It would be like having a watch that told you day and night.” Single crystal fusion: Also called single crystal argon or argon-argon (Ar-Ar) dating, this method is a refinement of an older approach known as potassium-argon (K-Ar) dating, which is still sometimes used.Both methods date rock instead of organic material. But unlike radiocarbon dating, the older the sample, the more accurate the dating — researchers typically use these methods on finds at least 500,000 years old.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.Uranium series dating: U-series dating includes a number of methods, each based on different uranium isotopes’ decay rates.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.
Whenever possible, researchers use one or more absolute dating methods, which provide an age for the actual fossil or artifact.
The uranium-thorium method is often helpful for dating finds in the 40,000- to 500,000-year-old range, too old for radiocarbon but too young for K-Ar or Ar-Ar.
Over time, certain kinds of rocks and organic material, such as coral and teeth, are very good at trapping electrons from sunlight and cosmic rays pummeling Earth.
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 is often used as a rough check of results from another dating method.