When finding the age of an organic organism we need to consider the half-life of carbon 14 as well as the rate of decay, which is –0.693.
For example, say a fossil is found that has 35% carbon 14 compared to the living sample. We can use a formula for carbon 14 dating to find the answer.
There is a small amount of radioactive carbon-14 in all living organisms because it enters the food chain.
The results showed that Ötzi died over 5000 years ago, sometime between 33 BC. It is found in the air in carbon dioxide molecules.
The amount of carbon-14 in the air has stayed the same for thousands of years.
So, the fossil is 8,680 years old, meaning the living organism died 8,680 years ago.
Materials that originally came from living things, such as wood and natural fibres, can be dated by measuring the amount of carbon-14 they contain.
The clock was initially calibrated by dating objects of known age such as Egyptian mummies and bread from Pompeii; work that won Willard Libby the 1960 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
But even he “realized that there probably would be variation”, says Christopher Bronk Ramsey, a geochronologist at the University of Oxford, UK, who led the latest work, published today in Science.
In the case of radiocarbon dating, the half-life of carbon 14 is 5,730 years.
This half life is a relatively small number, which means that carbon 14 dating is not particularly helpful for very recent deaths and deaths more than 50,000 years ago.
As a rule, carbon dates are younger than calendar dates: a bone carbon-dated to 10,000 years is around 11,000 years old, and 20,000 carbon years roughly equates to 24,000 calendar years.
The problem, says Bronk Ramsey, is that tree rings provide a direct record that only goes as far back as about 14,000 years.
For example, in 1991, two hikers discovered a mummified man, preserved for centuries in the ice on an alpine mountain.