Since we assume all the layers were originally horizontal, then anything that made them not horizontal had to have happened after the fact.
We follow this same idea, with a few variations, when we talk about cross-cutting relationships in rock.
We'll even visit the Grand Canyon to solve the mystery of the Great Unconformity!
Imagine that you're a geologist, studying the amazing rock formations of the Grand Canyon.
It's called the Principle of Original Horizontality, and it just means what it sounds like: that all rock layers were originally horizontal. As you can imagine, regular sediments, like sand, silt, and clay, tend to accumulate over a wide area with a generally consistent thickness.
It sounds like common sense to you and me, but geologists have to define the Principle of Original Horizontality in order to make assumptions about the relative ages of sedimentary rocks. Say you have a layer of mud accumulating at the bottom of a lake. More sediment accumulates from the leaf litter and waste of the forest, until you have a second layer.
Let's say we find out, through numerical dating, that the rock layer shown above is 70 million years old.
We're not so sure about the next layer down, but the one below it is 100 million years old. Not exactly, but we do know that it's somewhere between 70 and 100 million years old.
If it had happened before the layers had formed, then we wouldn't see it punching through all the layers; we would only see it going through the layers that had existed at the time that it happened. The Principle of Cross-Cutting Relationships states that rock formations that cut across other rocks must be younger than the rocks that they cut across.
The same idea applies to fault lines that slide rock layers apart from each other; a fault that cuts across a set of strata must have occurred after the formation of that set.
Geologists use this type of method all the time to establish relative ages of rocks.