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Carbon dating problems

3 May 2012

At www.nature.com/news/archaeology-date-with-history-1.10573 is a post on problems encountered with C14 dating in the early Holocene and Palaeolithic periods, including a redating of the 'Red Lady of Paviland', discovered by William Buckland in the early 19th century, in South Wales, together with ivory, shell beads, and various ornaments. Tom Higham, an archaeological scientist at Oxford's 'Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit' appears to have ruffled a few feathers and demanded a more consistent treatment of samples. He has redated the Red Lady to 33,000 years ago – in the warmish interstadial prior to the dramatic drop in temperatures in NW Europe associated with the Late Glacial Maximum. Higham says there has been lots of mismatches and 'cock-ups' leading to misdating of artifacts and bones. His team are in the process of rectifying some of the anomalies and many of the problems. Apparently, most C14 dates from Middle to Upper Palaeolithic times are wrong, the piece goes on to say, which is not altogether surprising as the period 40 to 30,000 years ago was until recently classified as the limit of the C14 methodology (where dates get a bit dizzy). It is not clear if this is due to a plateau of some kind, at this time, or a catastrophe, of sorts. Lots of large Pleistocene mammals appear to have died out around this time. Clarification of C14 dates is a necessary requirement as this is also the boundary between modern humans and their predecessors, the Neanderthals (as far as Europe and the Near East are concerned). The piece goes on to say there are lots of erroneous dates due to bad practise – neatly sidestepping the issue of the C14 boundary and a possible event of some kind. Chris Stringer chips in (from the Natural History Museum in London and author of Homo Britannicus), and says modern humans were in Europe earlier than thought and may have been in direct contact with Neadnerthals who had lived in Europe and the Near East for several millennia (geological dates). Stringer says Palaeolithic history is in a state of flux – unsettled.

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