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How do you find out if it’s the remains of an ancient animal that stomped the land tens of thousands of years ago or a discarded scrap from a cooking fire only a few hundred years back?

An archaeologist’s staple is radiocarbon dating: judging the age of an organic sample from its carbon-14 – also known as radiocarbon – content.

Love-hungry teenagers and archaeologists agree: dating is hard.

But while the difficulties of single life may be intractable, the challenge of determining the age of prehistoric artifacts and fossils is greatly aided by measuring certain radioactive isotopes.

Carbon-14 has a half-life of 5,730 ± 40 years, meaning that every 5,700 years or so the object loses half its carbon-14.

That is a tiny amount of time in the scheme of things for our planet.Carbon-14, or radiocarbon, is a naturally occurring radioactive isotope that forms when cosmic rays in the upper atmosphere strike nitrogen molecules, which then oxidize to become carbon dioxide.Green plants absorb the carbon dioxide, so the population of carbon-14 molecules is continually replenished until the plant dies.At Warratyi rock shelter in the Flinders Ranges, South Australia, which shows signs of the oldest human occupation of the country’s arid interior, the oldest sample – a fragment of emu eggshell – has been radiocarbon dated to 49,000 years with reasonable confidence.“Unlike bone or charcoal, carbon preserved in eggshell is very stably locked in and unlikely to have been contaminated,” says Nigel Spooner, a physicist at the University of Adelaide in Australia who specialises in dating techniques.

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