"The radiocarbon dating technique may significantly underestimate the age of sediment for samples older than 30,000 years,” said the authors of the report from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Germany’s Leibniz Institute for Applied Geophysics.
“Thus it is necessary to pay [special] attention when using such old carbon data for palaeoclimatic or archaeological interpretations," they added.
All living things absorb both types of carbon; but once it dies, it will stop absorbing.
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Prior to that, they had to depend on more rudimentary and imprecise methods, such as counting the number of rings on a cross-section of tree trunk.
This all changed in the 1940s when US chemist Willard Libby discovered that carbon-14, a radioactive isotope, could be used to date organic compounds.
However, a little more knowledge about the exact ins and outs of carbon dating reveals that perhaps it is not quite as fool-proof a process as we may have been led to believe.
At its most basic level, carbon dating is the method of determining the age of organic material by measuring the levels of carbon found in it.
Since the universe is estimated to be millions of years old, it was assumed that this equilibrium had already been reached.
However, in the 1960s, the growth rate was found to be significantly higher than the decay rate; almost a third in fact.
Their work was detailed in a paper in the latest issue of the journal .
For over 50 years, scientists and researchers have relied on carbon dating to find the exact age of organic matter.
Radiocarbon dating, which is used to calculate the age of certain organic materials, has been found to be unreliable, and sometimes wildly so - a discovery that could upset previous studies on climate change, scientists from China and Germany said in a new paper.
Their recent analysis of sediment from the largest freshwater lake in northeast China showed that its carbon clock stopped ticking as early as 30,000 years ago, or nearly half as long as was hitherto thought.
Specifically, there are two types of carbon found in organic materials: carbon 12 (C-12) and carbon 14 (C-14).