Since , scientists have reckoned the ages of many old objects by measuring the amounts of radioactive carbon they contain. New research shows, however, that some estimates based on carbon may have erred by thousands of years. It is too soon to know whether the discovery will seriously upset the estimated dates of events like the arrival of human beings in the Western Hemisphere, scientists said. But it is already clear that the carbon method of dating will have to be recalibrated and corrected in some cases. They arrived at this conclusion by comparing age estimates obtained using two different methods - analysis of radioactive carbon in a sample and determination of the ratio of uranium to thorium in the sample. In some cases, the latter ratio appears to be a much more accurate gauge of age than the customary method of carbon dating, the scientists said.
Uranium-Thorium dating is based on the detection by mass spectrometry of both the parent U and daughter Th products of decay, through the emission of an alpha particle. The decay of Uranium to Thorium is part of the much longer decay series begining in U and ending in Pb. With time, Thorium accumulates in the sample through radiometric decay. The method assumes that the sample does not exchange Th or U with the environment i. The method is used for samples that can retain Uranium and Thorium, such as carbonate sediments, bones and teeth. Ages between and , years have been reported.
Radiometric dating or radioactive dating is any technique used to date organic and also inorganic materials from a process involving radioactive decay. The method compares the abundance of a naturally occurring radioactive isotope within the material to the abundance of its decay products, which form at a known constant rate of decay. The radioactive decay law states that the probability per unit time that a nucleus will decay is a constant, independent of time. This constant probability may vary greatly between different types of nuclei, leading to the many different observed decay rates.
The uranium-thorium U-Th method can constrain the age of cave art by providing dates of formation of calcite deposits from on top of paintings or calcite layers on which paintings were done. It is particularly useful for art made without radiocarbon datable organic pigments or binders, or where contamination of radiocarbon samples is an issue. The U-Th method is outlined, including various sampling methods, checks for quality control, and a discussion of methods of correction for contaminating detritus.