Certain unstable isotopes of trace radioactive elements in both organic and inorganic materials decay into stable isotopes. By measuring the proportion of different isotopes present, researchers can figure out how old the material is.
Paleomagnetism: Earth’s magnetic polarity flip-flops about every 100,000 to 600,000 years.
The polarity is recorded by the orientation of magnetic crystals in specific kinds of rock, and researchers have established a timeline of normal and reversed periods of polarity.
Before more precise absolute dating tools were possible, researchers used a variety of comparative approaches called relative dating.
These methods — some of which are still used today — provide only an approximate spot within a previously established sequence: Think of it as ordering rather than dating.
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.
Methods fall into one of two categories: relative or absolute.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.Paleontologists still commonly use biostratigraphy to date fossils, often in combination with paleomagnetism and tephrochronology.A submethod within biostratigraphy is faunal association: Sometimes researchers can determine a rough age for a fossil based on established ages of other fauna from the same layer — especially microfauna, which evolve faster, creating shorter spans in the fossil record for each species.Paleomagnetism is often used as a rough check of results from another dating method.