The carbon clock is getting reset. 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. The technique hinges on carbon-14, a radioactive isotope of the element that, unlike other more stable forms of carbon, decays away at a steady rate. Organisms capture a certain amount of carbon-14 from the atmosphere when they are alive. By measuring the ratio of the radio isotope to non-radioactive carbon, the amount of carbon-14 decay can be worked out, thereby giving an age for the specimen in question.