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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.This includes factoring in many variables, such as the amount of radiation the object was exposed to each year.These techniques are accurate only for material ranging from a few thousand to 500,000 years old — some researchers argue the accuracy diminishes significantly after 100,000 years.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.

This family of dating methods, some more than a century old, takes advantage of the environment’s natural radioactivity.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.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.

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Both plants and animals exchange carbon with their environment until they die.

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