analyze both at once with a single, smaller sample.
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.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.The good dates are confirmed using at least two different methods, ideally involving multiple independent labs for each method to cross-check results.Paleomagnetism: Earth’s magnetic polarity flip-flops about every 100,000 to 600,000 years.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.Paleontologists still commonly use biostratigraphy to date fossils, often in combination with paleomagnetism and tephrochronology.A submethod within biostratigraphy is faunal association: Sometimes researchers can determine a rough age for a fossil based on established ages of other fauna from the same layer — especially microfauna, which evolve faster, creating shorter spans in the fossil record for each species.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 is often used as a rough check of results from another dating method.Tephrochronology: Within hours or days of a volcanic eruption, tephra — fragments of rock and other material hurled into the atmosphere by the event — is deposited in a single layer with a unique geochemical fingerprint.