But that assumes that the amount of carbon-14 in the atmosphere was constant — any variation would speed up or slow down the clock.
Take the extinction of Neanderthals, which occurred in western Europe less than 30,000 years ago.
Archaeologists vehemently disagree over the effects changing climate and competition from recently arriving humans had on the Neanderthals' demise.
Many scientists will use carbon dating test results to back up their position if the results agree with their preconceived theories.
But if the carbon dating results actually conflict with their ideas, they aren't too concerned. Thorpe, Nikos Kokkinos, Robert Morkot and John Frankish), Preface to Centuries of Darkness, 1991) So, is carbon dating accurate?
They are then able to calibrate the carbon dating method to produce fairly accurate results.
Carbon dating is thus accurate within the timeframe set by other archaeological dating techniques.
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.
Carbon dating is somewhat accurate because we are able to determine what the ratio was in the unobservable past to a certain extent.
By taking a carboniferous specimen of known age (that is, a specimen which we are able to date with reasonable certainty through some archaeological means), scientists are able to determine what the ratio was during a specimen's lifetime.
The recalibrated clock won’t force archaeologists to abandon old measurements wholesale, says Bronk Ramsey, but it could help to narrow the window of key events in human history.