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Dictionary of American History
COPYRIGHT 2003 The Gale Group Inc.


RADIOCARBON DATING is the measurement of the age of dead matter by comparing the radiocarbon content with that in living matter. The method was discovered at the University of Chicago in the 1940s, but

further research had to wait until the end of World War II. Radiocarbon, or radioactive carbon (C-14), is produced by the cosmic rays in the atmosphere and is assimilated only by living beings. At death, the assimilation process stops. Living matter, wherever found on earth, always has the same ratio of radioactive carbon to ordinary carbon. This ratio is enough to be measured by sensitive instruments to about 1 percent accuracy.

The bold assumption that the concentration of radiocarbon in living matter remains constant over all of time appears to be nearly correct, although deviations of a few percentage points do occur. It has been possible to determine the accuracy of the basic assumption back some 8,000 years, and a correction curve has been produced that allows absolute dating by radiocarbon back 8,000 years. The deviation is about 8 percent, at maximum.

The discovery of the radiocarbon dating method has given a much firmer base to archaeology and anthropology. For example, human settlers, such as the big-game hunting Clovis peoples of the American High Plains and the Southwest, first came to the Americas in substantial numbers at least 12,000 years ago. On the other hand, the magnificent color paintings of the Lascaux Cave in France are 16,000 years old, made 4,000 years before the first substantial number of human beings came to the Americas. By the end of the twentieth century, firm radiocarbon dates for human occupation of North America had never exceeded 12,000 years—the famous Kennewick Man, discovered in Oregon in 1996, was determined to be 9,300 years old—whereas in Europe and Asia Minor these dates reached back to the limits of the radiocarbon method and well beyond, according to other dating methods.


Libby, Willard F. Radiocarbon Dating. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965.

Renfrew, Colin. Before Civilization: The Radiocarbon Revolution and Prehistoric Europe. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1979.

Willard F.Libby/a. r.

See alsoArchaeology; Chemistry; Indian Mounds.

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