Certain unstable isotopes of trace radioactive elements in both organic and inorganic materials decay into stable isotopes. By measuring the proportion of different isotopes present, researchers can figure out how old the material is.
Here are some of the most common radiometric methods: Radiocarbon dating: Sometimes called carbon-14 dating, this method works on organic material.
Unlike observation-based relative dating, most absolute methods require some of the find to be destroyed by heat or other means.
Egyptologists, for example, created a relative chronology of pre-pharaonic Egypt based on increasing complexity in ceramics found at burial sites.
Whenever possible, researchers use one or more absolute dating methods, which provide an age for the actual fossil or artifact.
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.
Researchers can measure the amount of these trapped electrons to establish an age.
But to use any trapped charge method, experts first need to calculate the rate at which the electrons were trapped.
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.
Before more precise absolute dating tools were possible, researchers used a variety of comparative approaches called relative dating.