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This method requires less than 1g of bone, but few countries can afford more than one or two AMSs, which cost more than A0,000.

Australia has two machines dedicated to radiocarbon analysis, and they are out of reach for much of the developing world.

Other high profile projects include the dating of the Turin Shroud to the medieval period, the dating of the Dead Sea Scrolls to around the time of Christ, and the somewhat controversial dating of the spectacular rock art at Chauvet Cave to c.38,000 cal BP (c.32,000 BP) – thousands of years earlier than expected.

Radiocarbon dating has also been used to date the extinction of the woolly mammoth and contributed to the debate over whether modern humans and Neanderthals met.

In 2008 we could only calibrate radiocarbon dates until 26,000 years.

Now the curve extends (tentatively) to 50,000 years.

Professor Willard Libby produced the first radiocarbon dates in 1949 and was later awarded the Nobel Prize for his efforts.

Radiocarbon dating works by comparing the three different isotopes of carbon.

In the early years of radiocarbon dating a product’s decay was measured, but this required huge samples (e.g. Many labs now use an Accelerator Mass Spectrometer (AMS), a machine that can detect and measure the presence of different isotopes, to count the individual C atoms in a sample.The calibrated date is also presented, either in BC or AD or with the unit cal BP (calibrated before present - before 1950).The calibrated date is our “best estimate” of the sample’s actual age, but we need to be able to return to old dates and recalibrate them because new research is continually used to update the calibration curve.Rachel Wood does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.Radiocarbon dating has transformed our understanding of the past 50,000 years.

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