The best gauge they have found is dendrochronology: the measurement of age by tree rings.Accurate tree ring records of age are available for a period extending 9,000 years into the past.
But when a plant or animal dies, it can no longer accumulate fresh carbon 14, and the supply in the organism at the time of death is gradually depleted.
Since the rate of depletion has been accurately determined (half of any given amount of carbon 14 decays in 5,730 years), scientists can calculate the time elapsed since something died from its residual carbon 14.
In principle, any material of plant or animal origin, including textiles, wood, bones and leather, can be dated by its content of carbon 14, a radioactive form of carbon in the environment that is incorporated by all living things.
Because it is radioactive, carbon 14 steadily decays into other substances.
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.
Carbon 14 is thought to be mainly a product of bombardment of the atmosphere by cosmic rays, so cosmic ray intensity would affect the amount of carbon 14 in the environment at any given time.
#30,000-Year Limit The Lamont-Doherty group says uranium-thorium dating not only is more precise than carbon dating in some cases, but also can be used to date much older objects.
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.
Uranium 234, a radioactive element present in the environment, slowly decays to form thorium 230.