Archaeologists vehemently disagree over the effects changing climate and competition from recently arriving humans had on the Neanderthals' demise.
The more accurate carbon clock should yield better dates for any overlap of humans and Neanderthals, as well as for determining how climate changes influenced the extinction of Neanderthals.
Climate records from a Japanese lake are set to improve the accuracy of the dating technique, which could help to shed light on archaeological mysteries such as why Neanderthals became extinct.
Carbon dating is used to work out the age of organic material — in effect, any living thing.
Marine records, such as corals, have been used to push farther back in time, but these are less robust because levels of carbon-14 in the atmosphere and the ocean are not identical and tend shift with changes in ocean circulation.
Bronk Ramsey’s team aimed to fill this gap by using sediment from bed of Lake Suigetsu, west of Tokyo.
Two distinct sediment layers have formed in the lake every summer and winter over tens of thousands of years.
The researchers collected roughly 70-metre core samples from the lake and painstakingly counted the layers to come up with a direct record stretching back 52,000 years.
Organisms capture a certain amount of carbon-14 from the atmosphere when they are alive.Since the 1940s, scientists have used carbon dating to determine the age of fossils, identify vintages of wine and whiskey, and explore other organic artifacts like wood and ivory.The technique involves comparing the level of one kind of carbon atom—one that decays over time—with the level of another, more stable kind of carbon atom.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.Various geologic, atmospheric and solar processes can influence atmospheric carbon-14 levels.